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5 Tips for Facilitating Class Discussion: Help Your Students Develop Their Critical Thinking Skills

5 Tips for Facilitating Class Discussion: Help Your Students Develop Their Critical Thinking Skills

Image of teacher facing students with their hands raised ready to engage with her.
Students change their minds all the time about what they want to be when they grow up. But no matter if the career of the week is astronaut, ballerina, veterinarian, lawyer, police officer, or teacher, there’s one thing you can be certain of: whatever the future holds, critical thinking will be an essential element of your students’ success.
A survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93% of employers value critical thinking skills more than a college degree. In today’s world, where we’re bombarded by information that may or may not be true, it’s essential that students learn how to analyze information, evaluate arguments, and make informed decisions.
While critical thinking skills are woven throughout the K-12 experience, one of the best ways for students to develop their competency is through class discussion. Whether they’re debating the pros and cons of social media, the principles of freedom of speech, or the urgency of climate change, students will gain direct experience in assessing the validity of information, connecting that information in logical ways, trying on varying perspectives, and drawing conclusions
Some teachers shy away from facilitating class discussions, fearing that the conversation may become controversial. But if teachers use these five tips to frame class dialogue, they will create memorable learning experiences that help students build this in-demand skill.
Image in blue with 5 tips for successful classroom discussions.

5 Tips for Facilitating Class Discussion

  1. Create a safe and supportive learning environment. Before class discussion begins, it’s essential to establish foundational expectations for group behavior. Invite students to contribute their ideas and post them in a place where everyone in the class can easily refer to them. Encourage principles such as:
    • Listening actively and respectfully
    • Having an open mind
    • Criticizing ideas, not individuals
    • Avoiding speculation, assumptions, and stereotyping
    • Creating space for everyone’s voice to be heard
  2. Encourage students to ask questions. Asking open-ended questions can sometimes be more productive than arguing a perspective. When students want to say, “I disagree” or “You’re wrong,” encourage them instead to ask, “Why do you think that?” or “Can you please explain a little more what you mean when you say X?” Approaching one another from a place of curiosity rather than judgment helps students practice empathy and open-mindedness.
  3. Ask open-ended questions.
    • Any question posed, whether from a student or the teacher, should be as unbiased and open-ended as possible. Instead of saying, “Don’t you think social media is bad?” reframe the question objectively: “What are some of the drawbacks of social media?”
    • Avoid asking questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No.” Use “How” and “Why” questions to encourage students to think more deeply and develop a more nuanced response.
    • Allow for multiple perspectives. Say, “What are other ways to approach this problem?” or “What might someone with a different perspective say about this?” Model curiosity and a desire for understanding rather than judgment.
    • Give students “think” time. Thoughtful responses require a moment of reflection. Be comfortable with periods of silence.
  4. Use small groups. If you feel your class is too big to have a single productive conversation, consider putting students in small groups. This creates an opportunity for quieter students to speak up and makes it easier for everyone to participate equally. In some cases, it might be beneficial to begin a class discussion in small groups before joining together as a larger community for conversation. Students will have had time to think about the issue, formulate their opinions, and articulate their ideas.
  5. Use technology. There are many ways to incorporate technology into class discussions. Here are a few suggestions:
    • Online discussion forums. In your LMS or other online space, provide a platform for students to post their thoughts and ideas in an asynchronous discussion. Tell students that they have to refer directly to an idea from another student’s post in their own writing to ensure true discussion is happening. Remind students that the same principles apply online as they do in person: be respectful; argue with ideas, not people; and avoid assumptions, stereotyping, and speculation.
    • Polling and quizzing tools. This can be a fun way to get a class discussion started. Using tools such as Kahoot or Mentimeter can help you gauge students’ understanding and thinking about a topic and adjust instruction in real-time.
    • Collaborative documents. Working collaboratively on platforms such as Google Docs can foster collaboration and discussion in the moment.

How News Currents Builds Critical Thinking Skills

News Currents is a richer resource than newspapers and news programming because its stories are hand-crafted to emphasize background knowledge, vocabulary in context, and critical thinking skills. Our programs encourage dialogue and respectful debate, not passive listening. Students are invited to reflect about what the news means to them, building their empathy and perspective-taking skills.
Ready to join our teacher-led weekly discussion program? Try News Currents for free and see how current events are brought to life for students.

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