Classroom discussion: One way to get “rich”

Rich classroom discussion is frequently emphasized as a key element of 21st century standards but it’s also an important characteristic long envisioned by education reformers. In addition to learning the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, most educators, subject matter specialists, policy-makers, and researchers agree on the crucial role of rich classroom discussions.

Rich discussion or discourse typically means students talking about their ideas, asking questions of classmates, engaging in debates, explaining their reasoning, and sharing roles traditionally assumed by teachers. Some teacher evaluation frameworks even assign the highest ratings to classrooms where there is more open discourse and active student exchange of ideas or evidence. The idea that rich classroom discourse (RCD) leads to richer student thought and expression is a basic assumption of many education programs and frameworks.

Despite the long history of research and emphasis on RCD as a key component of effective teaching, studies ranging from 1912 to the present have consistently found limited evidence of RCD in US classrooms.

In an article we published this past year in Teachers College Record, we question whether simply focusing on “greater use of RCD” is the right approach to fostering intellectually inspiring and challenging classrooms for the 21st century. After decades of emphasis and little evidence of change in practice, we suggest it’s time to more carefully consider what specific role is realistic for RCD and under what circumstances RCD might help enhance learning outcomes.

Using results and examples from the Trends in Mathematics and Science Videos Study (TIMSS), we introduce a rather under-emphasized term and concept which deserves more attention–the importance of cultivating rich learning opportunities (RLOs). TIMSS research showed that RCD is just one component of varied instructional approaches teachers used to create and foster RLOs.

This puts RCD, as well as past and present U.S. reform aspirations in a new perspective. Perhaps RCD should not be used as the critical indicator that good instruction is occurring. Rather, it should be viewed as one of many means to an important end–creating and sustaining RLOs that nurture advanced student competencies. Paying more attention to RLOs opens the door for an ongoing study of curriculum and practice to identify pivotal RLOs in each unit or project that might benefit from RCD and other RLOs that might benefit from other approaches.

As we also emphasize in our subsequent article titled, “Best Practice – The Enemy of Better Teaching,” the pathway to improvement lies not in the increased use of a single compelling instructional method, but in the building of a full repertoire of effective methods and the careful study of how each might propel students toward ambitious learning goals.

 

About Brad Ermeling
Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Brad Ermeling, Ph.D.

Bradley Ermeling, is a former research scientist with Pearson. He spent seven years working as an educator in Japan developing first-hand knowledge and expertise with Japanese Lesson Study and has published numerous articles on developing and supporting systems for collaborative inquiry and continuous learning. Dr. Ermeling was a recipient of the 2010 Best Research Award from Learning Forward along with Ron Gallimore, Claude Goldenberg, and Bill Saunders for their published studies on instructional improvement through learning teams. While at Pearson, he conducted qualitative studies on blended and virtual assistance models to guide school and instructional improvement efforts and also investigated methods for measuring and facilitating teacher reflective practice. Prior to his research career, Dr. Ermeling taught high school English and special education for 11 years and holds teaching credentials in both Japan and the United States. He also holds a government issued certificate for Japanese language proficiency. He earned his doctorate from UCLA in Educational Leadership and his bachelor’s in English literature from Concordia University, Irvine.