Developing Discussion in the classroom

The ability to craft a coherent argument and to express those arguments with others in a discussion are essential skills to encourage in our students. They help our students not only engage with the world, but also to process their thoughts and discover their opinions about things.

In this article we will use the terms’ ‘discussion’ and ‘argument’ interchangeably. But, it is worth noting that the real purpose of a discussion is to explore a variety of arguments to arrive at the truth, where possible.

Teaching our students the basics of argument and discussion is not about tooling them up to ‘win’. The processes of discussion are as much about the student discovering what they think as they are about persuading others to agree with them. As students mature and get more practiced in their discussions they will discover that often discussion is a necessary precursor to having an opinion on a given topic, no matter how basic or advanced that topic may be.

For students, discussion often bridges the gap between the speaking and listening learning areas and reading and writing ones. It is for this reason that we will look at some oral discussion activities, before examining how to approach the writing of discussion pieces in the classroom. These oral activities can serve as excellent pre-writing exercises for the students to prepare their thoughts and ideas before they sit down to write. They also work well as standalone oral activities that afford students the opportunity to practice their persuasive speaking skills and all that entails.

What is a Discussion / argumentative essay?

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An argumentative essay also known as a discussion presents both sides of the argument on a specific topic so as the audience can form their own opinion.

The first task in writing a good argumentative essay is finding a suitable topic that has strong and valid opinions for both sides of the argument.  

Pick Your Poison Wisely: Choosing Discussion Topics

The beauty of incorporating discussion and argument into the classroom is that you can easily build your lessons around the interests of the students themselves. From the youngest students in elementary to those wizened old owls at high school, a quick class brainstorm will reveal a wealth of juicy topics for them to get their mental teeth into. In this day and age of political correctness however, be sensitive to the selection of a topics for discussion appropriate to the demographics of your class. While controversial topics can lead to the most lively of discussions, it is best to avoid subjects too close to the bone that may cause deep rifts in the class dynamic. If in doubt, rather than take suggestions from the class, have some interesting topics pre-prepared for the students choose from or to vote on.

You can find numerous topics on the web, but here are some to get you started...

  • All Zoo's should be shut down and the animals should be returned to the wild. - Discuss
  • Mobile phones should be embraced as learning tools in the classroom.  - Discuss
  • Parents have different expectaitons for their sons and daughters.  - Discuss
  • Do we give children too many trophies?  - Discuss
  • Is it ethical to eat meat? - Discuss
  • School canteen's promote poor diets. - Discuss
  • Can money buy happiness? - Discuss
  • Is animal testing a justified? - Discuss
  • Are we too dependent on computers?  Discuss
  • Do violent video games and films create social problems? - Discuss

Argumentative essays and discussion texts are a great starting point for debating.  

Argumentative essays and discussion texts are a great starting point for debating.  

Get your facts straight

The challenge in writing a good discussion or argumentative essay is to be open minded even if you know which side you want to support.

Factual research and evidence is your number one tool.  It gives you credibility by sourcing knowledge from experts but more importantly it gives your own opinions and ideas greater weight as you have demonstrated a broad and accurate understanding of the topic you are writing about.

be sure to spend some time researching your topic before writing about it and make sure you reference where you have sourced this knowedge from.

Most students will head straight for the internet to find their evidence so make sure you have a clear understanding of how to use it correctly.  This poster demonstrates how to get the most out of the three major search platforms on the web.  You can download the free poster version of it here.


Oral Activities TO GET IN THE 'DISCUSSION' ZONE

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Oral Activity 1: Pros and cons

This is a great warm-up exercise that allows students to explore a topic, weigh up the different possible opinions, and even offers a chance for the student to discover what they think themselves about a topic. This exercise can also serve as a fantastic prep exercise for a piece of extended writing and it involves minimal prep itself.

Pros and Cons involves students making a list of the pro arguments and con arguments of a given topic. This is often best done in small groups where the students can brainstorm together and bounce ideas off one another. The process of comparing the for and against of an issue gives them an awareness of the range of opinions on the matter, helping them on their way to forming their own opinion.

The list created during this activity can also provide a helpful outline that can work as a springboard into later writing. It is a great way to organize ideas coherently that can seamlessly feed into the writing process described later below.

By listing points and counterpoints together, students get into the practice of developing a nuanced and considered argument, rather than producing mere propaganda. This helps them internalize the importance of giving full consideration to a range of differing opinions about the same topic.

ORAL ACTIVITY 2: Think - Pair - Share

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This activity requires almost zero prep, other than giving the class a topic to really get their teeth into!

First, have the students think silently on the topic for the minute or two. They may scratch down doodles or brief notes of their ideas on a piece of paper to use in the discussion portion of this exercise, but this is not a writing activity!

Then, partner them up with another student. At this stage you may give consideration to differentiation, you may wish to match students with other students of equal ability, or with a stronger one as support. Either way, students discuss the topic with their partner for a predetermined number of minutes. The length of time will be dictated by the students’ ages and abilities. Experiment to find the most suitable length of time for your class.

After the time is up, students can then share their opinions with the class. You can also scribe the ideas generated by each group onto a master list displayed on the whiteboard as part of a pre-writing exercise. This can also be a good exercise to begin the preparation for a formal debate, as it affords the students opportunities to think on their feet, engage with differing opinions, and to work on public speaking skills such as body language.

ORAL ACTIVITY 3. Speed-dating Fun

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This is a pacy, fun activity to get a lively conversation going in a manner that apes the popular speed dating format - but with a more virtuous intent! You can organize the desks in rows facing each other or in concentric circles in the middle of the classroom.

Choose one row or circle to be mobile. Give students a list of topics to discuss and start the clock. After three minutes or so, signal that the time is up and instruct students to move to the next table. At the next station they can either discuss the same topic or move on to the next topic on their list.

Of course, you may shorten or lengthen the amount of allotted time based on the students’ abilities or the complexities of the topics. However, as this exercise works best fun and fast-paced, and the aim is for each student to have the opportunity to speak with every other student, it is often best to keep the topics fairly straightforward. Questions like Is it better to live in the town than the country? or Do dogs make better pets than cats? work well here.


THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO WRITING A BALANCED ARGUMENT

The aim of a well-written discussion text is to present information and opinions that express more than one viewpoint. This will often take the form of a newspaper report or a leaflet.  Regardless of the genre of the writing undertaken however, there are some common factors that apply to most discussion texts. Most often they are written in the present tense are commonly structured in the following way:

Introduction

No better place to begin than at the start. The title should normally be a general statement, or even a question, that draws attention to a specific issue. For example Should cellphones be banned in schools?

 The introduction section itself should usually be relatively brief and open with a brief statement on the issue and provide some background to the issue to be discussed. It will give an outline of the arguments to be reviewed ahead, but the introduction itself does not normally contain any of the student’s opinions or views on the topic in question. There are however a number of things to consider when writing the introduction.

The Hook

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 As with any genre of writing it is important to grab the reader’s attention from the outset, and discussion texts are no different. Fortunately, there are a number of tried and tested methods of achieving this. Here are a few that may be suitable openers for your students’ discussion writing:

●     open with a quotation relevant to the topic being addressed. A well-chosen quotation can grab the attention of even the most distracted of reader and compel them to read more!

●     a surprising fact is another great way to grab the reader’s attention and illuminate the topic that is to be discussed. Not only is it engaging, but informative too!

●     a joke. Everyone loves a laugh and a joke can provide an excellent in to the student’s writing. But, encourage your students to be careful here, the suitability of a humorous opening will largely depend on the topic being discussed. As jokes may not always be appropriate to the material they must be used wisely.

The Arguments

In writing a balanced argument, it is important that students consider the positive and negatives of the issue. The body of the text should be focused on presenting the pros and cons, the for and against arguments, relating to the central issue. This is why the oral starter activities can be so useful as pre-writing exercises.

After the student has laid out the topic in their introduction by providing the necessary background information, it is time for the student to consider laying out the case for the argument.

The use of time connectives is a great way for students to organize their information. Adverbs of time, such as firstly, secondly, next, then etc and phrases such as, in addition to, therefore etc can be a great help for students to structure their information chronologically and coherently.

Depending on the length of the text, it is normally recommended that each paragraph consists of a single point. It is important to remind students that in the presentation of a balanced argument they should not express their own bias, or even their own point of view, rather they are laying out both sides of the argument for the reader and should give equal weight to each point of view. When exploring each point, whether for or against, the PEE method can be a helpful way to aid students in structuring their paragraphs and to give their arguments direction:

P = Point (Student makes their point at the beginning of the paragraph)

E = Evidence (Student provides evidence that underpins this point)

E =Explain (Student explores point further and ties back to the central issue)

When the student has considered each of their points for the argument, for example three separate paragraphs each making three separate points for the argument, it is now time to consider, and do the same for, the argument against. The purpose here is to set up an opposition to the previously made points; to offer the other side of the story.

Encourage students here to use words and phrases that set up this contrast, for example, however, contrastingly, on the other hand, etc. Displaying these words and phrases in a word bank can also be a great way to help weaker students to organize their writing.

Conclusion

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In the conclusion, the student reviews the information, provides a summary of the arguments made, and weighs up the issue in light of the available evidence. It is at this point that students can offer their own opinion in favor or against the issue at hand, but only if it is appropriate to the genre of the discussion text. 

Students often find it difficult to know how to end their writing. One excellent way to finish their discussion is to end it with a question, a challenge to the readers to form their own opinion on the issue in light of the evidence that has been presented.


The Importance of Discussion in the Classroom

The discrete teaching of discussion and argument in the classroom is essential. It offers students invaluable opportunities to test their opinions and ideas with their peers in a safe environment. Students learn that disagreement is inevitable and not fatal! They learn, too, that it is okay to revise an opinion in the light of compelling evidence they had not previously considered..

Discussion is a proving ground for ideas. Ideas tested in the arena of classroom discussion will likely be expressed much more coherently in written form. Often it happens that students are not fully aware of exactly how they think on an issue until they have had a chance to try out their embryonic ideas with each other in a public discussion. It also helps students to avoid the dangers of the echo chamber of their own minds where frequently their ideas existed without challenge.

Encouraging our students to engage in respectful and productive disagreement is perhaps one of the most important skills we can help them develop.


Real Assessment Opportunities

Discussion activities offer wonderful opportunities for some informal assessment that helps with planning to best meet the needs of your students in future lessons. The fact that they are not teacher-led gives the teacher a chance to take a backseat and give full attention to the students’ conversations. This allows you to spot areas of difficulty and gaps in learning - all valuable information that will be priceless for effective future lesson planning.

Tips for writing a great argumentative essay

  • Make sure you clearly explain the topic to the audience before you get into taking sides.
  • When you have selected a topic ensure that you research both sides of the argument thoroughly before writing.
  • In your conclusion make it clear which side of the argument you side, even make a recommendation but allow the reader to keep an open mind.
  • Keep everything in order.
  • List all the items that will be required to complete the task.
  • Use paragraphs effectively.  Each new argument should start with a new paragraph.
  • Keep your arguments short, sharp and to the point.
  • Use the correct language and terms.

 

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Argumentative Essay Graphic Organizer

The argumentative graphic organizer is a strategic teaching tool that better equips students to develop this type of writing.  This graphic organizer is designed to anticipate the needs of the readers, as well as have the author utilize a variety of detail types to develop their opinion with more than just fluffy, eloquent language.  

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO DOWNLOAD THIS AS A PDF DOCUMENT

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO DOWNLOAD THIS AS A PDF DOCUMENT

Check out these short video tutorials on how to write an argumentative essay

How to write an argument or Discussion essay