A whole class discussion is a pedagogical strategy that involves having all members of the class discuss a topic as a group. It can be beneficial for providing all students in the class with the same information and encouraging students to speak up in a democratic forum.
Critics of a whole class approach see it as being too teacher-centered and overly intimidating to shy students who might benefit from smaller discussion groups. These critics usually emphasize the importance of student-centered over teacher-centered learning environments.
Definition of Whole Class Discussion
A whole class discussion is a discussion which involves the participation of all members of the class. It is commonly used at the beginning and ending of lessons to orient students to a topic or gather the opinions of students after completion of individual or small-group tasks.
10 Best Whole Class Discussion Strategies
1. The Conch
In The Lord of the Flies, the characters solve the problem of everyone talking over one another by using a conch (shell). The student with the conch is the only one allowed to speak.
You can use anything you want as a conch alternative – a tennis ball works well, or a simple teddy bear. Something that can be tossed between students is a good idea.
Once the student with the conch has finished speaking, the other students who have something to say can put their hands up and the conch can be passed along.
2. Traffic Lights
The traffic light system is a good way to encourage participation from shy students. Give all students a green, amber and red piece of paper. Pose an intriguing discussion question and have the students hold up their card – red, green or amber depending on if they agree, disagree or are unsure.
Give students turns to share their thoughts, but alternate between red, green and amber students to get the students debating different perspectives.
An extension of this is to get the red and green students to try to convince the amber students to change their minds.
Pre-teaching involves presenting students with information before the class so they can prepare. This is very common in university seminars where the teacher will set assigned weekly readings. The students are expected to come to class with information prepared so they’re ready to contribute.
In elementary schools and ESL classrooms, pre-teaching is most commonly found in reading lessons. New vocabulary is presented to the students who learn it before their lesson so they can successfully read the paragraphs presented to them in class.
The fishbowl method involves having the class sit in a circle around watch a group of students in the middle. These students may do a performance, speech or experiment. They are like fish in a fishbowl because they can be seen from all angles. After their performance, the class discusses what they saw.
5. Socratic Seminar
The Socratic seminar has been used in universities for centuries. It involves a roundtable discussion of a text that was read before class. Critical thinking and challenging one another’s half-formed hypotheses are encouraged in these group sessions. To minimize defensiveness, it should be set up so students are asked to present hypotheses that are malleable rather than hard-and-fast opinions.
6. The Hot Seat
The hot seat puts one student in the middle of the whole class with their classmates looking inward ad them. This student puts on the persona of a book character or historical figure being studied in your class. The students in the class quiz the student on the hot seat and the hot seat student responds. Afterwards, you can open up to a more free-flowing discussion and take the student off the hotseat.
7. Student-Led Hot Topics
A student-led hot topic discussion involves getting two or three students to become the ‘discussion leaders’ for a session. This often works well at the end of a unit of work where groups of students have gone off to do research on their own topics. The students then pose a series of questions to the class that they came across in their research to start off the whole class discussion.
8. Show and Tell
This is a good activity for younger students. Have the student come to class, stand in front of their peers, and show something they have from home that they cherish. With older students, you can try to link it to the topics being studies in the class. After the student has shown the item, have their classmates ask questions to open up the discussion to the class.
A think-pair-share discussion involves three steps:
- Step 1 – Think: The students are asked to individually brainstorm answers to a discussion prompt.
- Step 2 – Pair: The students pair up and compare answers. As a pair they need to come up with an amalgamated response to the discussion prompt.
- Step 3 – Share: The pairs take turns to share their thoughts about the discussion prompt to the whole class.
Think-pair-share is a great activity to do with classes that are shy because it warms them up and helps them come to the discussion prepared.
10. The Yarning Circle
This Indigenous Australian pedagogical strategy involves everyone in the class sitting in a circle so there is no head of the group. This is to promote democracy and equality. The teacher poses a prompt and people are free to speak up when they want. An interesting twist in this approach, though, is that silence is embraced. If no one has anything to contribute, everyone is encouraged to think about their responses and only speak up once they have got a fully-formed idea in their head.
Advantages of Whole Class Discussions
1. Enhanced Teacher Control
One of the biggest benefits of whole class discussions for teachers is that they can maintain strong control and oversight over the class. They can moderate all the discussion and assess what all the students’ knowledge is by looking at which students are able to contribute ideas to the discussion.
However, critics of whole class discussions also say that the problem with them is precisely that the teacher has too much control and they rarely involve free flowing student interaction (Reisman et al, 2018). This can decrease student engagement and critical thinking.
If the class all conduct the lesson as a whole group, it will ensure all students get the same information and experience. This can help prevent gaps in knowledge or the ‘dumbing down’ of information for some students in small groups.
The shared experience may, furthermore, help foster sense of community within the classroom.
3. Encourages Democratic Participation
Discussions that do not feature a ‘head of the table’ and position all students as equals can help students develop participation skills.
Furthermore, it can teach students the values of democracy, such as: ensuring all voices are heard, voting, accepting majority decisions (even when they were not your preference), and listening to and respecting minority views on issues.
Disadvantages of Whole Class Discussions
1. Students are often Intimidated to Speak Up
It can be difficult to get some groups to engage in lively discussion. Students who are uncomfortable around one another, shy, scared of saying the wrong thing, or intimidated by large groups will often sit in silence. This is more often the case toward the beginning of a lesson.
Teachers need to use strategies to break the ice in these situations such as setting clear ground rules that embrace half-formed decisions, or use think-pair-share strategies to lead-up to the full group discussion. Teachers should try to find space where it is okay to make mistakes.
2. Not all Students get a Voice
Many whole group sessions involve a small number of loud students who are willing to share their points of view and a larger group of more quiet students who fade into the walls. Teachers need to moderate the whole groups to ensure that every student gets a chance to speak up in a safe, welcoming environment.
3. Differentiation is Difficult
Differentiation of instruction involves changing how (and sometimes what) is taught to cater to the needs of students. A differentiated lesson will have different students learning in different ways depending on their needs.
Some students may learn better from visual than oral instruction, for example. In other situations, some students might require more scaffolding than other students.
Unfortunately, in whole class discussions, differentiation is difficult. You can’t break students off to get them to learn in different ways or give them individualized support.
Proponents of democratic education embrace a horizontally-structured whole class discussion that involves all students participating in the discussion in a free-flowing manner with the teacher moderating from the sidelines.
Commonly, however, whole class discussions involve too much teacher intervention. In these situations, the teacher takes a central role at the head of the classroom and intervening between each student’s statements to have more control.
Reisman et al (2018), for example, state that novice teachers will often pivot the discussion to close-ended yes or no questions instead of open-ended productive talk.
Is This Active or Passive Learning?
Whole class discussions are often criticized as creating passive learners. It’s seen as overly teacher-centered. However, it differs from a fully teacher-centered approach because the teacher encourages dialogue between students.
O’Connor et al (2017), for example, argue that when executed correctly, a whole class dialogue can be “academically productive talk” that benefits students.
Whole class discussion is a pedagogical strategy that has its time and place. I often use it at the beginning and ending of my lessons. I find a whole class reflection can help students to compare their experiences at the end of a lesson, but small groups tend to be better in my classrooms for the middle of a lesson.
Overall, teachers need to be careful to use this as one of many strategies in their pedagogical toolbox, but can use this strategy regularly when the situation suits their students’ needs.
Larrain, A., Howe, C., & Cerda, J. (2014). Argumentation in whole-class teaching and science learning. Psykhe, 23(2), 1-15.
Myhill, D. (2006). Talk, talk, talk: Teaching and learning in whole class discourse. Research papers in education, 21(1), 19-41.
O’Connor, C., Michaels, S., Chapin, S., & Harbaugh, A. G. (2017). The silent and the vocal: Participation and learning in whole-class discussion. Learning and Instruction, 48, 5-13.
Reisman, A., Kavanagh, S. S., Monte-Sano, C., Fogo, B., McGrew, S. C., Cipparone, P., & Simmons, E. (2018). Facilitating whole-class discussions in history: A framework for preparing teacher candidates. Journal of teacher Education, 69(3), 278-293.
Smit, J., AA van Eerde, H., & Bakker, A. (2013). A conceptualisation of whole‐class scaffolding. British Educational Research Journal, 39(5), 817-834.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]