Engaging Participants in Group Discussion

Melissa Cater, PhD

Have you ever had a group of participants who just didn’t want to engage in group discussion? Or maybe there were those individuals in the group who just dominated the conversation? I was fortunate enough to attend a Kagan Cooperative Learning training recently. One of the major foci of the training was learning strategies for managing group discussions. One guiding principle was that individuals should first have the chance to discuss questions posed by the teacher in pairs before sharing with the larger group. Not only does this allow the participant to gain confidence in his or her answer before giving it in front of the large group, but it also builds trust between paired individuals. With careful planning, this trust-building phase could be extended to include many people as individuals are asked to change partners and share with other groups.

In practice, this strategy worked because, once a question was posed, the pair was allotted minutes, most often regulated by a timer, to discuss the question. At the end of the allotted time, the timer was reset and the other person in the pair was given time to speak. Many of you may be thinking that this sounds like a think-pair-share exercise, and it was. The noticeable difference was that there was a structure in place for guiding the pairs or groups to allow everyone to speak. An interesting variation of this technique was to assign individuals to pairs and two sets of pairs were assigned to work together in a group of four. In this manner, the ideas of the smaller pair were disseminated to a larger group of four. The feedback received within the pair or the small group of four provided both validation and support for the individuals. Ultimately, each group of four may be asked to share a discussion point with the overall larger group.

The take-away message for me from this training was that with a little pre-planning I could structure conversations within groups so that everyone’s voice was heard. However, this group discussion strategy was only one small part of the training as there were many approaches shared for making learning more engaging and fun. If you have the opportunity to attend professional development training that improves your skill as a teacher, I encourage you to do so. I personally rank this training as one of my top professional development experiences this year!!

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