Discussion Circles

Apologies to whoever I stole this idea from – I don’t remember who I should be crediting with it. It has, however, become a staple of my classes.

Previously, class discussions that I’ve worked into lessons have had problems. If the whole class tried to have a discussion together, a few very vocal students dominated the arena while others either tried in vain to compete or happily ceded the floor and retreated into themselves. If discussion groups were smaller, it was harder for non-participants to avoid notice, but discussions still depended on the willingness of a few people to keep a conversation going to prevent them from dissolving into a group of people sitting together, each checking his or her phone. Even groups that stayed on task would default to talkative students talking more and quieter students nodding along.

Discussion circles are a way of facilitating equally participatory conversation among students who naturally vary in their willingness to speak as themselves and voice opinions on either academic or familiar topics. They do this by:

  • Removing some of the burden on the students of representing themselves, because they are playing assigned roles rather than simply voicing their own thoughts,
  • Supplying pragmatically appropriate language, and
  • Encouraging participants, in various ways, to listen carefully to and respect each others’ contributions.

I use 3 versions of Discussion Circles sheets, each of which has 4 roles that participants need to play:

  • Discussion Leader
    • Chooses questions to ask and asks them
    • Begins and ends the meeting
  • Harmonizer
    • Thanks other members for participation
    • Asks for clarification
    • Rephrases others’ opinions
    • Encourages other members to participate
  • Reporter
    • Takes notes on the members’ contributions
    • Asks members to repeat or rephrase
  • Devil’s Advocate
    • Disagrees with other members’ contributions (constructively!)

These tasks are in addition to actually answering the questions that the Discussion Leader asks.

Each of these roles has a worksheet to fill out with sections for before, during, and after the discussion. These are turned in to the teacher afterward. The teacher, incidentally, is not involved in the discussions except to provide a list of questions and assign roles at the beginning.

The version of the worksheet that I use for at least the first 3 times that I do this activity is about 2 pages long per member. The “Before” and “After” sections are fairly involved and take about 10 minutes to do each. (The discussion itself can take anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour.)

You can get a copy of it here: Discussion circles online (called “online” because it is in a format that is easily distributable on Google Classroom. You can also print it.)

After they are used to the expectations of each role, I use a shortened version of the sheet. This one has a shorter “Before” section and no “After” section.

Find a copy here: Discussion circles lite online

Towards the end of the semester, I use a Turbo version of the sheet in which the participants switch roles with every question.

Get it here: Discussion circles turbo

In my Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning group that meets on Fridays (basically a community of practice for new professors), I tried a revised Turbo version that had the job Quoter replacing Reporter.

Get it here: Discussion circles turbo 2

I give two grades for this assignment every time it is used: One grade for participation in the meeting and one for completing the worksheet. Now that we’re all online, the participation grade comes from a predetermined member recording their Zoom meeting and sharing the video with me.

Obviously, for the last few weeks of our spring 2020 semester, I’ve been distributing these online and having students share one sheet for the whole group rather than printing and handing out the sheets for an in-class discussion. I find that the distribution of responsibility in Discussion Circles, where everyone has to participate in order to complete their own sheet, suits the slightly impersonal nature of online synchronous discussions fine. Students often remark that they take more easily to some roles than others, but I try to make sure everyone plays every role at least once, so that even if they don’t “naturally” like to disagree with others, they will all be able to do so respectfully when it becomes important.

I find that Discussion Circles are a helpful scaffold for a lot of skills practice that we hope to see in class discussions, to the point that I rarely have a class discussion without them anymore. I hope you get some value from them too.

2 thoughts on “Discussion Circles

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