ERIC Identifier: ED477611
Publication Date: 2003-12-00
Author: Ngeow, Karen - Kong, Yoon-San
Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Learning through Discussion: Designing Tasks for Critical
Inquiry and Reflective Learning. ERIC Digest.
Discussion is very often used as a tool in classrooms. When designed properly
and used thoughtfully, discussion tasks can be an effective learning tool that
promote creativity, as well as generate meaningful interaction and understanding
for the learner. Well-designed discussion tasks lead to progressive
knowledge-seeking inquiry (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994) or expansive
learning (Engestrom, 1999) where learners are actively synthesizing new
information with prior knowledge and experiences in the process of creating not
only new knowledge but also new understanding of the learning process.
Teachers use discussion tasks to achieve different goals: critical inquiry,
debate and reflection. However, it is not difficult to ensure that "learning"
will naturally occur in a discussion task. Perkins (1986) reminds teachers that
the meaningfulness of a task is not found in the problem or task itself; rather,
the learner has to impose his or her own meanings and defines individual goals
during the process of accomplishing the task. In other words, the purpose of
learning within this context is not to "get it right," but to produce something
meaningful through critical inquiry, debate and reflection.
TYPES OF DISCUSSION TASKS
The move to understanding
discussion as more than an instructional tool that encourages learners to talk
has implications for the design of discussion tasks. Hacker and Niederhauser
(2000) argue that effective learning comes about through teachers' thoughtful
design and use of instructional strategies.
Below are four major discussion tasks designed for classroom use, with a
description of teachers' roles and learning strategies to be adopted by the
GUIDED DISCUSSION TASK
The goal of guided or directed
discussion tasks is to give learners a chance to develop critical thinking,
clear oral expression, as well as experience in posing and responding to
Stage 1: The teacher poses a discussion question to the whole class.
Guidelines are given on discussion etiquette and criteria for evaluation. Each
learner contributes an original answer in response to the discussion question.
Stage 2: Learners offer responses or questions to each other's contributions
as a means of broadening the discussion's scope.
Stage 3: Learners present their views or the views of their groups, either
orally or in writing at the end of the guided discussion task.
INQUIRY-BASED DISCUSSION TASK
This task guides learners
through a series of questions to discover some relationship or principle, and to
help learners acquire reasoning skills to analyze new information. The beginning
stages are similar to those in the guided discussion task, but in an
inquiry-based discussion task, learners are further required to bring in
information and issues from outside the textbook or classroom for discussion.
Stage 4: The teacher poses a discussion issue that requires argumentative
reasoning and elaboration. Learners are required to go beyond the textbook to
evaluate this discussion issue.
Stage 5: Learners identify and highlight main issues relevant to the
discussion. In doing so, they appraise the new information they have acquired
for its validity and relevance as well as test their ideas against insights and
perspectives provided by their peers.
Stage 6: Learners summarize the discussion in light of other discussants'
reactions and interpretations. This helps them to synthesize supporting and
opposing ideas that are relevant to the issue.
REFLECTIVE DISCUSSION TASK
Teachers use this task to help
learners become more cognizant of the learning process and to enable them to
derive meaningful insights from their learning experiences.
Stage 7: The teacher asks learners to prepare a self-analysis of their roles
and contributions to the discussion process.
Stage 8: Learners analyze "how they learn" and think about what will help
them be more effective in future discussions. They respond to introspective
questions that help them to reflect on conditions that facilitated or hindered
their learning processes.
EXPLORATORY DISCUSSION TASK
This task assists learners by
honing their analytical skills to arrive at alternative explanations in a
variety of real-world scenarios. Here, learners are compelled to first examine
their personal opinions, suppositions or assumptions and then visualize
alternatives to these assumptions.
Stage 9: The teacher poses a real-world problem that requires learners to
consider- in context - the premises or ideas they have been discussing.
Stage 10: Learners assess their beliefs or opinions and evaluate how
alternatives to these beliefs and opinions apply in a variety of real-world
The learning-through-discussion framework shares
aspects of Bereiter's (1994) concept of progressive discourse, where the goals
are for learners to first develop their individual thinking, then suspend these
opinions to consider alternatives, and later negotiate meaning with other
discussants to arrive at a shared understanding of the issues at hand. With
thoughtful and well-designed discussion tasks, teachers can help students attain
learning goals of critical inquiry, debate and reflection.
ONLINE RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS
Using Questioning and
Discussion in the Classroom: Resources compiled by the UMDNJ Academic
Information Technology Advisory Committee. This site contains key aspects of
successful discussions and an FAQ list for teachers interested in using
Fostering Effective Classroom Discussions: A selective list of online
resources - by Barton, Heilker and Rutkowski. Of particular interest here are
sites on the use of questioning techniques that facilitate good discussion
Class Discussions - by The Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Illinois
State University. This site has resources on using icebreakers and group
activities to facilitate collaboration amongst students in discussion
Assessing Discussion: Active and Collaborative Learning. This is a resource
site for Valencia faculty. It has an instrument and some assessment guidelines
for evaluating student contributions in class discussions.
Discussion Rubrics. This site has two assessment rubrics, complete with
descriptors that teachers can adapt to suit their assessment of students'
efforts in their classroom discussion tasks. http://
Bereiter, C. (1994). Implications of
postmodernism for science, or, science as progressive discourse. "Educational
Psychologist", 29(1), 3-12.
Engestroem, Y. (1999) Activity theory and individual and social
transformation. In Y. Engestroem, R. Miettinen, & R.-L. Punamaeki (Eds.),
"Perspectives on Activity Theory", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK,
Hacker D. J. and Niederhauser, D. S. (2000). Promoting deep and durable
learning in the online classroom. In R. E. Weiss, D. S. Knowlton, & B. W.
Speck (Eds.), "Principles of effective teaching in the online classroom"
(pp.53-64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [ED 447 767]
Perkins, D. N. (1986). "Knowledge as design". Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Scardamalia, M. and Bereiter, C (1994). Computer support for
knowledge-building communities. "Journal of the Learning Sciences", 3(3),
265-283. [ED 400 783]