Effective Classroom Discussions: Getting Teachers to Talk Less and Students to Talk More

Article excerpt

Let's face it: every day we try as hard as we can to get students to participate in good classroom discussions and the effort falls flat. We ask tons of questions to get things going, the same few students try to answer all the questions, but most others do not. Occasionally something fires up the students for a few seconds or minutes: the hands go up, the students get excited, everyone wants to make a comment, and then...back to reality. We are unable to sustain intense discussions, the students slump back into their chairs, and back we go to long stretches of flat, boring discussion. And we wonder once again, how can we make more of those moments happen - how can we get more students to participate?

WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?

In the late 1970s, researchers studying classroom interactions in great detail found that the typical pattern of classroom instruction was a three-part sequence of teacher initiation, student response, and teacher evaluation they labeled the IRE (Mehan, 1979; Cazden, 1988). In the IRE, a teacher initiation (I) is followed by a student reply (R), followed by an evaluation of this reply (E) by the teacher. As an example, consider the following.

Teacher: What was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed?

Student: 1781?

Teacher: No, but pretty close.

The basic I-R-E sequence can be extended if, for example, an initiation is not immediately followed by a reply. Mehan shows how the teacher, the initiator, normally employs a number of strategies, such as prompting, or repeating or simplifying the question, until an expected reply does appear. In the above example, the IRE would simply start again by repeating the question, asking if anyone has the right answer, asking what actually happened in 1781, then restating the original question, etc.

Researcher Courtney Cazden found that the IRE pattern was actually "the most common pattern of classroom discourse at all grade levels" (1988:29). She pointed out the implication of the IRE pattern for teacher talk: the IRE is proof, not just that teachers talk most of the time, but that they talk two-thirds of the time, since the Initiation and the Evaluation components are spoken by the teacher. Cazden suggested a label from the language of computer technology: the IRE is the "default" pattern - what happens in a classroom "unless deliberate action is taken to achieve some alternative" (p. 53). This may be the most damaging aspect of the IRE - it is virtually the only type of instructional sequence used. Though it sometimes performs a valid instructional service, particularly in checking for student understanding of facts and concepts, its overuse precludes the use of other instructional methods.

The IRE often leads to unrewarding, boring, and flat classroom discussions. Dillon calls such discussions recitations, pointing out that they include short Q & A exchanges that demand only brief, factual responses from students. Students perceive their teachers' questions as attempts to test them rather than solicit their ideas. Thus, while the IRE and recitations may serve some legitimate pedagogical functions such as checking for understanding, they do not challenge students, limiting their thoughts and responses, and encourage then to tune in and out of boring discussions.

FOCUSING ON TEACHER QUESTIONS AND QUESTIONING METHODS

Of all the factors that affect classroom discussions, the questions that the teacher asks are one of the most crucial. Cazden returned repeatedly to teacher questions as the critical component of the IRE-recitation (1986, 1988). She pointed out that the Initiation component of the IRE is almost always a question, agreeing with Dillon's observation that teachers primarily talk in the form of asking questions (1983, p. 15). Questions can make or break or discussions; promote but also inhibit student learning.

Some examples are necessary. Consider the questions that a couple of teacher candidates in my social studies methods class wrote into their lesson plan to address a particular California content standard. …