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TOP FIVE: Productive Student Discussion Strategies

At this point in the school year, you might be in search of new strategies for apprenticing students to productive discussions in your classroom. We polled some of our fabulous Inquiry By Design teachers, and the following discussion strategies are a few of their tried-and-true favorites! 


Asking students to write and discuss ideas with a partner before sharing with the larger group gives students more time to compose their ideas. This format helps students build confidence, encourages greater participation, and often results in more thoughtful discussions.

  • Think: Students reflect on a given question/topic or write a short response.
  • Pair: Students pair up with one other student and share their responses.
  • Share: Convene the whole class and ask pairs to report back on their conversations. Alternatively, you could ask students to share what their partner said. In this way, the strategy focuses on students’ skills as careful listeners.


Research has shown that movement can improve cognitive and affective engagement. The appointment strategy allows your students to move around in a specific, well-controlled fashion.

  • Students draw a clock face on a sheet of notebook paper and label the hours 3, 6, 9, and 12. They don’t need to draw clock hands or label the other hours.
  • Students take 1-2 minutes to make their “appointments” with 4 other people in the classroom, assigning a different person to each of the four times on the clock. Both students write the partner’s name on the same time slot.
  • At strategic moments in the lesson, ask students to go to their 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, or 9 o’clock appointments where they will discuss a given topic or question, collaborate on a problem, or brainstorm solutions.
  • Example: Discuss the motivations of the author with the 3 o’clock partner, the use of figurative language with the 6 o’clock partner, and the biases of a text with the 9 o’clock partner when analyzing an argumentative text.

Give One, Get One

This is another strategy that allows students to move around, collaborate with multiple partners, and test out and expand ideas in preparations for whole-class discussions.

  • Students write down 3-5 key learnings, important ideas, or questions about the text or topic. They can use a two-column chart, write each idea on a different index card, or use sticky-notes that they can give away to their partners.
  • Students mingle as a class in order to find a partner. Each student “gives” one of his or her key learnings or important ideas about the topic to his or her partner and then “gets” one in return. Time may range from 1-3 minutes.
  • Call out “move on” and participants mingle again. Repeat the sharing for as many ideas as people have to share.

Conga Line

This versatile strategy allows students to move and collaborate, while promoting their ability to engage in meaningful conversations with a variety of classmates.

  • Students number off 1-2.
  • ONES make a line, shoulder-to-shoulder.
  • TWOS make a line facing the ones.
  • At the signal, ONES step forward. Students share with their facing partner in directed ways (i.e. asking a question and getting a response, making up a sentence with a given vocabulary word, reading a category and asking for exemplars, taking a position on a controversial topic, forming an interpretation, etc., etc., etc.!)
  • When finished sharing, ONES step back.
  • TWOS step to the left for a new partner.
  • One student at the end moves down the line to his or her new partner.
  • Repeat.

Philosophical Chairs

Philosophical chairs is similar to debate and helps students to formulate, articulate, and support a position while learning from each other. Students are given a central topic or question toward which they must choose to agree, disagree, or be neutral. A great philosophical chairs discussion starts with a question that is important to students on a topic about which they feel strongly.
  • The teacher writes the question or topic on the board.
  • Students respond in writing using one word: yes, no, or unsure. (This gives the teacher a chance to mingle and tally responses.)
  • Students write a paragraph about why they chose the response they did.
  • Designate one side of the room as “yes” and the other side as “no.” Students move to their chosen sides. Seats in the middle are designated as “hot seats” for undecided students.
  • The side with the least number of students speaks first to support their position. No student may speak twice in a row for his/her side. Students should not raise their hands to speak, but rather should follow the natural ebb and flow of conversation and the nonverbal cues of their classmates. Students must wait 3 seconds before offering a response and then repeat or rephrase what the last speaker said before.
  • As students’ hear something they agree or disagree with, or their ideas or positions change, they move to different seats. Students are not to acknowledge moves — it’s not a contest or a win-lose scenario.
  • Discussions can last from 10-50 minutes. At the conclusion, students write a reflection on how their viewpoint was strengthened, weakened, or changed and why. The goal is to be open-minded. By the end of the discussion, students should be equally able to explain both opposing views.