Research: Past & Present
all students achieve higher standards
Discussions in the Social Studies Classroom:
An Action Study
K. Flynn, Walter Payton College Prep
What happens when students lead their own discussions?
What preparation do students need to be successful in a student-led discussion?
questions guided research into how high school
students navigate discussions in a Social Studies
classroom over the course of a school year.
While much research into discussion-based activities
in Social Studies has been published, these
questions were answered from both my (the teacher's)
perspective and the students' perspectives.
By addressing student perceptions of discussions,
teachers can more readily understand how to
approach and improve the implementation of
this technique in their Social Studies class.
reflections from students after completion
of six discussion-based activities
own observations (sociograms and discussion
mapping) and reflections on student discussions
- student "interviews" - a
group discussion about a class discussion
one school year, three frosh level World Studies
classes completed six discussion-based activities.
Each activity was related to different content,
and was implemented in a different way from
the others. During and after each activity,
students wrote individual written reflections,
charting their roles in discussions, their
comfort level, and their preparedness in discussions.
In addition to student responses, I also observed
discussions and mapped them for participation
and content covered. I reflected after each
discussion-based activity about the goals I
had for the content and process and whether
those were met. Finally, after the last discussion-based
activity, students led a small group discussion
about their student-led classroom discussion.
I mapped this discussion as well.
identified roles that they often play and never
play in classroom discussions, including (direct
quotes from students) "the loudmouth," "listeners," "people
who play the game," "the comedian," and "those
who don't pay attention at all". They identified
interest and peer relations as the determining
factors for how they act in a discussion, based
on a free response prompt. This data helped
set a baseline for student perceptions of discussion
in any class. Student motivations for discussion
are an important aspect for teachers to understand
when approaching discussion-based activities.
rated their comfort level and preparedness
after a primary source study anchored a discussion.
There was a high correlation between preparedness
in using a reference and feeling comfortable
in discussion (67% of students). Factors for
feeling uncomfortable, other than lack of preparedness,
included peer perceptions. Having sources that
help shape and provide support for students' interpretations
are essential for their perceptions of comfort
and readiness for group discussion.
participated in an online forum as one discussion-based
activity. They responded very well to this
very quiet conversation. Students noted that
this forum gave those who do not speak up in
class the opportunity to share their ideas,
and many were impressed by those who are usually "quiet".
Students found the ability to simultaneously
research while discussing to be helpful. Some
found the threaded discussion format a bit
confusing and felt "lost" "keeping up" with
the responses. Exposing students to a variety
of ways to actively participate in class discussion
is helpful to their ease in expressing ideas.
Having sources readily available allows students
to form and support their opinions, which is
not only an excellent research skill, but they
identify this as a reliable aid to their comfort
and understanding in discussion.
Observation and Reflections
I also reflected on what a "good" discussion might entail and how best to prepare
students for the rigors of a Social Studies discussion. Many reflections resulted
in the question, "How best could I combine content and process in a discussion-based
activity?" This question resulted in the various forms of the six major student-led
discussion activities throughout the year.
Four students gathered to discuss, "What happened today at the U.N. Crisis
Simulation?". While I intended the format to be interviews, the students led
their own discussion about discussion as I ended up taking notes. This last
data tool is a microcosm of the action research process in my class this year,
and also provided the best example of student-led discussion I have observed
yet. Students talked about motivation: a real-life crisis that they could take
in any creative direction they chose. They discussed frustrations: students
who wouldn't work as a team, though one was the leader. They discussed preparation:
having an account of proceedings on the online forum was useful; using maps
would have helped in securing alliances. They evaluated discussion, which was
three-pronged (online, written, and group conferences): "I loved talking to
EVERYBODY!" By evaluating this discussion, students answered all of the questions
they had used for reflection throughout the year, but in a student-led conversation.
My own reflection shows that they related both content and process seamlessly,
achieving the goal I had set in asking this question, but in a way I had not
Though students and teachers have different perceptions of class discussions,
their ideas of what is a "good" discussion and how best one can be prepared
for such a discussion are compatible. Flow of conversation, pertinent topics,
and readily available resources are all imperative for a high-quality discussion
process related to Social Studies content. Student and teacher reflections
on the roles we play in discussions helped us improve our discussion techniques,
culminating in a fine group activity in the Crisis Simulation, but even more
so in the student-led analysis of this discussion.
Social Studies teachers must have training in the variations of student-led
classroom discussions. They need to use primary sources and other sources that
lend to student interpretation, along with adequate secondary material for
students to feel comfortable in discussing. In addition, teachers should be
experimenting with technological resources to encourage various discussion
styles and multiple learning styles.
Principals and administrators need to provide teachers with the resources to
prepare students for discussion; from primary source books to internet connections
to town-hall forums for students, a school culture for discussion about pertinent
issues must be fostered.
Area Instructional Officers should be using discussion-based activities as
one area for "Vertical Teaming," combining elementary and high school Social
Studies teachers' efforts to best prepare students for the rigors of high school.
Primary and secondary school teachers should be discussing with university-level
instructors to determine for what we are preparing our students by using discussion-based
Collaboration among colleagues in my Social Studies Department about our curriculum,
benchmarks, and standards will rely on this research. I will propose attention
to discussion-based activities and this study to teachers in the Area 20 Social
Studies Vertical Team. As collaboration ensues, new questions arise:
preparation do students have in Social Studies
discussion-based activities before entering
their freshmen year?
bridge between grade eight and freshmen year
is necessary for all students to succeed
in discussion-based activities?
bridge between senior year and college is
necessary for students to excel in the Social
do students' various backgrounds (educational,
social, etc.) influence their reactions to
do teachers of different subjects approach
new ways to track discussion from the student
perspective must be addressed. Tracing individual
students' responses over time to the content
and process of Social Studies discussions in
my World Studies class will be the next step
within my own classroom.
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