Enabling students to understand and analyse contemporary issues in science and technology

Running a class discussion

Many activities call for a formal class discussion and shorter discussions will happen all the time, as a summary to an activity, or because some interesting issue has been in the news. Not all discussion leads to learning, the better managed and the clearer the objectives the more students will learn. They usually enjoy it whether they learn or not and sometimes this is fine.

Ground rules
One option is for the teacher to provide a list of ground rules, and allow students to discuss the reasons for the rules. It is often better to get the students to agree their own list of ground rules so that they have 'ownership'. A list might include the following points:

  • listen
  • don't interrupt
  • respect other people's contributions and opinions
  • allow others to contribute.

Post the ground rules on the class notice board, and remind students about them before a discussion or as and when needed.

Preparation - the room
Arrange the tables and chairs so that all students can see each other.

Preparation - the task
Make sure that the topic for discussion is clear, often framed as a question 'is wind energy the best power source for electricity?', 'should the government allow medical research on monkeys?'.

Preparation - information
Make sure that the participants all have sufficient information on the science involved, on the wider implications and on different arguments which might be used. It is often helpful to give students a few minutes to consider their position and prepare their arguments before the group discussion starts. A good 'warm up' with some groups is to then go round the class getting each student to express their views briefly, no discussion allowed at this stage.

The chair
Discussions in a large group need a chair, usually the teacher, whose role is to ensure that;

  • the rules are kept to,
  • a few students do not dominate,
  • private discussions do not start up
  • shy students are encouraged, but not forced to talk,
  • the discussion keeps to the point
  • relevant ideas about How Science Works are recognised and included (for example ethical principles, or a cost-benefit approach)

It is really important that the teacher does not abuse the position of chair by talking too much or imposing her own views. Take care that the dialogue is between the students, not between student and teacher. Sometimes the teacher will have to be a more active participant in the discussion. Be prepared to intervene if key issues are being missed, by asking questions or challenging a speaker to justify their opinion more carefully. With some classes playing 'devil's advocate' is effective if a rather uncritical consensus develops. But don't intervene in these ways if you can avoid it, give them time to think things out for themselves.

The discussion
Listening and thinking about the contributions of others is as important as talking and probably harder to learn. You can encourage this by asking someone to summarise a previous contribution. Allow the discussion to continue until everyone has had the chance to make a contribution.

It is important that there is some conclusion. This will usually take the form of summarising the different positions taken, with reasons. This summary will often form a useful set of notes on a controversial issue. It can be a good idea to take a vote on the issue. Sometimes there may be a more direct product in the form of a letter to a newspaper or a response to a public opinion questionnaire. (See Keeping Science in Society topical)

Suggested activities
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1.6 Debate on sex selection