Planning and Facilitating Discourse in the History Classroom

Lightning Jay

Alina Lewis

Lendol Calder

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

This workshop will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

It’s been forty years since Peter Frederick famously described the many ways that discussions go wrong in a history classroom. The long awkward silences. The dominant boor. The shy students who never put in their oar. The drawn-out dialogue with a truculent student. The digressions, the awkward transitions, and the unintentional hurts to students who are sensitive to criticism. Most embarrassing of all, the realization by the end of the class that, once again, one had been lecturing most of the period. There is little reason to doubt that what Frederick observed of history teachers in the 1980s remains true today, that “the dreaded discussion continues to bother us more than any other part of our daily teaching lives.”

What can teachers do to improve the quality of talk in history classrooms? This workshop will examine the pedagogy of classroom discussion in terms of its purpose, design, and facilitation. Attendees will participate in a model discussion of historical texts that uses several tested strategies for developing historical thinking and effective communication. In a debrief, a number of other effective strategies for leading discussions will be touched on and recommendations will be given for where to learn more.

Fifty years of cognitive science studying how people learn shows that for more learning to happen in secondary and undergraduate classrooms, instructors need to talk less and students need to talk more. Language is how we think, it is how humans process information and remember. Language is the human operating system. If we want students to develop historical thinking, then our classrooms should be filled with students talking.

But it needs to be the right kind of talking. As Frederick noted a generation ago, most classroom discussions are a disappointment to everyone, teachers and students. This is because often teachers don’t have the tools they need to design meaningful classroom conversations. Without knowledge of tested methods for guiding and enriching student talk, teachers fall back on using discussion simply to check for comprehension, for whether students understand what they read. The real potential for discussion, though, lies in using talk to develop thinking. Students become more sophisticated thinkers when teachers assist them to talk to each other in meaningful ways using the language and heuristics of historical thinking.

This workshop is for history teachers who are frustrated with the poor results obtained from asking students to take out the assigned reading and then asking, "So how'd you like it?” Oral language is the foundation of literacy. It follows that historical thinking floats on a sea of talk. Altering the ratio of teacher to student talk isn’t easy, but it can happen through focused attention in planning and deliberate actions in facilitation. Drawing from both research and practice, this workshop aims to convince participants of the importance of student talk and equip teachers to plan discussions with a clear purpose and expectations.

Posted: February 20, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Teaching, Previews