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Encouraging student discussion

The value of discussion should not be underestimated in the process of learning, especially in exploratory talk between students. Classroom dialogue contributes to a child’s intellectual development and educational attainment; students learn by verbalising, talking, discussing, and arguing. 

So, how can this important tool of student talk be used within the BrainWaves lessons to enhance the learning experience? School Research Liaison Manager Naomi French shares her thoughts.


When goal-oriented discussions between students are set up with a meaningful conversation point, students can share their thoughts and ideas with their classmates and in turn develop deeper or new ideas that others can learn from. Hearing from other students can be useful in helping students to consider new, creative ideas and to clarify concepts. When this happens, a lesson can become an opportunity for collective learning where students build upon one another’s knowledge and deepen their communication skills. 

Student discussion is the bedrock of the BrainWaves lessons and actively encouraged as part of the learning process. Many of the accompanying lesson slides have questions that can be used as prompts for quality student talk and clips that can be used to generate discussion. There are also further suggestions within the Teacher Notes. You can also try the strategies below to enable students to access and engage with the lesson content.

Strategies to facilitate focused student discussion

‘Focused’ is the key phrase here as most teenagers love to talk and have no shortage of things to say! In fact, teachers may spend much of their time in lessons asking students not to talk to their friends since they can easily lose focus on the task at hand. Encouraging focused talk on the subject in hand is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to student-led activities, however there are a few strategies that can be used to make this job a little easier.

Write, pair, share

Many of us use the ‘think, pair, share’ model, but substituting writing for silent thinking can improve both the quality of the conversation and the number of students who contribute. As students write, I walk around, reading over their shoulders and writing things like, “That’s good. Say that!” on the papers of students. I can also see which and how many students are stuck, so I know if I need to add more scaffolding.

Timed question prompts

By displaying questions on the board that pupils can refer to or be guided back to if needed, discussion becomes more focused. By adding a reasonable time limit (and perhaps even a countdown style timer), the sense of urgency to complete the task is increased, thereby increasing focus. If you let students know beforehand how you will be collecting their answers – individually, as a pair, as a group, on post-its, with a nominated speaker – this encourages them to focus on the end goal, thus facilitating focused talk.

Hot topic

Ensure that students are engaged and interested in the topic before leaving them to work as a group. If they are itching to talk about it, the conversation is more likely to stay on track.

Roll a die

If you have a number of questions that you want the class to address in pairs or small groups, you can try displaying numbered questions (up to 6) and giving pupils a die: they can roll it and discuss the question they have rolled. Set a 1 or 2 minute timer and let them go!

Volleyball not ‘ping-pong’

As a teacher, the desire to direct, respond to and lead students (‘ping-pong’ teaching) can help drive learning, but it can also stifle creativity and engagement. To play volleyball, where pupils (rather than the teacher) respond to one another, is a great way to overcome this. It requires training the students in appropriate response techniques, but when the class are given opportunities to regularly practise this invaluable skill, it will not only encourage focused talk but also enhance their communication skills.

What if pupils do not input into discussions?

Encouraging students to talk in class (about the topic at hand, of course), can result in deeper learning, however, it can also mean that students who don’t feel they have anything correct, important or insightful to say or who are perhaps more shy, end up sitting silently and not reaping the benefits of the discussion. Coupled with this is the fact that the subject of mental health can be challenging to discuss and may make students feel uncomfortable. 

However, silence is different to disengagement, and this is an important distinction to be made, especially given the subject matter. You know your students best, and if they are silent in group discussions you can use this to judge if they need to re-engage or if they are simply actively listening to what is being discussed. Ultimately, when quality talk is facilitated, even those students who choose not to input into discussions are still benefiting from the rich language, discussion and thinking that is going on around them.  

About the author

Naomi French is a School Research Liaison Manager at BrainWaves, responsible for supporting schools on the BrainWaves Research Programme.  She was previously a year 6 class teacher and subject leader for PSHE.