Classroom Discussions

I’m sharing this idea from Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults, by Stephen Brookfield.

According to Brookfield, discussion as an activity in the adult classroom is often a blood sport” where “The usual extroverted suspects, who are often from the dominant culture and possess the cultural capital of an academic vocabulary, move front and center to shape the conversation while others lapse into a familiar silence.” (p.63)  As I reflect back to engaging in discussions in class I can definitely see how this can happen even when I’ve tried to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the discussion.  Brookfield confesses that instead of approaching discussions following lectures with an off-the-cuff attitude he has begun to “plan, prepare, and create conversational protocols.” (p.65)

One of those protocols he calls “Circle of Voices” and works like this:

  1. Form participants into groups of five
  2. Pose the question to be discussed and give everyone “three minutes of silent time to organize their thoughts and to come up with responses to the question.” (p.74)
  3. After the silent period, each person within the group has up to one minute of uninterrupted time to present their answer to the question.
  4. After the initial circle of responses, the discussion opens up with this caveat, “Participants are only allowed to talk about another person’s ideas that have already been shared in the opening circle of voices.” (p. 74)

Optionally, each group can present a summary of their discussion for the entire class.  This protocol allows everyone to share and participate and allows a synergy of ideas which can lead to better answers and more importantly better critical thought directed toward the question.

What do you think?  Have you ever thought about classroom discussions as a “blood sport” where those who “brought the appropriate cultural capital to the occasion – a wide-ranging vocabulary, a confident manner, an ease at speaking in public, and an expectation of being listened to and taken seriously.” (p.65) dominated the conversation?  What ideas or protocols have you put into place to address this concern?


  1. Nick Walters

    I’ve never used this structured approach but it seems to make sense. My experience is not those with an academic vocabulary move front and center, but those who want to express their thoughts particularly around a perceived injustice or faith issue.

    Teaching history makes that easy when we talk about feudalism being akin to slavery or the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. But if there is no emotional connection to the subject (i.e. the Schlieffen Plan’s influence on World War I) then conversation goes way down. As in zero participation.

    How would you decide on any given night of three hours of lecture when to divide into the groups for the discussion? I’d like to try it but my immediate assumption is I would have to find one good subject that I think would be interesting, frame the discussion around a Christian worldview and factor in 20 minutes to enable them to speak into the question I posed.

    Does that seem right?

    • Rick Upchurch

      Nick, I think that will work, but I also think if you are lecturing 3 out of the 4 hours you may be missing other opportunities for learning which would have a greater likelihood of being retained. I know Ken Elliot, Dean at Jackson/Lefleur also has taught the History course and I recommend you connect with him and discuss this.

  2. Nick Walters

    Thank you Dr. Upchurch. I don’t lecture that long but I guess a better way to have stated it would have been “class room instruction” and indeed Dr. Elliot is a great source of information.

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