Re-Energizing Classroom Discussion through Round Table Circles
Many teachers find rigorous classroom discussions challening to implement because without structure, discussions can go off course or don’t produce the deep analysis and detailed answers they expect from students. There are many different formats a teacher can choose to conduct class discussion but many often take quite a bit of time to prepare and may not get every student involved. However, The Round Table Circles model is a format that pulls the best strategies from Socratic seminars, round table discussions, and classroom debates and reformulates them into small a group discussion format. The great benefit of the Round Table Circles model is that it allows everyone to participate, even those who are more reluctant to speak openly.
Round Table Circles (RTC) is a method of round table discussion used to engage students in ways that helps them integrate new and interesting content knowledge with prior knowledge through a structured round table debate format. Throughout the entire process of preparing the RTC activity, students will be reading interesting and relevant text, researching sub-topics, and creating written notes and analysis. This research will then allow them to engage in active discussions with their peers to arrive at a consensus regarding the assigned topic. The process described in this article is meant to provide you with an introduction and brief overview of RTC so you can consider how to incorporate these ideas into your own classroom.
What, then, is the process of setting up the RTC so that you can begin to see the benefits in your classroom?
BEFORE ROUND TABLE CIRCLE DISCUSSION:
1. First: Select your topic and objective for your discussion. You can begin by selecting an interesting but relevant topic based on your current lessons that would engage your students in dialogue. You can even let your students select a topic for debate if you want them actively involved in the entire RTC discussion.
How do you know the right kind of topic to present as your RTC? To start, select a topic where students can easily sort information by pros and cons, or where students can agree or disagree with a statement you posed.
For example, as an AP Economics teacher I might ask students to discuss the pros and cons of Free Trade. I’d consider whether the topic that I chose could be broken down into several supporting questions for students to answer, and that they can find significant reading and research to help them develop a strong position on the topic they will be discussing.
2. Next: Provide the students with the reading material and extended sub-topic research ideas to ensure that each student has at least one point to contribute to the discussion. The reading and research can begin in class and then extend to homework so that when they return to class for the Round Table Circles discussion they are prepared. It’s important at this early stage to review your state standards and aligned textbooks to mine them for background readings that provide an overview of the topic. This will allow the students to connect the discussion to the overall course.
I might provide students with resources that align to the overarching/ guiding question and support questions I’d provide to students on the day of their discussion (see part A in this next section). This way, I can ensure that students are preparing for their discussion using appropriate resources aligned to the questions they will be answering.
DURING ROUND TABLE CIRCLE DISCUSSION:
1. First: Using whatever preferred method of grouping you like, divide the class into groups of 6 to 8 students. Each group will sit in a circle facing each other and then select a moderator to ensure everyone participates and keeps the discussion flowing, keeping the conversation on task and focused on the discussion topic. The moderator will be given a form to keep track of participation. In addition all students will record the discussion for later use in a notebook or notes worksheet.
For example, for this topic I might decide to homogeneously group students so I can spend more time supporting one group that is struggling with this activity.
2. Next: Lead the RTC by asking questions for the group to discuss. These questions should align to your chosen topic and the resources students used to research the topic, should be open ended to allow for significant discussion, and should help lead students to develop a position for or against the topic.
A: The teacher would first present a guiding question for the lesson cycle, and then will state the additional support questions that will help students develop positions for their guiding question.
For example: If my lesson cycle focuses on the pros and cons of Free Trade, the guiding question might be “Is Free Trade Worth the Price?”- this will become the question that allows students to develop their position on the topic. In order to defend their position on this question, though, students will need to participate in a deep discussion of ideas surrounding this topic, by answering pre- scripted support questions developed by the teacher.
B: Using a timer and an overhead projector or a slide show, the teacher can help keep the discussion moving and on task while providing the time needed for students to discuss the supporting questions. This process is designed to help them debate the topic and come to a consensus on whether they take a “pro” or “con” position. [See the Mini-RTC Questions stems, available for download at the end of this article, for ideas on how to ask the right questions]. You may assign the position of moderator to one student in each group, and require this student to both ask the questions for discussion and to challenge answers from their peers to help engage in more dialogue.
For example, a support question on free trade might be: “What are the arguments for free trade?”. The selected student moderator of the group then repeats the question and polls each student for their response, evidence, and reasoning. The students are to record their own response and everyone else’s. The next question might say something to the effect of “What are the arguments against free trade?” and the process is followed again.
C: While the discussions are occurring, the teacher is circulating the room and actively monitoring the class ensuring students are staying on task and each student is participating in the discussion. You may stop in at a group and ask a student to expand on an idea, check that a student’s argument is valid, or ask students to support their idea using evidence from their readings. You may also check that students are taking adequate notes and conducting sufficient research to analyze and discuss each support question- this will help them develop a strong position to their overarching question. Monitor the RTC discussions frequently to ensure that students are engaging in meaningful and relevant dialogue with one another during this time.
In the Example on the Free Trade RTC, I would be listening for some of the key vocabulary being studied on the topic. Are the students utilizing their resources to support their positions? Is there a constant relevant discussion happening with the student moderator challenging assumptions in the group answers? Are their discussion notes detailed?
D: After completing all of their discussions over the supporting/guiding questions students will then take either a pro position or a con position, based on what was discussed in their RTC. Along with selecting their position, students are required to state their reasoning behind their position, using information they’ve discussed or evidence they read in order for their group to eventually reach a consensus on the topic.
Remember, the guiding question for this lesson cycle is: “Is Free Trade Worth the Price?” Since students answered support questions that helped lead them to a conclusion on whether they are for or against Free Trade, they can now point to evidence from their discussion notes and cite evidence from their prep work to justify their position.
The challenge, of course, is to have the group reach a consensus on the overall groups position on the topic. The easiest way to approach this consensus is to allow the student moderator to conduct a final poll of the discussion group and receive each participant’s position. The moderator can then tally the position of each student in the group and select the majority position as the group’s final position.
3. Last: Finally, each discussion group will collaborate to participate in a final debate between groups. This can be approached in many ways- you can conduct a whole class debate between groups, you can require students to create a presentation for the class to explain their reasoning, you can assign a final position paper on their stance, or anything else that allows for more whole class discussion.
For example, in the AP Free Trade RTC, students might develop a slide show presentation to address the entire class. Individual students students would choose which questions they’ll address in the development of the presentation. The moderator would write the final statements related to the position the team took on the topic. Each group would then present to the class.
Round Table Circle Discussion can be extended over a longer period of time, or can be completed in less than 3 to 4 traditional classes. The focus is to engage students in deeper analsyis and discussion on complex topics you wish to present in your lessons, so the length of time may be dictated by the complexity of the topic students discuss.
To Conclude, the Round Table Circles formula for conducting in class debates is a fun and engaging way for students to engage in meaningful discussion through relevant content. This discussion strategy pushes students to develop their higher order skills while becoming grounded in a social emotional way by building both self-confidence and respect for their peers.