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Talk about it! Using discussion to extend and enhance student research.


The class had been researching the American Revolution for two days. Both library periods had started with mini-lessons, one demonstrating how to locate primary sources on the Internet, the other introducing some historical reference books. The third day, however, was going to be different. I began by asking, "Did you discover anything that surprised you?" One student volunteered that he had not expected John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers and a future president, to defend the British after the Boston Massacre. Another student, whose research focused on Samuel Adams, was eager to point out some philosophical differences between the two cousins. A student studying Paul Revere told how important Revere's engraving had been in shaping the public's view of the Boston Massacre. She added that she was no longer sure the event qualified as a massacre. "It could have been-you know--media hype."

"Did anyone else find a hero of the Revolution taking an unexpected position or doing something that might be considered unethical?" I inquired. More examples emerged of the conflicts faced by people of the time. Businessmen such as John Hancock were frequently guided by profit and self-interest. Many Virginians had initially been reluctant to break with England. For some listeners, especially those who had been absorbed in the battles and strategies of military history, this was the first time the ideological struggles had come into focus.

The discussion ended too soon, for others still had something they wanted to say; yet, it ended just in time because many were eager to see if this new direction might lead to interesting discoveries. Students began their research with a high level of energy. Many checked the indexes of their books for key words that had emerged during the discussion. Others tried a reference book or web site that someone had mentioned. Some were soon sharing an exciting discovery with a classmate. The class now seemed unified; students realized that all of their topics were part of a larger whole. They understood that what they were learning might be interesting to their classmates and might shed light on others' topics. This was exactly what I had been aiming for, but although the discussion seemed to flow effortlessly, a good deal of planning and strategizing had gone into making it happen.


Exciting discussions such as this one always start with good questions (see Figure 1 for qualities). The exploration of the Boston Massacre was unleashed by a simple inquiry, one that works well at the beginning of almost any unit: Did you discover anything that surprised you? A student might respond with just about anything, but surprise is a Fertile field because it is usually linked to real feeling. Moreover, an amazing discovery, such as John Adams's defense of the British, can prompt deep thinking, thus leading to new questions on the part of the rest of the class.</p> <pre> FIGURE 1 Good Questions Good questions: * require higher level answers, not regurgitation; * permit unique answers; * demand evidence and can be followed up with "Why?"; * are interesting to you and your students. </pre> <p>As students progress into their research, questions should still allow for divergent answers, but they will become specific and tied to the topic under study. Here is an example. Sixth-grade students had been rotating through stations on the civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya for more than a week. They had acquired a wealth of information and participated in three discussions, each focused on a different question (see Figure 2). Then, they were told to imagine that they could go back in time and live with one of the cultures. Which one would they choose? They were given a few minutes to consider their answers.</p> <pre> FIGURE 2 Aztec, Inca, Maya Questions 1. What have you discovered that's interesting or surprising? 2. In what ways is one of these cultures similar to ours? Different? 3. Does one of these cultures have a custom that would be useful in our own culture? 4. If you could go back in time and choose to live in one of these cultures, which one would you choose? 5. What might Latin America be like today if native cultures had defeated the Spanish? </pre> <p>The qualifications in their responses showed that they saw complexities and subtleties in the cultures. A girl declared, "I would be a Maya boy and live in the city where all the writers and artists lived." A boy wanted to be an Inca "but only a wealthy Inca": "The life of the ordinary people was too hard." This provoked a debate about whether it was better to be rich or poor in Inca society. There were pros and cons on both sides.

In any discussion, the teacher-librarian plays a quiet but pivotal role by asking follow-up questions that encourage learners to think deeply and that provide reasons for a response. After three discussions, these sixth-graders expected this, and they were ready with evidence to support their answers.

A clarifying question--I this what you meant?--can elicit a specific response. In replying to a query about cultural similarities, a student volunteered that the Incas had a well-organized government like our own. "Do you mean their pyramidal hierarchy?" I inquired, expecting him to describe the way the government was organized. Instead, he offered evidence of the government's effectiveness by pointing out that the Incas collected taxes and conducted a census. Another student then chimed in with a clear description of exactly how the Inca government was organized. A third talked about the quipu, the Incas' mathematical tool that made it all possible.

Whether you guess at what a student is trying to say or simply restate what you think you heard in different words, you are probably going to be surprised by the number of times you will miss a student's point. Restatements and clarifying questions move the discussion forward. They also help you and your students become better listeners (Cazden, 2001; Dillon, 1988).

Writing good starter questions and asking follow-up questions gets easier after you have taught a specific research unit several times, because you have an increased knowledge of the subject being studied. The follow-up question about Revolutionary War figures' taking unexpected positions came from my awareness that, indeed, many of them had taken such positions. Likewise, my understanding of the structure of Inca government had grown while helping students make sense of it. I keep a file of questions that have worked well in the past, along with possible new ones to try in the future.

Discussions can wander all over the place unless you are careful to keep them focused. Keep asking if anyone has anything more to contribute before moving on to a new topic. It would have been unfortunate to drop the Inca government before everyone had his or her say, just because someone was eager to extol the virtues of Aztec engineering. Taking a poll of the whole class--asking who agrees or disagrees with a statement--can also extend analysis. Because everyone has now taken a position, you can ask those who have not spoken to explain their votes.


Everyone should speak during the course of a research unit (Burbules, 1993), and polling is one way to involve nonparticipants. A number of other techniques accomplish this as well. At the beginning of a unit, you need a high level of excitement, so it makes sense to call on the most enthusiastic volunteers. If you always do this, however, many students will never speak.

Use an attendance sheet to mark who speaks each day. After two sessions, highlight students who still have not spoken. You will have observed some of them listening intently to their classmates. Next time, lead off with one or two of the listeners. These learners almost never volunteer to speak--they are usually more comfortable expressing themselves in writing--but when called upon, they always have something insightful to say.

There are also voiceless students whose attention has simply been elsewhere. They may wear the label "lazy with pride" and make a point of doing as little as possible. They have their stock response ready: "I do not know." The stock rejoinder should be, "Think about it for a few minutes and be ready when I get back to you." You can also try to catch them doing something right. As I circulate during research time, I keep a weather eye out for the resisters. For example, Jeremy had been sleepwalking his way through a unit on desert cultures. Now, as he sat before the computer, something in his posture was different; he appeared alert and engaged. "It's the Uighur," he said, "They have a web site! They say they are being persecuted by the Chinese government." When students like Jeremy make an amazing discovery, they are eager to share it during the next discussion.

The desert cultures assignment required students to learn about both the religion and the government of their groups. Jeremy's discovery showed how these topics might intersect. The Muslim faith of the Uighur was a factor in their oppression; their plea for help put a human face on the issue. Jeremy's classmates were interested. They began wondering how "their" group was treated by the majority culture. They realized that the Internet made it possible for minorities to tell the world about their difficulties. Jeremy found himself in an unusual and gratifying position. Students were excited about his discovery. It led them to ask new questions about their own topics and adopt new strategies for answering them.

This incident proved to be a turning point for Jeremy. He went delving into periodical databases and world newspaper sites. He became interested in all the cultural information in books that he had previously declared boring; now, he really needed to know about things such as the environment and the economy of the Uighur. He continued to share his discoveries with his classmates. Best of all, his enthusiasm carried over into his next research assignment.


Successes like this are great, but the process of involving students in thoughtful discussions is generally less dramatic. First, make inclusion a goal; then employ strategies to reach that goal. Once you start using discussion, you will have notes from preceding units--perhaps as simple as marked-up attendance sheets--to remind you about the past performance of a class. Some students have a knack for becoming invisible. By remembering who they are, you can work to include them. A few simple techniques will help you recognize your students and connect their names with their faces. Last year's students will be in last year's yearbook. All current student photos are usually accessible in the main office or in a file on the network server. Your circulation system may also contain student photos. If you have a hopeless memory, have students make UN-style name placards.

Using three-by-five name cards for every student will raise the level of alertness. To choose who will answer, pull a name from the pile without looking. Anybody's name might be called, so students know that they must be thinking, not just relying on classmates who are always eager to answer. Sometimes, it is wise to stack the deck a bit by making sure your first choice is an enthusiastic student who unfailingly has something to say.


In addition to beginning with good questions and attempting to include everyone, a few other strategies promote thoughtful discussions. Wait time is absolutely essential if you wish to show students that you are serious about wanting them to participate (Stahl, 1994). Waiting 30 seconds while students reflect can seem like an eternity, but it shows that you value thinking and are willing to wait while they do it. It also shows that you are serious about involving the entire class, not just those who always have a ready response.

Some furniture rearrangement can be helpful. When students face each other in a circle, they are more likely to make eye contact with the speaker and listen intently. This promotes involvement and allows the conversation to flow (Cazden, 2001). My instructional area is always arranged in a semicircle. If a permanent arrangement is not possible, students can always drag chairs into a temporary configuration.

Sometimes it may prove useful to have everyone consider the day's focus question for a few minutes before beginning. Laura was the very model of a shy but thoughtful student. Her writing was a pleasure to read, but she had never volunteered an answer during a class discussion. One day, I gave everyone a few minutes to write about the focus question. Laura scribbled away. When she was asked to lead off the discussion, she was ready with her response and comfortable giving it.

Similarly, a brief conversation with just one other student can serve as a warm-up. Students studying planets were told to turn to a neighbor and find an important difference between their planets. Everybody had something that he or she believed to be highly unusual. Sometimes they received the expected amazed reaction. It gets how hot? It takes how long for one revolution? Sometimes they were surprised by a commonality such as "My planet has volcanoes, too." Digging deeper, they discovered that Mars has four skyscraper volcanoes whereas Venus has thousands of small ones.

Once the full class convened, excited neighbors encouraged each other to share. Everyone was fascinated by the volcanoes. Why were they so different? When students were satisfied with the explanations, the focus broadened to terrain. A student with a gaseous planet explained how this type of planet was different from terrestrial types. Another student noted that the terrain of moons orbiting the gas giants could offer clues about the planet's formation. Once again, the discussion ended too soon but with the promise that the next talk would begin with climate. As students started their research, one girl approached me. "Can you help me figure out the seasons on my planet?" she asked. "I'm not sure I understand them, and I think I need to."

Despite your best efforts, some classes may still produce lackluster discussions. They may be without leaders who can model deep thinking and risk taking. Students may be hesitant to go out on a limb with an unusual insight, or they may believe that success comes from following the rules and giving the right answer. It is not a cure-all, but giving "extra" credit may help. Your collaborating teacher can give credit for simple participation, for an extremely thoughtful response, or for follow-up research on a question raised during discussion. Also worth remembering is the fact that just because a class does not have the most dazzling discussions, it does not mean that students do not find such discussions rewarding.


By now you may be asking, Exactly how often should I have these discussions? Consider an ideal situation where you see a class for a total of 6 to 10 days. A number of contexts can make this possible, even likely, such as in upper elementary grades where the school library has a flexible schedule; in middle schools where work is often project oriented; and in secondary schools with block schedules, where the longer periods work best with a variety of activities. For these longer units, alternate discussions with mini-lessons on skills. Neither the skills lesson nor the content discussion should take much more than 10 to 12 minutes. Sometimes these two activities connect: a lesson on locating primary sources can lead to the next day's question, How did a primary source expand your understanding of your topic? When you already have a well-regarded instructional program, it is fairly easy to integrate content discussions into your program.

You can fit two discussions into a 1-week unit. By the beginning of the 3rd day, students will have acquired enough information to have a conversation of some depth. They will still have time to dig deep because of the connections and inspirations that emerge. A culminating discussion adds focus to the final day of research. Even a 2-day unit can be enriched by asking students to share their amazing discoveries.

Long units with discussion are usually the most effective. Discussions at the start of class send students off ready to research and raise the excitement level by prompting new questions and hypotheses. They also raise the bar as students begin to search for information that may answer their questions and prove or disprove their hypotheses. Try to persuade a teacher to engage in an experiment with you; lengthen a 1-week unit by 1 day, thus making room for 3 days of discussion. If you have both done this unit before, you should be able to evaluate the impact of the discussions.


As you debrief together, each of you has an opportunity to reinforce your colleague's understanding of the inquiry process (Stripling, 2003). Point out how students' contributions and connections expanded everyone's background knowledge, thereby providing a broad context for understanding individual topics. Be sure to highlight the new questions, predictions, and hypotheses that emerge. As students research, call attention to those who are eagerly pursuing answers to questions raised or seeking supporting data for a new hypothesis. As the unit progresses, watch to see how earlier discoveries inform and expand later class deliberations.

When students return to the classroom, your collaborator should remain alert for further impacts of the inquiry process on student learning. Do final projects express a deep understanding? Do they seem thoughtful and original? Do students appear to remember what they have learned long after the unit is over? Do they continue to apply what they have learned to new topics of study?

As with anything new, start small, and stories of your success will spread. You can expect others to receive the news with interest.

Discussion is a worthwhile addition to research units because it provides time for students to reflect on the information they are gathering while they are gathering it. Their ideas and perceptions may connect with those of others in the class--or challenge them. Perhaps they will agree; perhaps they will argue. Perhaps they will decide they need to know more before reaching a conclusion. Learning can be exhilarating when it is a community activity, not a competition. Discussion prompts many to achieve insights they might never have reached and to dig deep for information they might never have sought.

Feature articles in TL are blind refereed by members of the advisory board. This article was submitted May 2005 and accepted September 2005.


Burbules, N. C. (1993). Dialogue in teaching: Theory and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dillon, J. T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Stahl, R. J. (1994). Using "think time" and "wait time" skillfully in the classroom. Retrieved March 25, 2005, from

Stripling, B. K. (2003). Fostering literacy and inquiry. School Library Journal/Learning Quarterly, 49(9), 5.

Virginia Rankin, a teacher-librarian for 25 years, recently retired to devote her time to writing and consulting. She is the author of The Thoughtful Researcher: Teaching the Research Process to Middle School Students (1999). She can be reached at
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Author:Rankin, Virginia
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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