Teaching Is Problem Solving

Fostering Authentic Discussions in a Virtual Classroom

by Claire Riddell | February 15, 2021

As an educator, I believe that supporting authentic classroom discussions is one of the most important things we can do with our students. It is my hope that these discussions can be ones that don’t require hand raising or conversations with many people with their backs to one another. Instead, my hope is that students will have discussions in which they:

  • Actively listen to one another
  • Ask each other questions
  • Build on each other’s ideas
  • Invite those people whose voices haven’t been heard into the discussion

This is tough but rewarding work that builds community and increases engagement with the academic content

It took years of deliberate practice for me to learn how to orchestrate authentic classroom discussions. It continues to take a great deal of practice to facilitate communities of learners to have authentic discussions. Then came 2020. Much of that work seemed to get thrown out the window when we transitioned to distance learning. I was left wondering...How can discussion be authentic with a mute button, background noise, and a chat box?

I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of time in Zoom rooms and other videoconferencing platforms with students, teachers, and families during the last year. During that time, I’ve been experimenting with the tools available and the norms of behavior in the virtual setting. Here are four things that I have found supportive when facilitating virtual discussions.

1. Encourage a “Gallery” or “Tiled” View

Various platforms offer users the choice of how to view the other people in “the room.”  I have found that a “Gallery” or “Tiled” View is the equivalent of students sitting in a circle, so everyone can see each other throughout the discussion. In Zoom, there is a green outline that frames the image of the person who is talking. Encouraging students to follow the green framed image is the new version of the face-to-face prompt, “put your eyes on the speaker,” that we might use in a brick-and-mortar classroom. A “Gallery” or “Tiled” view allows each person to feel a part of the community and can provide the opportunity for each of us to “read the room” visually. This way we can all be intentional about when to lend our voice to the conversation and when to invite other voices into the conversation that may not yet have been heard.

2. Muting and Unmuting

Teaching students how and when to mute and unmute themselves is the new routine of distance learning. In an ideal world, all students would be unmuted at all times and could contribute freely to the conversation without the extra step of unmuting. The reality is that there are dogs barking, siblings talking, parents working, lawn mowers running, and a multitude of other background noises. In addition, the current videoconferencing technology doesn’t pick up multiple voices very well. For the sake of being able to actually hear the speaker, it is usually best to have everyone mute themselves unless they are speaking. A nice short cut to unmute that is available in some videoconferencing platforms is the space bar. Pressing the space bar keeps your microphone muted, but it temporarily unmutes you while the space bar is depressed. As a creator of the virtual room, you often have the power to mute participants. I encourage us all to use this power strategically. Instead of being the one to mute students, let’s consider how we can help them learn how and when to mute and unmute themselves. It is important to me that my students own their decision to lend their voice to the conversation or participate as a listener.

3. Commit to Think Time

Engaging in a virtual conversation is new for many of us, and it takes time for students to feel comfortable. Consider drastically increasing the amount of "think time” during virtual discussions. It can be intimidating to make the decision to unmute yourself and say something. Often there are a few voices that dominate the conversation, leaving little opportunities for those who need more time to process or formulate their idea to jump into the discussion. Two important things happen when everyone is asked to refrain from talking when a question is posed and again after comments are made. First, the expectation is communicated to all that we listen to each other and think deeply about what question was asked or what was shared. Secondly, on the more practical side, providing adequate think time allows everyone the opportunity to navigate to the unmute button or space bar to allow them to be heard by the group.

4. Use the Chat Box Strategically

Most platforms have an option to control the settings for the chat box, and I have developed a habit of considering when and how I want participants to use this feature. I don’t have a universal recommendation, but I offer a few questions that we should ask ourselves regarding the most appropriate use of the chat box.

  • What can the use of the chat box add to your goals for the lesson or session?
  • What questions are appropriate for the chat box, and what ones are better asked to be responded to verbally?
  • How can you build in time for students to play and explore with this tool prior to asking them to use it for academic purposes?

I hope these tips are helpful! What would you say are your tips for fostering discussion in virtual spaces? If you want to learn more about some of the work that continues to inspire me and push my thinking about classroom mathematics discussions check out the Hands Down, Speak Out blog by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson and the work of Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. Wishing everyone a safe and wonderful school year.