Teachers’ Perspectives On and Reported Use of Classroom Discussions


In the third year of the Talk Science research (2011–2012), we interviewed teachers in Grades 4 and 5 regarding their use of whole group discussions to support students’ science learning. The aim was to gain insight into teachers’ understanding of the role of science discussions, and their reported use of discussions for students’ learning.

We conducted pre–post interviews with Grade 5 teachers, interviewing them once prior to and once upon completion of the Inquiry Project curriculum and their participation in the Talk Science professional development program. The interviews with the Grade 4 teachers were conducted as post–interviews only after the teachers completed the Inquiry Project curriculum.

Grade 4 Talk Interviews 2011-2012

We interviewed nine teachers in Grade 4 across four schools upon their completion of the Inquiry Project curriculum to understand their use of whole group science discussions. Eight of the teachers had participated previously in the Talk Science professional development program during the 2010–2011 academic year, and were teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum for the second time in 2011–2012. One of the teachers in the sample was new to teaching Grade 4.

The interview questions were open–ended and prompted teachers to describe whole group discussions in their classroom and their facilitation of the discussions.

Findings from this analysis pertain to:

  1. teachers’ reported use of classroom science discussions;
  2. perceived benefits of whole group discussions;
  3. experiences teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum; and
  4. challenges in facilitating classroom discussions.

1. Reported Use of Classroom Science Discussions

Teachers’ responses reflected:

  1. a commitment to conducting classroom discussions;
  2. an awareness of the discussion component of the Inquiry Project curriculum;
  3. how the Inquiry Project discussions were different from those in their other science units; and
  4. evidence of changes in their discussion practices based on their experience with the curriculum.

All nine Grade 4 teachers reported doing discussions from the Inquiry Project curriculum. Further, all teachers reported doing discussions in other science units, primarily as a way to start and wrap up lessons. The frequency of wrap–up discussions varied for teachers, with some enacting discussions after every lesson and some at intervals throughout units.

All teachers reported having more frequent discussions in the Inquiry Project curriculum than with other science units. This was because the curriculum provided focus questions to guide the discussions. Three of the teachers explained that discussions in their other units focused more on “sharing-out”, such as designating one student from each small group to share the group’s findings. Two teachers described how they had modified other science units to include planned discussions like those in the Inquiry Project curriculum.

2. Perceived Benefits of Whole Group Discussions

Teachers’ commented that classroom discussions help improve students’ understanding. Noted benefits of discussion included: opportunity for students to share ideas with others, to resolve misconceptions, to answer questions or address confusions, and for students to hear their peers’ thinking. Teachers stressed the importance of students attending to their peers’ thinking, particularly to learn about alternative approaches and differing investigation results.

Teachers commonly talked about students’ sharing their individual thinking with peers, but didn’t explicitly describe students progressively building a shared, coherent argument together. There is only beginning evidence that teachers are using discussions as opportunities for students to “make meaning” in a more dialogic sense.

3. Experiences Teaching the Inquiry Project Curriculum

The eight Grade 4 teachers were teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum for a second time. They described having greater familiarity with the structure of the curriculum. They found it easier to set up the curriculum materials, and had better understanding of the goals of the curriculum.

Teachers found the discussions more feasible this time round. They identified the questions provided by the curriculum as particularly helpful in structuring and guiding student talk, and supporting students in responding to one another. They were more comfortable mediating discussions and more confident in their implementation of the curriculum.

4. Challenges Facilitating Classroom Discussions

Challenges described by teachers include: identifying when they should intervene and interject their opinions and when they should let the students carry on the discussion; difficulties ensuring equity in students’ participation; knowing the science well enough to facilitate the discussion and acknowledging gaps in their own understanding; the tension between responding to students’ misconceptions versus facilitating the discussion such that students resolve their own misconceptions.

Teachers seemed to have conceptualized their role as general facilitators helping students stay on topic and participate equitably. They less often described particular challenges of supporting science discussions, such as how to help students develop deeper science ideas through discussions.

Grade 5 Talk Interviews 2011-2012

We conducted pre/post interviews with eleven teachers in Grade 5 across five schools, once prior to and once after they finished teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum and participating in the Talk Science professional development program. Two teachers who co–taught the curriculum were interviewed together and their responses were examined as one interview, thus resulting in a total of 10 pre– and post– interviews for Grade 5.

The questions were open–ended in nature, inquiring into teachers’ use of whole group discussions in their science lessons, and into how they described the nature and qualities of productive whole group discussions. Teachers were encouraged to offer examples of how they facilitated whole group discussions. The analysis focused on identifying the extent to which teachers’ perspectives on the role of whole group discussions changed, and if they reported guiding whole group discussions differently after the Talk Science program.

The findings are organized into four categories to align with the questions asked during the interviews (note: there are some variations with the categories of Grade 4 talk interviews):

  1. making use of whole group discussions in science lessons;
  2. perceived benefits of whole group discussions;
  3. reported characteristics of the whole group discussions in their classrooms; and
  4. factors affecting teachers’ continued use of whole group discussions for science.

Although teachers’ responses to the interview questions are self–report data, when possible, we corroborate teachers’ reported accounts with findings from the analysis of classroom science discussions (see section on Teachers’ Facilitation of Classroom Science Discussions).

1. Making Use of Whole Group Discussions in Science Lessons

We asked teachers whether they did whole group discussions during science lessons, and if they did, when in the course of the lessons the discussions tended to occur.

Pre–interviews: All but two teachers reported doing some form of whole group discussions in their science lessons. The discussions generally occurred at the beginning and at the end of a lesson or a unit, functioning as introduction and wrap–up for the lessons. Teachers described having introductory discussions to prompt students’ thinking or to identify their prior ideas, and wrap–up discussions to review the main ideas in the lesson. The response below illustrates this pattern:

“I mean [science lessons] almost always have to start out [with a whole group discussion] because ... just to understand what’s going on or ... what’s the purpose. And they have to end that way or at least have the next day some sort of a wrap up ... It’s the “here’s what we’re going to do.” If we don’t do the “well what did we discover, what did we find out, why did we do that, did it work”, then you’re kind of missing something.”

Only one teacher mentioned having discussions spontaneously to bring students together when she thought they might benefit from talking together. Along with introductory discussions and a “wrap–up”, she would conduct discussions in the middle of the lesson if students raised several questions.

One teacher commented that her classroom discussions did not usually involve an inquiry approach like the Inquiry Project curriculum’s concept–cartoon discussion that she conducted at the start of the curriculum.

Two teachers cited reasons for not having regular whole class discussions. One described her uncertainty with ensuring adequate participation of students during whole group discussions. The other said that the curriculum did not lend itself to discussions. These teachers relied on other instructional practices, such as small group work and partner work, and asking students to “find out information” and write claims and evidence as part of a research–based instructional approach.

Post-interview: After teaching the Inquiry Project curriculum and participating in the Talk Science professional development program, we asked teachers whether they used whole group discussions in subsequent science units or if they planned to use whole group discussions in the future. Their responses reveal positive shifts in their discussion practices.

Teachers described having incorporated whole group discussions as an integral part of their science lessons:

“You know, there are many science discussions every day, because we just can’t really have a science class without meeting at the rug and either predicting or talking about something we did. So sometimes they’re real in depth, when I’m introducing a new concept, or midway through, or we just did an experiment. But typically it’s every day. There’s no “just do worksheets” and it’s over. It’s “they have their journals.” We have the experiences and then talk about them.”

This shift was also noted for teachers who previously reported not doing whole group discussions. They now described discussions as a regular part of their lesson structure in other science units; they were enthusiastic about discussions; and they were confident in their ability to lead discussions with over twenty students in the classroom. One said that she now saw discussions as opportunities for on-going learning, not only as a way to wrap up lessons:

“A discussion is not just the conclusion anymore. Typically it was we did all these activities and had a conclusion. But midway, just stopping, asking questions, kind of checking in, the whole data conversation ... ”

Further, the practice of having discussions at multiple points in a lesson persisted after participating in the Talk Science program:

“I do it in the beginning to get them thinking and to brainstorm ideas and predictions and just to warm up their brains. I might do it midway through when I’m starting to see people drifting off on a different tangent, perhaps they’re not quite grasping what it is I wanted them to find so I’d bring them back and then have a discussion ... and then at the end do sort of a post–assessment, if you will, like a formative assessment, to see what they’ve learned.”

Finally, most teachers continued to describe their present practice at conducting discussions in terms of an introduction and wrap–up structure:

“We always do an introduction at the beginning of what the concept is we’re doing and then they have whatever the exploration is and then they share out whatever the results of their exploration was depending on what the unit is and then we summarize it and move on with the next thing.”

2. Perceived Benefits of Whole Group Discussions

In the pre–interviews, teachers identified whole group discussions as places for students to hear their peers’ ideas, but in the post–interviews, their perception shifted to viewing whole group discussions as opportunities for students to build ideas together.

Pre-interviews: Teachers said whole group discussions allowed students to share ideas and hear different perspectives, and commonly viewed discussion as opportunities for students to describe what they knew rather than as dialogue in which students developed ideas collectively:

“Well they get to hear things that they might not have come up with, or they may get validated if they have — maybe in their smaller group they were the only ones who were kind of thinking this, but now, oh, there’s someone else who’s thinking along my same lines.”

“But I’d like to see more kids participate in the large group discussion too because I think their classmates are interested in what people are saying ... I think it gives kids a chance to hear other kid’s ideas. I mean I can tell them what I’m thinking about things but I think it’s helpful for them to see other kids or hear other kids talk about the ideas they have.”

A few teachers commented that discussions provide opportunity to assess students’ understanding of an idea or concept; in allowing students to share out their thinking, discussions teachers found discussions to be a more reliable means of assessing student ideas than tests.

“First of all, I think that I would probably have a better understanding of who gets it and who doesn’t — not just from [what] they’ve written on a test or something like that ... They might have answered a question, multiple choice, or fill–in the blank but really they don’t understand it.”

A notable exception to the tendency to view whole group discussions as “sharing out” was the response of a teacher who had participated in the Talk Science program in the preceding year. In the pre–interview, she said that whole group discussions allowed students to think together and respond to each other’s questions:

“The reason why I like whole group discussions is that it produces more thinking, it produces more questioning, and it also produces more learning ... ”

Post-interviews: The view of discussion as co–construction of ideas was more evident in the post–interviews where teachers began to talk about students thinking together and building ideas together during discussions:

“[A whole group discussion] allows kids to work through ideas they have or misconceptions that they might have, things that they’re wondering about, stoking their curiosity.”

“They can learn from each other, consolidate their thinking, or enhance what they’re thinking about. I also think, and it also helps to kind of identify some misconceptions in sort of a non-threatening way.”

3. Perceived Characteristics of Whole Group Discussions

Did teachers report changes in their classroom discussions? This question was important to explore as it would point to possible changes in the culture of classroom talk, changes in teachers’ facilitation of discussions, and changes in students’ participation during discussions.

To address the question, we asked teachers to describe their whole group discussions, their students’ participation, and what was working during the discussions. Teachers’ responses revealed several shifts in the nature of their whole group discussions.

Pre–interviews: Teachers reported using introductory discussions to find out what students’ preliminary understandings about a topic. Again, teachers characterized discussions largely as times when students shared their ideas, with the exception of one teacher who talked about encouraging students to generate hypotheses during the introductory discussions.

Teachers used wrap–up discussions to allow students to report out what their small group conversations, and to hear their peers’ thinking. They did not describe students as engaging in discussions with their peers. Rather, their classroom discussions reflected a more monologic pattern:

“I’ll usually just pick one student [from the group]. I’ll say person in seat number two, share out what your group was saying ... I let one person from each group share out and then if any other units or groups have already gone, then I allow them to add to it if they want.”

One teacher talked about student–to–student interactions with reference to what she’d like to do in the future, rather than what was presently happening in her discussions:

“I think everything is there, and I’m not opposed or afraid of trying anything, it is just how can I use my time more efficiently? I want to give them more kid–to–kid talk time and then kind of back off a little bit.”

Post–interviews: By contrast and as mentioned previously, in the post–interview responses, four significant shifts were observed through teachers’ comments:

a. Decrease in the amount of teacher talk

One of the first steps that teachers may make when moving from share–out toward co–construction is to step back and let students talk more with each other. Certainly, one of the challenges is to ensure that the teacher is not entirely absent in the discussions (which we address in the section on “Factors affecting teachers’ continued use of whole group science discussions.”). Yet, one of the key indicators of a shift toward greater co–construction may be that students do more talking.

In the post interviews, teachers reported they were talking less during discussions. Eight of the ten teachers indicated that the discussions were more “student–led.” They now described their role as being less directive, as a facilitator who keeps the discussion moving by using the academically productive talk moves introduced in the Talk Science program. They added that their students were showing greater responsibility at guiding their own discussions:

“I don’t have to facilitate as much. I mean, depending on the topic. But they have become more independent ... I didn’t have to call on kids. They would call on each other.”

“[Y]ou can push [students]. Still you say, you remind them. Who can rephrase that? Or who can challenge them? Can you challenge? Can anybody challenge that opinion and tell me why?”

Teachers’ perception that they were talking less during classroom discussions is consistent with the analysis of their concept–cartoon discussions, which showed that teachers took fewer turns at talk than their students in the post–discussions than the pre–discussions (see section on Teachers’ Facilitation of Classroom Science Discussions).

b. Increase in student–to–student talk

Half of the teachers mentioned explicitly that students were talking more directly and listening to their peers’ ideas:

“More kids are participating ... And they are talking to each other, which is the goal. They’re respectfully disagreeing.”

“They are starting to understand ... that they are responsible for what other people are thinking and saying, not just their own and not just mine ... So it’s not just wait passively, get the answer from the teacher and move on. It’s got to be I have to think about what’s going on myself. I have to think about what someone else’s thinking about what’s going on. I have to compare my views to their views. I have to come up with evidence or something that’s going to sway me one way or the other.”

In the second comment, the teacher’s description points to a shift in how her students were beginning to understand they are responsible for attending to, listening, and responding with evidence to other’s ideas. This shift in students’ awareness is important for co–constructing knowledge through discussions.

Further, teachers described that students were not just sharing their ideas but were now also responding to other students’ ideas:

“[T]hey definitely were engaged in what other people were saying. It wasn’t just like an individual thing ... If I look at my classroom discussions last year, it would be, people would share what they had to think. But there wasn’t any adding on or connecting or, you know, going further ... I think it’s more student–run. I feel like the kids have a better understanding of what a discussion sounds like and ... how to respond to people differently. I think they listen to what the people have to say.’

This comment is consistent with our analysis of their concept cartoon discussions, which indicated that students attempted more often in the post–discussions than pre–discussions to build their science understanding together with peers (expressing agreement/disagreement with peers’ ideas; asking for and offering clarification of ideas; restating peers’ ideas; challenging peers’ ideas; and building on peers’ ideas).

c. More students participate

Teachers reported greater student participation in the discussions. Two teachers talked about students participating who previously would not have.

“[E]arlier in the year, it would be my top students ...that would participate, where ... the others ... would say, ”Oh, they know it, let’s just let them speak.” So now I feel like they have developed confidence to say what they know, too ... because they’ve had more opportunities to prove to each other and prove to themselves that they do have a lot they can contribute to the class.”

“I think they feel really smart and ... they just sort of sit up taller when they have their little notebook there with what their findings are. So I think ... that goes along with the confidence. So they’re really talking to each other. It’s that comfort level within the classroom. They’re looking at data and not so much at who the person is that&rsqs making a statement.”

d. Increase in students’ use of data and evidence

In the post–interviews, we asked teachers how the Inquiry Project curriculum had changed their students’ understanding about participating in science discussions. All of the teachers reported greater student awareness of justifying their claims with evidence. One of the teachers also described that her students knew they needed to be specific in offering ideas to the discussion. Students were more likely to draw on ideas learned in the curriculum to support their claims, and had begun to use evidence and data to support their claims:

“I think the Inquiry Curriculum ... has really helped [students] to think outside the box, and stretch out their thinking ... given them more confidence to say what they want to say, say it respectfully without offending, and back up their thoughts with evidence. This helps them to come up with hypotheses by thinking out loud.”

“They wouldn’t say, well, the temperature went up. They’d now talk about why they think the temperature went up and what they would see if they were molecules ... They really have a little more understanding than just, say, it got hotter.”

Teachers’ comment that students were providing more evidence for their claims, and calling upon science ideas in the curriculum is consistent with our analysis of the concept cartoon discussions. We found that students were more often referring to science principles and their investigations in the curriculum in the post-discussions than in the pre–discussions.

4. Factors Influencing Teachers’ Continued Use of Whole Group Science Discussions

Most teachers were keen on having whole group discussions in other science units after completing the Inquiry Project curriculum and the Talk Science professional development program. Factors influencing teachers’ continued use of discussions are as follows:

a. Role of well–designed curriculum materials

In the post–interviews, teachers acknowledged the importance of curriculum and the benefits of explicit support and prompts for guiding whole group discussions. For example, the Inquiry Project curriculum’s support for discussions made it feasible for them to conduct more interactive discussions in their classrooms. Teachers recognized the usefulness of having guiding questions, prompts and discussion formats.

Two teachers expressed uncertainty with having discussions in other science units because the units did not explicitly support inquiry–style discussions. These teachers did not talk about modifying other units to support discussions.

b. Timing of the curriculum

Teachers described teaching science units like the Inquiry Project curriculum early in the school year to help students learn how to engage in science discussions. They explained that the curriculum introduces students not only to science content but also to scientific practices and norms of discourse. Learning scientific practices and norms earlier in the school year would enable students to draw on these skills during subsequent science units:

“I think that I would do the whole entire TERC unit at the beginning of the school year because it is so organized and hands on, it really lends itself to the rest of the year and it’s a way to get kids excited and engaged about science ... There is a purpose to it, there’s a certain flow, there’s a certain language which is why I think it is much more valuable to start the school year like that then to wait a couple of months into the school year.”

c. Management of classroom time

A key challenge for the teachers was finding adequate time for discussions. Unless time was carefully managed, the investigation activity would take the full period and not allow sufficient time for discussion. Differences in students’ pace also compounded this problem, because not all students were ready for discussions when these were scheduled during lessons. Time is a challenge reported by all teachers.

d. Tension between supporting students in thinking together and ensuring deeper learning

In the pre–interviews, teachers focused on student participation; maintaining a balance between student and teacher talk; and managing the tension between student–guided discussions and staying on topic. These issues persisted in the post interviews.

Two teachers explicitly talked about supporting substantive and robust science discussions in the pre–interview. They pondered the quality of their discussions, and their struggle to deepen students’ science understanding:

“I was going to say, maybe to go deeper ... and by deeper, I mean if they all said, “oh, we think that it’s definitely air has weight, because ... we weighed the balloon, and the balloon had weight when we blew it up.” So like, to go deeper than that, I wanted to be able to do that. But I didn’t know where to go.”

The same teacher reiterated her point in the post–interview:

“I think I need to make it go deeper, instead of just being accepting of, OK, this is, yes, you did connect to that, or, oh, yeah, OK. You know, adding on. I just feel like I want to go deeper. I want ... them to be able to think beyond.”

Another teacher described specifically what she wanted to improve in her science discussions. This teacher wanted to ensure that her students not only constructed claims and used evidence during discussions, but also that they drew on robust evidence. This comment was a rare instance where a teacher talked about the quality of students’ contributions to the discussions:

“I definitely want to improve the actual content of the claims and evidence. You know, they were just dabbling in it. This was the first time. But I’d want to practice that a lot more — because that was new to me.”

These reflections are notable because they represent potential next steps for teachers in supporting productive science discourse. As students contribute more ideas during discussions, teachers need to listen carefully, understand the ideas that are emerging, and support students in thinking together. At the same time, they need to keep in mind the purpose of the discussion, where the talk is going, and how to ensure that the discussion contributes to deeper learning of the science.