22 Strategies For Learning Through Conversation

22 Strategies For Learning Through Conversation

What Are The Best Strategies For Learning Through Conversation?

by Terry Heick

The title is self-explanatory enough: Let’s look at some ways for students to learn from one another in physical or digital classroom.

I’ve also marked which of these are also ‘digital and social media-friendly’–that is, useful online as well as off.

Update: I just realized that discussion strategies don’t necessarily have to be grouping strategies. Disagreeing, Devil’s Advocate, Redirecting, Extended Thinking, and countless other methods could be considered as collaborative discussion strategies. I’ll address those in another post.

22 Strategies For Learning Through Conversation

1. Rings (or ‘Concentric Circles’)

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Achievable

This is a strategy I used a lot in my ELA middle and high school classrooms.

The structure is to physically (or digitally) place students in circles of increasing size. The innermost circle may have as few as four students. The next circle or ‘ring’ might have eight, then the following 16, and so on. In fact, you could even use the same number of students in each ‘larger’ ring if that fits your application. As an example, a Fishbowl Discussion is a type of Rings Discussion.

The idea is to assign some function to each ‘ring.’ Some examples? The innermost group can take turns responding to a debatable prompt–the limits of freedom of speech, for example. The next ring would respond to the main points made but the first circle, either extending those points with elaboration or data or refuting each of their points with counter-points. Then the last circle could judge who had the most effective arguments or made important points that, with some clarifying, could have been even more rhetorically impactful.

But it doesn’t have to be debate. Each ring could perform a different ‘role’ much like literature circles: note-takers, researchers, vocabulary experts, paraphrasers, etc. The structure could also be used creatively, where each ring

You could also pick a historical event or figure or fictional character and have each ring explain/defend/describe something from a different perspective. In this way, rings are kind of like traditional groups but the group work is done synchronously and collaboratively.

Another strategy is to assign a different level of Bloom’s Taxonomy to each circle and have students use that level to dictate their role in a certain activity. You don’t even have to use Bloom’s–just increasing complexity and higher order thinking. Define or describe in the middle working toward analyze, evaluate, and transfer on the outside–or the other way around.

2. QFT

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

See What Is The Question Formulation Technique?

3. Stand & Declare

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

In this activity, students ‘stand’ (this could be at their desk with an elbow partner, in a small group, or in front of the entire class) and make a statement, respond to a prompt, communicate a working thesis, play devil’s advocate, take on the role of a historical figure, cite a line of poetry, etc.

The idea is to firmly and clearly articulate/declare something and then have other students participate somehow. They could create concept maps, take sketch notes, agree or disagree–or play some more cohesive function in small groups while the first student ‘takes a stand’ on some topic or issue. Whether the first student has to defend that statement or whether they simply articulate a clear point and pick the next student to respond is up to you.

This could be content-based, as well–flexible for almost any student to participate. For example, if you were studying calculating the area of a circle, you could ask students to stand and say anything true about the the process. A student struggling with the idea could at least tell you that a circle is 360 degrees while a student who has mastered the process already could

4. Debate

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

This one’s simple enough. Formal debate is as much about the process as it is the content itself, so plan accordingly. You could always give simple rules, provide basic question or answer stems, and have students ‘debate’ one another–or you, the teacher, assuming a person, place, or idea. (See more on that at number 11 below.)

See also Sentence Stems for Higher-Level Discussion

5. Paideia Seminar

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

You can read more about the Paideia Seminar here.

6. Seed Discussions

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

Seed Discussions are a kind of Literature Circle that combine close reading of a text through ‘seeds’: Adlit.org provides the following explanation:

“A Seed Discussion is a two-part strategy used to teach students how to engage in discussions about assigned readings. In the first part, students read selected text and identify ‘seeds’ or key concepts of a passage which may need additional explanation. In the second part, students work in small groups to present their ‘seeds’ to one another. Each ‘seed’ should be thoroughly discussed before moving on to the next.”

  • Leader: responsible for calling on each person to share his/her discussion seeds
  • Manager: ensures that everyone has all materials for the discussion (books, journals, seeds, etc.)
  • Checker: ensures that every group member has a chance to talk about his/her seed and that each group member comments on each seed before the next person presents a new seed for discussion
  • Communicator: the only person to leave the group; notifies the teacher when the discussion is complete

7. Socratic Seminar

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

You can read more here in What Is A Socratic Seminar?

8. Pair & Share

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Somewhat

A Pair & Share is a long-standing teaching strategy flexible in various contexts. The idea is that students pair–usually, as the name implies, in ‘groups’ of two–and share something. This could be used before a lesson as a kind of front-loading or after a lesson as an informal assessment or reinforcement and review. (For assessment, you could have students Pair & Share, then leave takeaways on an exit slip.)

9. Affinity Groups

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Somewhat

Another strategy for learning through conversation is to allow students to find certain groups that are ‘alike’ or ‘match’ something in your lesson. Students might have to find other people who agree with their stance on a topic or have a similar understanding on the immigration policy lesson you’re working through.

The idea is that students have to, through brief conversations, explain their point of view, make sense of the point of view held by their peers, then cluster in groups where their ‘beliefs’ and understandings are sufficiently parallel.

10. Fish Bowl

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

Read more about Fish Bowl Discussions here.

11. Role-Playing Interview

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

In this discussion strategy, students talk to ideas rather than one another, and the ideas talk back.

For example, you could ‘become’ literary symbolism or democracy or a mathematical concept or historical period or figure or Sodium Chloride–then let students ask you questions. You could also debate with students or help them debate one another, asking them to debate from their perspective or, again, from the perspective of others or other ‘things.’

12. Oxford Style Debate

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? With high school and university students, yes

Intelligence Squared is a wonderful example of Oxford Style Debate, which you can find here.

13. Agree/Disagree

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Somewhat

As a classroom discussion strategy, Agree/Disagree activities function by a moderator (usually the teacher) making compelling and debatable statements. In response, the students move to one of two (or four) sides of the room to reflect their stance. Before the discussion, the teacher will label either two sides ‘Agree/Disagree’ or four (Strongly Agree, Agree/Strongly Disagree, Disagree).

A variation is that you could require students to choose a side they don’t agree with (devil’s advocate) or you could let students choose their ‘position,’ then (once revealed) as them to take the opposite position.

14. Talking Circles

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

According to Alberta Education, “the purpose of the talking circle, used as part of classroom instruction, is to create a safe environment in which students can share their point of view with others. In a Talking Circle, each one is equal and each one belongs. Participants in a Talking Circle learn to listen and respect the views of others. The intention is to open hearts to understand and connect with one another.”

What Are Talking Circles?

15. Spoken Word Poetry or Music

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

Writing poetry or music isn’t a widespread skill or tendency most students have, but in certain classrooms–or for certain students in most classrooms–the ability to communicate creatively can be powerful for the student and their peers by establishing confidence, framing academic ideas in creative ways, and bringing joy (and strong emotions in general) to learning activities.

Hip-hop can also be taught as an ongoing cultural dialogic, for example.

16. Degrees Of Meaning

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Limited

In this activity, students arrange themselves in a line or some other shape to reflect the continuum of their beliefs about a topic.

A variation is to use this to teach vocabulary. For example, give students a collection of words representing a range (or ‘degrees’) of meaning. Scintillating, Bright, Gleaming, Reflective, Demonstrative, Glittering, Twinkling, etc. In small groups, you can assign a word to a student (or let them choose their own), then arrange themselves in a line representing what they believe to be an appropriate order they can explain or defend. To do this, students obviously have to know the words and discuss with their peers the distinctions of meaning between the terms.

This strategy can also be applied to other content areas. Use your imagination!

17. Literature Circles

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

Literature Circles allow students to assume a specific role in studying something (usually a text). Students are usually grouped in small groups of 4-6 students, with a range of student roles including Discussion Leader, Note-taker, Word-Finder, Time-Manager, Fact-Checker, Spokesperson, and more.

By being placed in groups, students learn through ongoing discussion with one another in a setting small enough that everyone can find a voice–and for many, unable to remain anonymous in the larger setting of whole class discussions.

You can read more about Literature Circles here.

18. Write-Around

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

In a write-around, students aren’t ‘talking’ but rather having a conversation through writing. It is limited in form but useful as both a way for students to build on one another’s understandings and as a way for you to informally assess what they know.

19. Podcasting

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

This one is more of a technology tool than a learning strategy, but it also very much functions as a learning strategy if used strategically.

At the most basic level, podcasts can encourage students to learn through conversation by (potentially) providing an authentic audience and product for a conversation. Put another way, the conversation ‘goes somewhere.’ A secondary function of using podcasts to promote learning through conversation is that they document the conversation. This can allow the conversation to be revisited, shared, analyzed, continued, scored, connected to other projects/media, etc.

20. Student-Led Conferencing

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

The conversation is limited to you and the student (and possibly their parents), but explaining and defending what they know and describing how they see themselves as students in your classroom can be incredibly informative at any point in the year.

20. Mentoring

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

This approach is usually integrated outside of the classroom, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, if all conversations by students are had inside a classroom, the chances of authenticity, personalization, transfer, etc, are all low. Students learning from intellectually nurturing professionals is among the most authentic learning experiences a student can have.

21. Peer-to-Peer or School-to-School Learning

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

This is a general ‘strategy’ that’s not useful for most teachers as a ‘tool,’ I added to this list to help illustrate the different forms of ‘classroom discussion’ that can (and do) occur that lead to students interacting, creating new knowledge, and sharing what they know with their peers.

22. Team-Building Games

Remote Teaching and eLearning Friendly? Yes

Team-building is one of the most overlooked strategies for learning through conversation and I really should have placed it much higher than this. In fact, I’m going to write more on this soon. For now, you can see examples of team-building games for critical thinking and team-building games for a friendlier classroom.

Other Strategies For Learning Through Conversation

Book clubs

Project-Based Learning

Art (create, criticism, etc.)


TED Talk-style monologues in the classroom

22 Strategies For Learning Through Conversation