• darcymueller

Get Them Talking: Our Five Favorite Discussion Protocols

We believe that students’ retention is higher when they are given the time and space to verbalize their thoughts, and engage in a meaningful discussion. Early in teaching, we made a lot of assumptions about what students should be able to do. We quickly realized that students need to be taught the following skills:

  • How to build on each others’ ideas

  • How to respectfully disagree

  • How to ask clarifying questions

  • How to listen actively

  • How to enter a discussion

  • How to use evidence to support ideas

In order to teach these skills effectively, and provide students with the opportunity to practice, we have identified five of our favorite discussion protocols that we encourage you to consider trying with your students. If effective classroom communication and collaboration is an area you would like to grow in, these protocols can help your students engage in more meaningful discussions, and they can become routines and procedures that you use consistently in your classroom.

1) Piggybacking In this protocol, students practice active listening, which allows them to build on each others’ ideas and engage in a deeper discussion. Here’s how it works: 1. Place students in pairs. 2. Give the pairs a graphic organizer that looks like this:

3. Give students a question to answer. 4. Partner A answers the question, and Partner B records what s/he hears in the organizer. 5. Partner B answers the question, and Partner A records what s/he hears in the organizer. 6. Each partner writes about what they heard and what it made them think in the organizer. 7. Then each partner shares out what they wrote. 8. Repeat for a second question.

If your students need a scaffold to support them in summarizing what they heard and then responding to their partner, accountable talk stems are helpful in include on the organizer. Some examples:

When my partner said _________ it made me think________.

I agree with my partner because________.

I disagree with my partner because________.

I think my partner said_________, but this makes me wonder________.

My partner thinks________, but I think___________.

2) The Golden Line

In this protocol, students practice using evidence from the text to support their ideas in a discussion. Here’s How It Works: 1. Assign students a text. It can be a text they read in class or a text they read the night before. 2. Set a purpose for their reading. Ask students to write down a “Golden Line” or passage from the text that they feel is impactful/important. 3. Place students in small groups. 4. Students share their Golden Lines, and explain why they had impact. 5. Students then discuss which Golden Line rationale was most persuasive and why.

3) Square, Triangle, Circle In this protocol, students are provided with a frame for responding. After reading a text, they identify what squares with their thinking/makes sense to them, one important point that was made, and what questions they have/what is still rolling around their head. Here’s How It Works: 1. Assign students a text. It can be a text they read in class or a text they read the night before. 2. After students’ read the text, have them complete the Square, Triangle, and Circle protocol by writing their responses. 3. Facilitate a discussion where students use this frame to guide their responses and dialogue.

4) 3-Column Notes

This is something that came about after a student asked me how to think! It made me stop and really figure out how to articulate the critical thinking process: identify, connect, build. This is related to our Conscious Reading Skills we practice in class, but can be done independently.

Here's How It Works:

1. Provide students with an information source. I use the 3-Column Notes with TED Talks, articles, discussions, anything that allows students to think!

2. Students write down an important line from the information source.

3. In the next column, they articulate a connection by writing what it makes them think about.

4. The last column is for a question they think of when considering that particular piece of content.

I have students start with 3 important ideas, and then move up to 5. The next step in the 3-column notes process is for students to write a reflective piece that teaches organization of ideas. They literally write: The article/speaker/student said…., It made me think about... , I wonder... After posing the question, students then write 5 sentences to critically think about their question. They can ask more questions or hypothesize answers. The point is for them to demonstrate their consideration of the idea.

5. Slow-Motion Critical Thinking

This dives further into how to teach critical thinking. It makes discussions more in-depth and helps students become more aware of their thinking process. Again, I had to really step back and identify what is happening in my brain with I critically think in order to coach my students.

Here's How It Works:

1. Students should be in small groups--I use pairs to encourage better participation, but groups of up to 4 could work. Students should have a piece of paper or a white board to write on in their group with a t-chart drawn.

2. Have a prepared list of “hot topics” students would have strong opinions about. Some of the topics I include are: Longer school days, shorter school year, mandatory 2-year military service after high school, changing the age for a driver’s license, etc.

3. Have a dice (or I use Wheel Decide off of the internet), and list out the perspectives we consider when critically thinking. Here are a few:

Long term effects

Short term effects

Financial repercussions

Environmental effects

Effects on me personally

Effects on certain groups of people

How does it fit in the world/big picture

4. Before launching into this activity, I introduce the idea by asking something the students can relate to: If my daughter asks if she can spend the night at a friend’s house, what, as a parent, do I consider in an instant-- this is important because I want the students to realize how fast our brains work.

5. After a brief discussion, show one topic and have students write it down. Then roll the dice or spin the wheel.

6. On the left side of the T, students write down the perspective they are considering. On the right side of the T, students brainstorm the ideas related to the perspective you “rolled”. Share out after the brainstorm time.

7. Roll or spin again. Students write down the perspective on the left, brainstorm on the right. It is up to you how many perspectives you want students to consider for each topic.

This activity ties in with the 3-column notes well because it helps students come up with the question to ask in the third column.

This activity ties in with the 3-column notes well because it helps students come up with the question to ask in the third column.

Wheel of Decide

On the podcast episode you will hear use talk about how much we love all of these discussion protocols. We recommend that you try them all, but that you let the learning targets and objective for the lesson determine which protocol is the best fit. In addition, it is helpful to consider what particular communication skill you want your students to practice before you decide which protocol will be most helpful.

We would love to hear from you! What discussion protocols do you use in your classroom? Please email us at

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