Practical Teaching Ideas

Wouldn’t it be nice if language students could manage their own discussions?


Students managing themselves in a “Round Table” discussion is one example of a Collaborative Learning activity. Not only do they provide benefit to the students in developing learner autonomy, but as a teacher they can provide a new way to lead students in critical discussion.

In round table discussions, the teacher takes a back seat and does not engage in the discussion or in assisting the students with language issues. The purpose of this type of format is to develop interdependence and collaborative problem solving. It also supports a more free exchange of ideas by removing the teacher as the final authority on any subject matter. Students take the lead in the exchange of ideas among their peers and engage in a more robust dialogue than might otherwise occur when the teacher is involved. In an English classroom, it can be a great activity to build up to, and fits well at the end of a longer topical study.

The following video shows a small portion of such a discussion which took place at a Japanese university during a “Discussion and Debate” elective. It took place around lesson three of a unit covering various lifestyle issues.

Three of the group members were international students (one from Taiwan, and two from Saudi Arabia), and three of the group members were native Japanese students. The topic given for the discussion was simply Lifestyles, from there students led and managed the discussion themselves. The portion of the discussion shown in the video centers around gay marriage.

In the video you can see students taking roles within the discussion. One of the students has the role of creating the Small Map, which means he tracked the interaction between members of the group, drawing lines between members who communicate. The small map can be used to show which students are doing most of the communicating. Another role is Scribe; the scribe takes notes on discussion points made by group members. A third role is that of Moderator; the moderator’s duty is to manage the discussion and to try and involve all members in the discussion.

The student with the least English ability was given the role of small map. His job was to monitor who spoke and to whom; in this he was forced to actively observe the conversation. The theory here is that this will reinforce what little English vocabulary he does understand. The most advanced student was given the role of scribe in order to challenge her interpretation of the other students (even those of a very low level); this is also an important skill–especially for advanced learners. The most talkative student was given the role of moderator so that he would not monopolize the conversation but rather actively encourage others to join.

The students did not all agree on the issue. However, they were able to discuss it with civility in this intercultural context. In addition, language problems which arose were managed by the students themselves. There are moments of confusion, misused vocabulary, and reversion to Japanese; however, the students were successfully able to keep the discussion going in English and solve these language related problems together.

If you have a very large group, you can try variations of the Round Table, such as the Round Table Fishbowl, or Round Table Fishbowl Tap-out.

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