Training Active Listeners to Become Leaders and Facilitators of Collaborative Discussions

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Collaboration.  That infamous buzz word we hear echoing through the hallways, in the teacher seminars, professional development, blogosphere, Pinterest, it’s everywhere.  And the one primary response most teachers give when presented with implementing collaboration in their classrooms, “That all sounds great, but it sounds like too much work.” 

So let’s start with the basics. Do you find it difficult to teach your students how to have collaborative conversations where they allow ONE person to talk at a time?  Then do you struggle with, not only how do I teach my students how to have one person talking at a time, but also how do I reinforce it? You can’t be present in 6 different conversations happening around the room, involved in every team’s conversation (What’s the progress on the whole clone-yourself situation?) and thus, one of the many reasons why teachers don’t like to use collaboration in their classrooms. 

Other common complaints teachers have about collaboration is:

  • It’s too loud, with everyone talking at once

  • It’s hard to manage (again, I can’t be in 6 places at once, come on genetic engineers!)

  • Students are constantly arguing and interrupting (Ok, can we stop talking about all the skins you’ve purchased for your Fortnite character?  You’re supposed to be discussing themes from By the Great Horn Spoon!)

  • It’s too difficult to quantify student learning from discussion.

I hear you.  I, too, have felt all these feelings, and for a long time they prevented me from putting in the work to facilitate healthy collaborative conversations amongst my students.  It was easier to avoid it and maintain some semblance of sanity (as I perceived it). Let me tell you, it is SO worth it to invest the time and effort into implementing collaborative conversations in your classroom, and you will not regret it.  

Here are 5 tips that will help you train your students to be active listeners who become leaders and facilitators of team discussions.

Our learners need to know that they are responsible for participating during discussions...
  1. The “buy in.”  Find a way to get your students all to agree on the importance of one person talking at a time. You can act out some scenarios of people interrupting one another or hold a conversation (depending on the grade level you teach).  But it’s crucial to engage in conversation with them where they all can agree that having one person speaking in a team is the most efficient way to have meaningful collaboration.  

  2. Accountability.  Hold your students accountable for their time during discussions. Our learners need to know that they are responsible for participating during discussions by either contributing ideas or actively listening.  This is the time to introduce the idea of a talking stick or chip. Here’s how it works: Each team receives one talking stick during discussion, which starts with a different person each time.  You can assign the first person to talk any way you choose, but I like numbering the desks at each table (1-4, or however many students sit in a team) and before I state the question, I will say, “Person number 2 will begin discussion”, then I say the question a few times to give students a moment to think about their answer before letting them begin discussing.  Then you can establish an order of speaking, such as the talking stick always moving in a clockwise direction from the starting person. This ensures that everyone will get a chance to speak, if enough time is given, and students contribute as they are handed the talking stick, they can’t just “pass” their turn. Or, if you allow students to pass if they are still thinking of an answer, they must be handed the stick once it goes all the way around the team so they can express their thoughts at that time.  

  3. Model it. Go through examples and non-examples of using a talking stick.  Give a scenario of what this would look like in the class, such as discussing a question about the novel you are studying.  This is my favorite time to demonstrate non-examples by interrupting their conversations with silly stories from my life to teach them how difficult it is to have a productive conversation while people are talking over each other.  Make sure to discuss with students throughout the modeling process as well. What did you observe there that was helpful to the conversation?  How did that make you feel when I kept interrupting you?  

  4. Practice it. Give students ample time to practice the skill immediately after this demonstration. You might decide to have one group act as a model while the rest of the class watches, and then discuss what went well and what could be improved.  Then, have each team take part in their own discussions while using the talking sticks.  

  5. Reinforce it. Walk around the classroom and redirect or affirm where necessary. I like to hand out Collaboration Feedback Cards as I listen in on their conversations. The Feedback Cards are placed on students’ desks when I notice they are being a Communication Champ, Kind Corrector, Listening Learner, or Participation Pro. I simply place these cards on the desks of students who are showing these skills.  Once you call the class back to attention, use the feedback cards to give constructive feedback in front of the whole class to certain students and teams so that everyone can benefit from the different successes and areas of growth needed for all the teams.  For more details on how to use these cards in your classroom read my article (coming soon) and snag it as a FREEBIE while you’re there. are the trainer of the next generation of leaders and facilitators.

Sound like a lot of work?  Well, I can’t pull a fast one on you, I mean you’re a TEACHER, so yeah, nothing gets past you.  Yes, it is a LOT of work. But aren’t there some phrases that we teach our own students: Most things worth doing take hard work, or YOU CAN DO HARD THINGS!  And let me tell you, now that you have the tools to hold your students accountable during cooperative learning activities, you can train your students to have productive collaborative conversations, and they will be their own facilitators who lead the conversations themselves!  It’s truly incredible to see how capable they are when you intentionally develop their communication and listening skills.  They will go on to lead and facilitate many more collaborative discussions in years to come and their teachers of the future will thank you, and their parents will thank you, and their future employers will not know who to thank, but they should be thanking you, because you are the trainer of the next generation of leaders and facilitators.  

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I want to hear from you, teachers!

Are you feeling overwhelmed by the thought of trying this out in your classroom?  What are some of your fears and misgivings?  I want to be your support!  


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