Evaluating school classroom discussion
Evaluating school classroom discussion

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2. Evaluating classroom discussion

2.1 Evaluating discussion

The discussion of talk amongst children in Chapter 6 of Words and Minds is concerned with the adequacy of that talk for ‘getting things done’. The next activity will allow you to attempt a reduced version of a similar evaluation. It will also allow you to compare your evaluation with that provided by one of the course team (in comments following each example). And, finally, it may also allow you to consider the extent to which you feel such evaluations are valid and useful.

Activity 3: Evaluating discussions (1)

Timing: (allow up to 2 hours)

Examine the following two sequences, which are extracts from classroom discussions involving two sets of children (all aged 12–13). In each of the sequences, the children have been asked to try to complete a specific task together (as is explained before each sequence). When reading each sequence, consider the following questions:

  1. How ‘on task’ does the talk seem to be?

  2. How well does the discussion operate as a forum for sharing relevant information, evaluating ideas and reaching joint decisions?

  3. Does everyone in the group participate to a similar extent? If not, why do you think this is so? Does unequal participation matter?

Compare your own answers to these questions with the evaluative comments below.

Sequence 1

This sequence comes from the discussion of a group of four pupils (two girls and two boys) about the causes of vandalism. Preparation for this included reading an interview with the leader of a gang (called Ron) who regularly engaged in such behaviour; and the children were prompted by the question: ‘What do you think this interview tells you about the cause of vandalism?’

At the point the extract begins, Robert has just rejected the idea that young people engage in vandalism because they ‘aren't given enough things to do’.

Robert: Oh I, I don't, I, I think it's partly that, but if you get some people that, really want to be vandals, really want to smash things up just for't pleasure of it, and you get some that an't owt better to do so they just go around smashing things up. It's a bit daft really, in't it …?

Christine: Say summat, Margaret (whispered)

Margaret: You an't said owt yet (whispered)

Christine: I've said ‘Yeah’, ‘Yeah’ (whispered)

Robert: Do you think Ron's any good?

Christine: No.

Margaret: Do you think Ron's what? (said aggressively)

Christine: He dun't give, he dun't give good answers.

Robert: No, he just said that he wanted to be ‘somebody’. He could have been somebody if he worked hard couldn't he, instead of …

Margaret: (interrupting) Yeah, but not like that.

Robert: Instead of, he always wanted to make people be frightened of him.

(Source: Barnes and Todd, 1995, pp. 52–3)


The discussion in Sequence 1 does not seem to make much progress, nor to show much commitment on the part of the participants. This is despite the fact that the topic of vandalism is one on which most teenagers could be expected to have some opinion. While Robert is clearly on task, the two other members of the group who contribute, Margaret and Christine, seem more concerned with disputing their partners’ claims than with developing the group's understanding of vandalism. The talk has some of the characteristics which, in Chapter 4 of Words and Minds, are associated with ‘disputational’ talk.

As a process for sharing ideas, evaluating them and reaching some joint conclusion, the discussion does not seem to be functioning well. The participants do not make similar levels of contribution to the discussion. Robert tries to get the discussion going, but the girls seem self-conscious (perhaps not enjoying being recorded) and uncooperative in the face of his efforts. The fourth member of the group does not join in at all. Robert's contributions therefore make up most of the talk, but this seems due to the reluctance of his partners rather than any social dominance on his part. As a result, the only ideas which are put into the public domain are his, and little in the way of collective thinking is apparent. Of course, this is only part of a longer discussion. If we were the researchers involved, we would no doubt wish to look at a much longer sample of talk before making an evaluation.

(Note: these comments are based partly on those of Barnes and Todd, 1995, the researchers who recorded this discussion.)

Sequence 2

In this sequence the two twevle-year-old girls who speak are members of a group who have been asked to talk together to choose a suitable set of objects for storing in a ‘time capsule’.

Pupil A: We've got to start selecting which ones we want now, so let's have yours.

Pupil B: A Mars bar definitely … clothes … this is the sixth one now that we're going to have.

Pupil A: Right, six … now we'll all keep the same so we send them clothes … number one.

Pupil B: I'm only going to send them some chocolate, cos they know …

Pupil A: What?

Pupil B: They might not have things like that.

Pupil A: Yeah, all right then … number two.

Pupil B: Number two … chocolate.

Pupil A: Right, just a minute.

Pupil B: Photos is a good idea.

Pupil B: Yeah, cos then they know what you look like.

Pupil B: Yeah.

Pupil A: Right, let's have a look at yours.

(Source: Phillips, 1992, p. 153)


The talk in this discussion is ‘on task’, and the discussion seems to function quite well as a means for sharing relevant ideas. Both children contribute about equally to the discussion. However, there is no critical consideration of the suitability of anyone's proposals. The process is not really one of collective reasoning but rather simply one of accumulating items from individuals to make up a list. In the terms used in Chapter 4 of Words and Minds, the talk is ‘cumulative’ rather than ‘exploratory’.

The educational researcher who recorded this discussion made the following comments about it:

The pupils' reason for doing the task was, in their own words, ‘because we were asked to discuss it’. It had no obvious purpose beyond complying with that instruction to ‘discuss’ and, consequently, nothing much was at stake. They were prepared to leave explanations of their choices implicit because they saw the activity as one requiring nothing more than the completion of an apparently arbitrary list. Indeed, why justify the choice of items to put in a time capsule, when more rapid completion of the list can be achieved by a kind of ‘bartering’ – one of mine for one of yours? And why bother to ask for a ‘better’ reason in response to a ‘poor’ one when in the end the case being put is of no real significance to you?

It is significant that the teacher who set the task intended the group of pupils to persuade each other ‘properly’ of the value of the particular items they suggested for inclusion. She hoped individuals would give well-reasoned justifications for their proposals, and wanted the group to explore the validity of those justifications. She was disappointed in the quality of the discussion.

(Phillips, 1992, p. 153)

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371