Preparing Students for Discourse in Online Learning: the Role of Peers in Formative Practice
Posted On May 11, 2021
Our team at WestEd, Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, has been working with teachers in formative assessment to increase student agency for the last 10 years. Recently, we’ve had our ears to the ground to learn with and from teachers about how formative assessment and student agency translates to, and enhances, online learning. This post shares insights and ideas to cultivate collaborative classroom culture based on what we’ve learned from teachers using formative assessment practices.
“Last week [students] were looking at the zone of proximal development and we were really focusing on this idea of academic content, context and then formative practices. I really think that they understood what we were talking about. We had maybe half the class switch on their camera! And then on Monday, it just went back to what it was. No cameras on, no talking, no discussion.”
– High School Teacher, Joe Nelson, Tulsa Public Schools
This quote illustrates many teachers’ experience with online learning – sometimes it can seem like teaching into a void, or “shouting across a canyon,” as one teacher we know put it. But the quote above also shows that with persistence there are glimmers of success along the way, false starts, and, as we’ll see in this article, often tremendous rewards in terms of students showing up, sharing ideas, reflecting on their thinking, and engaging with peers in their learning. This article focuses on the steps the teachers, James Ballow and Joe Nelson, took to prepare their 9th grade English students in Tulsa, OK to engage more fully in online learning through the use of formative practices.
The particular focus of the unit students were working on was argumentation – both written essays and oral debates. The oral debate students were preparing for was about The Handmaids’ Tale and whether it should be banned from school. The setting for the debate was a mock Challenge Committee meeting, where students represented the opinions of various stakeholders: parents, teachers, librarians, and school lawyers, arguing from their perspective on whether the book should be either completely banned, available but not taught, or available and taught in schools. One student reflecting on the project shared that, “The banned books project, I really did like that, because it helped me learn more about what goes into banning a book. We usually just do this 45 minute long thing in the library where they just talk about it. But this year, we actually got together and did a project as if we were trying to get a book banned or what we were trying to do. It was a big discussion, basically, and it was really cool.”
In addition to students learning how to structure these arguments, the teachers explicitly taught students the formative skills they would need to manage and propel their own learning forward during this project. These skills included using peers as resources, extending their own and other’s thinking through discourse, and assessing their understanding through self-monitoring processes.
Using peers as resources
Step 1. One of the first steps Joe and James took was to provide a theoretical framework for students to better understand the significance of drawing on various resources to support their learning. They discussed the idea of zone of proximal development (or ZPD) with students. This notion by Lev Vygotsky, of what students can do next with support from a knowledgeable other is often thought of as what students can do with support from their teacher, actions they would not be able to do yet independently. In formative assessment, this “knowledgeable other” is recast to include peers, with the idea that students learn in very different ways from one another than they do from teachers or other expert adults. While a teacher can still provide scaffolds and direct support, utilizing peers often propels learning faster by the fact that it is occurring in a social context buoyed by collective agency. Joe told his students, “The zone of proximal development says you need to have a peer or a friend or technology or a teacher. So let’s think about how we can do that right now.”
Step 2. To support this, Joe and James supplied students with a variety of other resources including sentence stems, e.g., In order to learn, I need X from my peers. The teachers also asked students to identify what makes a difference for them when working with peers. Engaging in this thinking exercise helped students develop and hold a vision of what group learning can look like. In formative assessment, this type of activity is akin to co-constructing learning goals and success criteria, in that it enables teachers and students to hold a similar vision of the learning from which to act. Here is some of what students had to say.
When working in a group, my learning is affected by…
- The way my peers communicate their ideas and input
- Peers saying their opinions and why they think that way
- The effort my peers put into the work
These comments all speak to the fact that these students value one another’s knowledge and reasoning, and want to learn from one another. Conversely, their comments indicate that when their peers do not contribute to group discussions, they believe that their learning is diminished. This exercise to elicit prior knowledge became the first step in setting goals and norms for group discussions.
Extending one’s own and other’s thinking through discourse
Step 3. Next, Joe and James introduced a discourse continuum to students, articulating what it looks like when students are just getting used to engaging in discourse online and also what it looks like when they are more skillful. This was intended to help students develop the skills needed to participate successfully in their small group discussions and during the Challenge Committee debate. More generally, it also provided a baseline set of discussion skills to support the unit goal of argumentation. Discourse is an important formative assessment strategy students use to extend their thinking collectively and as a way to make their thinking visible to others.
The discourse continuum (below) shows qualities of discourse interactions ranging from beginning to advanced stages. It includes a row for discourse participation in general and for online-specific qualities (Zoom habits). During a lesson mid-way through the unit and before the small group work, everyone reviewed the continuum and thought about where the class was in their own discourse practices and considered what they’d like to be able to do to make their upcoming conversations and group work more productive.
|Zoom Habits||Student does not use video, audio, or chat to communicate ideas.||Student does not use video or audio. Student uses chat to communicate ideas.||Student does not use video. Student uses audio and chat to communicate ideas.||Student uses audio, video, and chat to communicate ideas.|
|Students do not or rarely build on one another’s ideas, making the discussion a series of disconnected ideas.
Students silently indicate (dis)agreement with others and do not speak unless prompted.
One or more students, or the teacher, may dominate the discussion.
|Students sometimes build on one another’s ideas, occasionally asking questions for elaboration and clarification or taking a different position. At times the discussion is connected, though it may generally remain disconnected or halting.
Students seldom elaborate on what their peers say or clarify their own thinking.
Several students take the opportunity to speak, though a few students may dominate the discussion or are silent.
|Students build on one another’s ideas and provide feedback. They ask one another questions about their thinking and opinions, take various perspectives and make connections between ideas. The discussion is generally connected and flows easily.
Students elaborate on what their peers say and explain their own thinking.
Many students take the opportunity to speak during the discussion which is fairly balanced between students.
|Students frequently build on one another’s ideas, provide feedback, support various perspectives and make connections to advance ideas. The discussion is well-connected and flows easily.
Students ask probing questions to support elaboration and listen carefully to one another’s reasoning, wonderings, and opinions. Students demonstrate curiosity about their peers’ perspectives. Students also clarify and explain their own thinking to add to the group’s learning.
Most or all students take the opportunity to speak during the discussion which is evenly balanced between students.
Step 4. Students then began working together in small groups, supporting one another in their ZPD. Students worked collaboratively – sharing knowledge, asking questions, and giving feedback. This entailed that students develop active listening and observation skills (gathering evidence) to know where their peers were in their learning in order to support them appropriately. They also practiced articulating the kinds of help they themselves needed from peers. These formative practices supported students to build their capacity to be in two minds during their learning, one focused directly on engaging with content and the other aware of their own and their peers’ thinking (metacognition) in order to move it forward.
As noted above, when students met in their small groups, they had already thought through what they wanted the group dynamics to be and informally identified goals for themselves and their group in terms of:
- Participation structures (e.g., giving everyone an opportunity to speak and building off of one another’s ideas)
- Zoom habits (e.g., cameras and mics on)
Each group had been assigned a stakeholder they would represent (parent, teacher, librarian, or lawyer) and worked together to flesh out their stakeholder’s backstory based on a range of resources provided for them by their teachers. To better understand the perspective of the lawyer role, for example, students were given this set of resources as optional readings to develop their understanding.
- Judson Independent School District
- Obscenity Case Files: Jacobellis v. Ohio (“I know it when I see it”)
- CBLDF Case Files – U.S. v. Handley
- Board of Education v. Pico
- 5 Notable Banned-Book Cases for Banned Books Week
The teachers’ role. This process demonstrates a key way that the teacher’s role in formative assessment shifts from delivering content to:
- providing students with the explicit instruction in formative practices to manage and co-construct their own learning experiences,
- structuring opportunities for students to work collaboratively, and
- curating resources to supply a rich learning ecosystems for students.
The term learning ecosystems refers to the available resources students can draw on to further their learning (e.g., written artifacts, pictorial or video resources, real-life examples, knowledge from peers) and the mutual systems of support that are developed in a learning community among students and between teachers and students. As part of the formative assessment process, James and Joe provided students with the skill set they needed to act on evidence they gather, in large part, through making use of the learning ecosystems they are afforded. When students reflected on what made their discussions special in this unit, many called out the articles they were given and the opportunity to do research and form their own opinions. Here is an excerpt from their reflection.
Juan: I feel like it was different, because years prior it was pretty much just [the librarians] talking about the book and why it was banned. And some people would engage, but other people would just sit there. Because it’s different whenever you have somebody sitting there giving you information. And this year, we actually took that information and turned it into a debate to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions.
Donna: I agree with Juan, because this year we actually got articles that lead to people, what they were saying, what they were thinking about it.
Joe (teacher): Can I dig a little bit deeper here? Even for everything we’ve done this year, that discussion was different. That discourse was different. Why was that different?
Donna: I would say because we were the ones looking up the information of why books are banned and why they should be banned, rather than teachers giving us the information, we look up the information.
Juan: Yeah, I agree. Because those articles kind of made me look a little deeper, not necessarily the context, but also the backstory. Also, what was in the book made me think, and the articles kind of helped me understand.
Donna. As we were researching and reading those articles, we were also carving our point of view, our opinions on things. I feel it just gave us some alone time with ourselves and actually thinking it through.
Juan. I understand that because when I was reading the article, I was really biased about keeping the book in schools. So yeah, some alone time with yourself also, and make sure you have your own opinions based on you, not just some information. You could merge those two into one thing.
Step 5. After students were working together for a little while in small groups developing their stakeholders’ persona, one group wanted to touch base with the teachers. They had decided that they wanted to represent a different stakeholder group than the one they were assigned. This was because they determined that their funds of knowledge (part of their wider learning ecosystem) would enable them to better understand one stakeholder group more than the other. In the following exchange, we hear Joe Nelson, the librarian Tina Ham, and the students from the group discussing the pros and cons of developing different stakeholder personas.
Teacher: You said you wanted to be a parent. Tell me why do you want to be a parent?
Devon: Because like back in the day, I was really fascinated by fascist politics, which I know sounds really weird, but I like wanted to be a parent because I wanted to tie in this history with my person, sort of, but I don’t really know.
Teacher: So you want your person to be a fascist?
Devon: No, I wanted to use the fascist politics that I learned back in the day as a way to tie my person’s feelings towards the novel.
Teacher: Can you not do that as the teacher?
Devon: Uh perhaps, but I don’t know.
Teacher: Sandra, what are your thoughts?
Sandra: To me it doesn’t matter, but I like the concerned parent better than the teacher.
Teacher: Janet what do you think?
Janet: I honestly don’t know.
Teacher: So if you are the concerned parent what will your position be, to ban it or to keep it?
Devon: Probably keep it.
Janet: Yes, I’d keep it.
Teacher: So could you argue that as the teacher?
Devon: Perhaps, but I feel like I would understand it more coming from the parent than the teacher I guess.
Librarian: Maybe with the teacher you could bring in some other curriculum. You could bring in a history class or some other classes that maybe you’ve been working with another teacher and how everything connects in, or goes back, and is intertwined?
Teacher: So yeah, um I want you to keep that in your head, but Devon I’m gonna go back to something you just said, all right? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you said, “I’ll understand it better if I do the concerned parent” and the whole idea here is for you to understand this, okay? That’s the whole point. So I’m going to let you all do it as a concerned parent, okay, which means I get to be the teacher, me and Mr. Ballew get to be the teacher, and Ms. Ham.
Teacher: And we are going to crush you.
In the above exchange, Joe adds some humor at the end, signaling the lighthearted relationship he has with his students. The students also signal that they trust their teachers enough to express their viewpoints, even when they go against their teacher’s position. They also have agency to act on their metacognition – their awareness of their understanding – to advocate for what they want to do next in their learning. This has come about through students thinking through the stakeholders’ personas together in their small group discussions. It demonstrates the impact of social engagement in learning and the ways that discourse can effectively extend student thinking. When one student reflected on this type of learning later, she said. “Because you and the teacher, if something’s not working out, you need to talk it out and see it’s going to work and how you’re going to get to the place that they want you to. Because of course they’re going to want to help you.”
Step 5. On the day of the debate, students were all given a few minutes beforehand with their small groups. Joe asked, “Do you all want about three minutes just to kind of get your thoughts together before we get going? Would that be helpful?” After the students said yes, they did some thinking in breakout groups before debating more publicly. This aligns with the formative practice of providing students with opportunities for practice before going public with their thinking. It also supports equity in that all students are given this processing time.
In the debate itself, one member of each group first presented the position of their stakeholder persona and then shared the claims to back up that position. After each took a turn, the floor was open for a whole class discussion. Students asked one another questions, countered arguments, and clarified their reasoning. This discussion lasted for about 15 minutes, with students taking charge of the conversation and freely participating in turn taking. Below is an excerpt from the conversation.
Parent 1: It comes down to the student solution. Like what their thoughts on the book is because they’re the ones reading the book. So if they want to read the book and they’re not like afraid of reading it and the topics in the book, then I don’t see a reason to not like, let them read the book if they want to read it and they don’t like feel fear from reading it.
Parent 2: To me as a parent I feel as if it’s understandable for safety to often trump freedom, especially until they are of a certain age. At points, you have to understand, like, would you just let, I know this is a bad analogy, but like, would you just let your toddler roam free and have freedom? Like, as if they were an adult? No, you wouldn’t because for their safety, they don’t know what they’re doing. So sometimes you have to put the safety of them over some freedoms that they have, because at that point they don’t know how to make the choices that come with the freedoms.
Librarian: I think that safety and freedom should be both balanced and that safety is important, but they should both be balanced in a way that you are like not overprotecting your child so that your child can understand the controversial topics. And they can learn from those experiences instead of overprotecting them and making them like not understand those topics later on, which can hurt the child or person.
Lawyer: This is my question, would you sentence a teacher to jail, even to prison for reading a bad book? Is it such a crime that a teenager is reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Should they receive some form of consequence for reading it? And this is to Karen (a parent).
Parent 2: Think so. So say that The Handmaid’s Tale, I know it’s a TV show, but say it was turned into a movie. Do you think it would be rated R like, what do you think it would be rated? And if it was in theaters, children would not be allowed to see that movie. So does that correspond with the possibility of them not being able to read the book? It has the same graphic ideas just put into picture. If they were to go into that movie and watch it, they would be in trouble and they would have to take that up with somebody. So the idea of reading the same material is just, it’s the same thing, just in a different form. So like, therefore, should there also be punishment or some sort of restriction on them with that material in that form?
After this exchange, the conversation continued for another 10 minutes or so, and then the students went into their small breakout groups to reconsider their positions. When they returned to the whole group, students shared out their stakeholder’s final position. They were able to come to consensus, deciding that the book should be available but not taught in school.
Assessing understanding through self-monitoring processes
Step 6. After this lesson, for independent work, students wrote up their argumentation essays. They were able to build off of the work they had done preparing for the oral debates and reflecting on their learning progress. For example, in both oral and written contexts, students were expected to develop a thesis, conceptualize a number of claims, and provide evidence to back up their claims. While each domain (spoken and written) is independently important for students to become adept in, the debate also serves as a scaffold for student writing in argumentation. The essays additionally provided evidence of students’ individual thinking – for the students themselves to reflect on and for Joe and James to gauge their skill level and status of understanding.
When students came together again for the next synchronous session, they revisited the discourse continuum to debrief the oral debate. The continuum served as a framework and common language for them to talk about how the debate went and to think about next steps. Joe shared that, “Students noted that the teacher spoke less and they were excited that there was more turn taking, but they also noted that only a few students were carrying on the conversation.” He continued on to say, “It seemed that most students were able to point out what needed to happen to move the class forward the first time we looked at the continuum [midway through the unit]. However, when we went into the [Challenge Committee] discussion, only a handful were really able to implement those ideas.”
Students also reflected later on what it has meant to learn in this class with its emphasis on discourse and formative practices. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Shawn: I feel like we opened up a lot more when it comes to being active in class. Because usually when we were in class at the beginning of the year, nobody would talk.
Ramon:I also feel like when we first started AP Lang, I thought it would just be like Mr. Ballou and Mr. Nelson assign work, they give us things to look at, we look at them, we finish the work, and that’s it. But I feel it’s much more engaged discussions. I just think it’s pretty cool.
Janelle: Now I’m saying that I’m learning for myself instead of, “Oh, the teacher’s making me learn.”
Video of lesson.