Whole-Class Discussions Seen as Effective Teaching Tool

McMahon, K. (2012). Case studies of interactive whole-class teaching in primary science: communicative approach and pedagogic purposes. International Journal Of Science Education, 34, 1687 - 1708.

According to the author of this paper, whole-class discussions take up a much larger portion of classroom time than the current academic and professional literature might recommend. The emphasis in the literature is on inquiry-based approaches, with students working together in small groups to develop knowledge through experimentation. The author of this paper argues, however, that this kind of approach can sometimes present practical challenges and may not be appropriate when teaching certain topics in primary school settings.

To illustrate how whole-class discussions and demonstrations can serve as acceptable alternatives to inquiry-based approaches, and indeed even be appropriate and quite effective, the author used a case-study approach to closely follow two teachers at “typical” British primary schools as they conducted a science unit. The teachers were experienced and familiar with the recommended best practices in science education.

The author describes four types of communication approaches the teachers used:
Interactive-Dialogic: Reciprocal conversations between students and the teacher, with different people's ideas interacting (e.g., teacher helps pool ideas and questions at the beginning of the unit, teacher leads a discussion of students' ideas, teacher helps guide students in a debate)
Non-interactive-Dialogic: Reciprocal conversations between students and the teacher, without different people's ideas interacting (e.g., teacher presents certain student ideas to the class, students talk with each other but their ideas do not build on each other)
Interactive-Authoritative: Teacher maintains control of the knowledge transmission, but students are involved and interact (e.g., teacher leads the students in a recap of what they've learned)
Non-interactive-Authoritative: Teacher transmits the knowledge with little student involvement (e.g., teacher explains procedures for conducting a test)

The author argues that the teachers use each of these approaches to achieve different goals, and that each can be appropriate in certain circumstances. For example, the author describes how one of the teachers used the Interactive-Dialogic approach to pool students' questions at the beginning of the unit to discuss the meaning of terminology and to debate and apply ideas.

The author also describes how the Interactive-Authoritative approach can help students understand scientific concepts such as making generalizations. Through a whole-class discussion, the teacher walks the students through the process of applying knowledge gained in one context, such as an in-class demonstration, to other contexts they might encounter elsewhere.

Although there is value in inquiry, the author argues that these case studies demonstrate that whole-class discussions and in-class demonstrations of scientific concepts also have an important role to play in the classroom. The author believes that “overall, there was evidence that whole-class discussions can contribute to constructing a view of science as not only about experiencing the natural world but theorizing it and aiming to come to a shared understanding of it.”

The Bottom Line

<p>This study highlights the ongoing tension between inquiry-based teaching theory and practice. Although inquiry-based approaches in which students work in small groups are accepted as ideal in much of the education literature, this paper argues that whole-class discussions and demonstrations can also effectively build knowledge and skills. Interactive approaches that involve students, help them work together to build knowledge, and hand control of discussions over to students when they are ready can also be effective teaching strategies. This paper is based on a descriptive case study approach, however, rather than on a controlled experiment, making the results somewhat limited. Future studies that compare the two different approaches to determine which generates better results under what conditions would be helpful.</p>