The Discussion Game: How to Get Kids Talking in Synchronous Learning

One of the biggest questions I keep asking during this online/remote/virtual/hybrid learning situation is: How do we continue to have student-centered learning experiences given the limitations of learning in the midst of a pandemic?

It’s easy to jump straight to project-based learning, or maybe focus on a digital tool, app, or program. However, I often think it is best to start with the basics: Let’s get the students talking to each other and about relevant content.

Trying to have conversations on Zoom, Meet, or Teams can be trying at even the best of times. Add on the situation many teachers are facing with some students in front of them, and others watching live from a device, and this becomes even more difficult.

Yet, it can happen. It won’t be perfect, and it will be different, but here are two ways teachers are getting the students talking during synchronous learning right now.

Enter: The Discussion Game

My students rolled into class like any other day, and not much was changed. The tables were still set up in small groups, the projector was on with their “Do Now” activity on the board. And, the Homework for the week was written for each day.

The only difference was that each seat had a white envelope on it, filled with five cards of all different colors.

This was the opening of our first discussion game. I got the idea from our colleague Melisa Perlman and have seen variations of this game all over the place online. The best part about it is that it is simple to create, simple to explain, and completely modifiable depending on your subject, grade level, or classroom setting.

Here are the basics. Each student gets a number of different colored cards to use throughout the discussion. They must play each card once but can play the question card multiple times after using all other cards.

Each card is worth a point (if you want to grade this activity, completely up to you and your classroom/school) and the goal is to replace assessing only the final product (quiz) and instead assess the process of learning (having an active discussion).

This scaffolds the student-centered classroom in two ways.

First, the game is centered on your subject, concept, content, text for the lesson. Students have to be engaged with that content in order to respond with the above answers and questions (I think, I know because, I feel, Connect, etc).

Second, it models the many ways you can contribute to an active learning discussion. This helps the students who may be shy or want to hide during the discussion.

Finally, we added a back-channel component to this game where students did not have to always talk out loud to the class to discuss and earn points, but could “play their cards” online in platforms – like Canvas, Seesaw, Schoology, Google Classroom – for participating in the discussion.

How to Make This Work Virtually?

Now that you know how the concept of the discussion game works in a regular classroom environment, let’s see how this can work modified for virtual and hybrid situations. I always share this process in my training and teachers have used it all around the country in various K-12 levels.

First, all the students still have an envelope with each card. Or, if they are not able to have an envelope they can write the color on index cards or color the index cards.

Second, the teacher describes how the game works. Students know that they are driving the discussion by showing a card they want to play either in-person or on the screen (Zoom, Meet, Teams).

Time to play the game. The teacher facilitates by either calling on the students in front of them (if hybrid) or unmuting those students on the screen. Students are encouraged to keep their own score of points, and the goal of the teacher is to get everyone involved and continue to mix up who is talking.

Finally, some students may not want to share their screen or talk online. They have the option to put their card they want to play in the chat and the teacher can call on them to share their comment/conversation/question in the chat.

Teachers have modified this in all kinds of ways to make it work in virtual environments. Here are just a few examples below:

What’s Next After the Discussion Game? The Fish Bowl.

After playing the discussion game a few times, students began to get into discussions and own the conversation. Yes, they were prodded into answers and asking questions, but the goal of the first step is to get them talking (and have me talk way less).

It worked for our class and for many in our school. But, it was not the final goal. I’d rather not have the carrot (or stick) be the only reason students are talking, so we had to continue moving away from that reason, and also change up the format to one that is less scripted by the cards.

Enter, the Fish Bowl.

This activity was used by our colleague Anthony Gabriele, and like all good things we modified it to work with our group of students. There are some good write-ups online for the Fish Bowl (like this one) and many different ways to do it, but here is how we did it in my class as the second step.

Fish Bowl Prep: Students are to have read, learned, or already delved into a specific text or content before the start of class. This, however, does not need to be homework. It could be learning that happened in a previous lesson or experience. The key is that the students are not learning something “new” during the Fish Bowl, they are instead going to learn from each other during the discussion and share their insights and questions (much like the discussion game).

Classroom Setup: Set up your classroom with two sets of circles. One big circle will be on the outside and then on the inside there will be a smaller circle of four-to-five chairs (depending on class size this could also be three or six chairs).


How it Works: When students come into class they will grab a seat. Don’t worry where they sit as all students will eventually get into the middle of the circle (The Fish Bowl) for the discussion. The inside circle does the talking and discussing. They should be prepared but focus on having an active conversation using the techniques learned in the discussion game. The outside circle takes notes on the inner discussion. This could be scaffolded by the teacher to focus on specific areas of the conversation, or more wide open like taking notes during a lecture. Depends on your situation for how you want to prep students for the outside not taking.

Another option for the outside of the circle is for these students to be “coaches” for those inside the fishbowl. You can give a “halftime option” and allow the coaches to talk to their inside fishbowl peers to share insight.

Every five minutes you’ll want to replace the inner circle with new students to discuss. They can pick up where the previous discussion left off, or start new.

Two keys to making this work. First, as a teacher, you must not prompt or get students talking. The goal is for them to have a productive struggle in the beginning and then get into a flow. Second, depending on your class you may want to pick the fishbowl groups ahead of time to get a good mix of students for the discussion. This, of course, is your preference as the teacher.

Finally, you can assess this conversation in a few ways, but I’d focus more on the active discussion part than what was said at first. Then as you do it more often and students become comfortable you can change a rubric to have different assessment pieces that reflect the content of the discussion.

*Note: As with the Discussion Game, you can add an online component to this as well. Have the outside of the circle write their feedback and notes on a shared doc, a backchannel chat conversation, and discussion board forum inside an LMS, or any other way to make note-taking more collaborative.

How to Make This Work Virtually?

The Fish Bowl is a bit easier to modify for the virtual environment than the discussion game.

The big change is that you aren’t able to set up the classroom to look like a fishbowl. Instead, you have to make sure you only have those students discussing “inside the fishbowl” unmuted on the Zoom, while the rest of the students discuss and ask questions in the chat.

Then, after a few minutes, you switch up who is having the conversation, and unmute 3-5 new people to discuss.

You continue this process until all students have been in the fishbowl and discussed!

Call to Action

If you are like me and wanting to get students to talk more (and learn more) then I’d love for you to share any strategies or tips used in your classroom! Please share in the comments with any ideas and/or questions.

These strategies (and many more) are shared in my Online Learning Master Course. Check it out here!

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