Strategy Guide

Conducting Inner-Outer Circle Discussions

6 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Evidence-based Discussions

About this Strategy Guide

To give more students a chance to talk, and to provide a built-in source of peer feedback on discussion skills/behaviors, the Inner Circle-Outer Circle strategy frames half the class as discussion participants and the other half as focused listeners.

Research Basis

Although discussing texts is considered a foundation of secondary English classes, Barker (2015) notes that discussion, particularly discussion in which students actively elaborate on each others’ ideas rather than merely responding to the teachers’ questions, is relatively rare. She cites key factors in supporting students’ development as participants in elaborative discussions as having practice opportunities, explicit norms and examples, and concrete identification of discussion moves. This strategy guide for inner/outer circle discussion, with its purposeful inclusion of only half the class as a time, is designed around these principles.

Strategy in Practice

  • On the day before a full class discussion of a text, remind students of the qualities of effective open-ended questions. Such questions can
    • identify confusion and ask for clarification (e.g., “I wasn’t sure about ___. What do people think this means?”)
    • offer an interpretation (e.g. “I think ___ because ___. What do you think?”)
    • ask for interpretation, comparison, or evaluation (e.g. “What did you think the author means when ___?” or “How is ___ different from ___”?)

  • Using this language as a guide, ask students to have questions about the text ready for the discussion.

  • On the day of the Inner-Outer Circle discussion, ask all students to get out their questions and divide the room into an inner circle and an outer circle. Leave one empty seat in the inner circle for an outer circle student to join temporarily.

  • Remind students in the inner circle of key discussion strategies and their responsibility for using them to keep the conversation going:
    • affirmation: “I appreciated ___’s comment because ____.”
    • extension: “Another piece of evidence for ___’s interpretation is ___.” “___’s comment made me think about ___.”
    • disagreement: “I looked at ___ a different way because ____.”
    • eliciting: “Who has other ideas about ___?”
    • closing/re-launching: “Have we finished this question? Who would like to ask another?”

  • Remind outer circle students of their responsibility: to take notes on the main topics/content/themes of the discussion and to provide feedback on the dynamics of the discussion to the inner circle participants.

  • When appropriate, a student from the outer circle may take the empty seat in the inner circle to participate briefly, but he or she should return to the outer circle when his or her contribution is finished.

  • The teacher stays in the outer circle, using the empty seat in the inner circle as appropriate to help guide the conversation if necessary.

  • Leave time at the end of class to debrief on the discussion, asking the outer circle to share their observations about what was discussed as well as the dynamics of the discussion. Encourage all students to write a reflection on what they learned about the content and what they noticed about the dynamics of the discussion. Each student should set speaking and listening goals for the next discussion. Repeat the next discussion with a new arrangement of inner-outer circle participants.

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