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The Use of Discussion Protocols for Social Studies

The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
The Use of Discussion Protocols in Social Studies
Prentice T. Chandler, Ph.D.
University of Cincinnati
Suzanne Ehrlich, Ed.D.
University of North Florida
Pedagogy, For What Ends?
Amid all the fuss and feathers, there is substance, there is reality, in social studies…it will be said that the
growth of social studies places on teachers an impossible burden, it compels them to deal with controversial
questions…They cannot master their subject reasonably well and settle back to a ripe old age early in life. The
subject matter of their instruction is infinitely difficult and it is continually changing. If American democracy
is to fulfill its high mission, those who train its youth must be among the wisest, most fearless, and most highly
trained men and women this broad land can furnish. (Beard, 1929, p. 369)
When it comes to public school curricula in the United States, social studies is the most
encompassing and inclusive of all subjects (Ross, 2014). It is in social studies that students are
educated for participation in a pluralist democracy. It is in our subject matter courses that students
should be given opportunities to grapple with decision-making, reaching consensus, participation
in groups, and controversy in preparation for life in and outside of school. Given such an
important task, social studies educators must think how their pedagogy (i.e., what they do in the
classroom) is tied to the goals of social studies as a school discipline. What are we doing in the
classroom that prepares students for active participation in civic life? Or as Parker (2010) framed
this, “How should we think about the boundary between content and pedagogy?” (p. 11). As the
NCSS (2008) statement on “Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studiesmakes clear,
our classes should be “meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active” (para. 9-13).
Statements from NCSS notwithstanding, this does not describe the pedagogy that most students in
social studies experience. Scholars have long lamented the quality of instruction found in schools
across the US. The stereotype of lower-order pedagogies, drill and kill teaching, and rote exercises
across disciplines is supported by an ample body of evidence (Goodlad, 1984; Swift & Gooding,
1983). And, in social studies, the picture isn’t any better (Barton & Levstik, 2003; Cuban, 1991;
Knowles, & Theobald, 2013; Levstik, 2008; Ross, 2000). Given that our discipline is oriented
towards helping students understand the world and their place in it, traditional pedagogy (i.e.,
lecture, recitation, rote memorization), in and of itself, does not meet the demands of our
profession. In what follows, we first argue that discussion in social studies, as an intentional and
planned pedagogical move, is integral to democratic citizenship education, and second, that
discussion pedagogy can be strengthened through the use of structured protocols.
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
Why Discussion in Social Studies?
In this section we will examine three areas of social studies research and practice: 1) the
NCSS statement “A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies: Building
Social Understanding and Civic Efficacy” (2008), 2) the NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life: C3
Framework for Social Studies State Standards (C3) (2013), and 3) the recent push for disciplinary
thinking in the social science disciplines (see Schmidt, 2011; VanSledright, 2004; Westheimer &
Kahne, 2004), that support the implementation of discussion pedagogy in social studies. First, the
NCSS Statement on Powerful Social Studies (2008) and the NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life
Framework (C3) (2013) can be thought of as starting points for teachers and how they can
conceptualize integrating discussion pedagogy into their teaching. Social studies that is
“meaningful, integrative, value-based, challenging, and active” (NCSS, 2008, para. 9-13) must
include classroom methods that allow students to explore the complexity of the social sciences and
the concept or participatory democracy. In examining how social studies should be “value-based,”
NCSS explicitly supports discussion pedagogy:
Through discussions, debates, the use of authentic documents, simulations, research, and
other occasions for critical thinking and decision-making, students learn to apply value-
based reasoning when addressing problems and issues.
Students engage in experiences that develop fair-mindedness, and encourage recognition
and serious consideration of opposing points of view, respect for well-supported positions,
sensitivity to cultural similarities and differences, and a commitment to individual and
social responsibility. (para. 8)
In addition to the stance that NCSS has taken relative to discussion in social studies,
research suggests that discussion of controversial issues is a significant predictor of political
knowledge, values, and engagement (Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald, & Schultz, 2001). And, last
but not least, students, who report that social studies is their least favorite subject (Loewen, 2007),
enjoy courses that use discussion to learn and think about content (Hess & Posselt, 2002).
Of the four dimensions of the C3 Framework (2013) one can see how discussion of social
studies concepts and phenomena can be infused into each of these areas. Specifically, Dimension
1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries (pp. 23-27) and Dimension 4: Communicating
Conclusions and Taking Informed Action (pp. 59-63) are ideal places to infuse discussion into
enacted social studies pedagogy. At the heart of the C3 Framework and at the heart of effective
classroom discussion is the notion of inquiry, of asking real questions that matter, and allowing
students to actually talk about these issues. As Selwyn (2014) notes,
...inquiry in the “real world” involves asking questions that the researcher truly wants to or
needs to explore....Inquiry involves an increasingly valuable set of skills and strategies to
bring to students; if we don’t help them learn how to question, to research, to evaluate, to
communicate, to act, where will they learn and practice those skills? (p. 268)
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
Finally, the recent trend towards disciplinary thinking in social studies also lends itself to
discussion-based teaching. Regardless of the discipline, a hallmark of these subjects is their open-
ended nature. In history, geography, government, economics, and the behavioral sciences experts
in these fields go about their work largely by asking questions and attempting to solve problems
not providing ready-made answers to contrived questions that have a right or wrong answer. In this
way, discussing fundamental controversies and issues within social science disciplines opens
pathways for students to develop “the skills, understandings, and processes of disciplinary experts”
(Fallace, 2010, p. 24). These skills, although not the raison d'être for all social studies teachers, do
provide students with critical thinking skills needed for full participation in our pluralist
democracy. Students who have these skills “are informed, educated, thoughtful, critical readers,
who appreciate investigative enterprises, know good arguments when they hear them, and who
engage their world with a host of strategies for understanding it” (VanSledright, 2004, p. 232).
Discussion pedagogy, as a part of social studies instruction, takes seriously the job of education
towards democratic dispositions, a “willingness and ability to interact with others on matters of
public concern” (Larson & Keiper, 2011, p. 210). In short, discussion is an integral part of
democratic education (Hess, 2009; Parker, 1997).
What Does the Research Say?
In looking at the research in this area, Hess’ (2004) work on discussion pedagogy in social
studies is a good starting point. Her work reveals that discussions in social studies classrooms are
not an organic development that occurs without prior planning and thought. In fact, the opposite
is true. Teachers who attempt discussions in social studies are stymied by several problems: the
tendency of teachers to talk too much, asking inauthentic questions, lack of focus and depth in
student contributions, and unequal participation of students (Hess, 2004). In addition, Chandler
(2013) maintains that successful classroom discussions require careful planning in at least three
areas: having an explicit structure (or rules) for governing the discussion, choosing exciting and
thought-provoking content, and having students develop or create a “product” (pp. 40-43). In what
follows, we focus on Chandler’s (2013) first criteria—the explicit structure (see also Parker, 2001;
Passe & Evans, 2007) of a discussion—through the use of protocols in social studies. Protocols can
best be thought of as the rules or expectations of the discussion as it unfolds (Chandler, 2011;
Wentworth, n.d.). This allows for a common understanding of what constitutes “formal”
discussion for your students (SSEC, 2011, p. 349), and helps to delineate your classroom method
from a “bull session” where “participants vent their opinions with passion but exhibit little
purpose and no reflection” (Roby, 1998, p. 65).
Using Protocols to Strengthen Social Studies Discussions
Given the inclusive nature (Barr, Barth, & Shermis, 1978) of social studies, teachers are
continually challenged by the material they must explore with their students. This raises questions
about how to engage students in rich discussions in history and the social sciences. Protocols are
designed to support meaningful discussion, to elicit differing opinions from students and
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
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ultimately to create equity within classrooms (McDonald, et al., 2012). Oftentimes, not all students
feel comfortable contributing in the classroom, and may miss the opportunity to engage with
classmates when communicating about sensitive or controversial topics. While protocols can be
used with various delivery methods, it is important to consider how each protocol may be adapted
for a specific environment (Ehrlich, Ergulec, Zydney, & Angelone, 2013). Lastly, discussion
protocols help to ensure that conditions for effective, meaningful, and inclusive discussions are
present. These conditions are:
1. a general disposition that students are willing to listen, consider, and be responsive to
others’ comments,
2. a stance of contributing from a unique standpoint, sharing personal perspectives and
current understandings of the issue at hand, and
3. the goal of advancing the group’s knowledge and understanding of the topic at hand (not
to win an argument or “prove a point”). (Larson & Keiper, 2011, p. 211; see also Bridges,
Implementing Protocols in Social Studies Classroom
Protocols are important because they provide a necessary structure for discussions to take
place in your classroom. We provide three sample protocols in Table 1. Three Sample Protocols to
Foster Classroom Discussion in the hope that they will be used as guides or frameworks to direct
classroom discussion efforts. In this way, these protocols can be thought of as pedagogical
frameworks that can be modified to fit content and school environment (Cornbleth, 2002). We
hold that using protocols as guiding frameworks to organize discussion is superior to what often
passes as “discussion” in social studies. It is our hope that the reader will view the idea of protocols
in general (and these examples specifically) as fluid constructs that can be used throughout one’s
practice. In fact, this is one of the strengths of protocolsthey allow for the “complexity and
idiosyncrasy of the everyday classroom” (Kincheloe, 2001, p. 45), while allowing students in social
studies the space and freedom to have a “social” social studies experience.
Table 1.
Three Sample Protocols to Foster Classroom Discussion
A. Four A’s Protocol (Adapted from Gray, 2005)
This protocol helps students to deepen their understanding of a text and works
especially well when participants need to approach the text from different perspectives. This
protocol engages students in reading while helping to develop critical-thinking skills and is useful
when working with primary sources.
(12 minutes) Introduction: The group silently reads the text. During this time, group members
should be highlighting and documenting notes with answers to the following four questions (you
can also add your own “A’s”)
•What did you
Already Know
) in/from the text?
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
• What do you
• What, in the text, do you want to
• What parts of the text do you want to
(12 minutes)
: In groups, have each person identify one statement/idea/information
in the text that they “Already Knew,” citing where necessary. Provide enough time to explore
(36 minutes)
Remaining A’s
: Either continue in group discussions or facilitate a conversation in
which the class as a whole talks about each of the three remaining “A”s, reviewing each one at a
time. Provide enough time to explore each.
(5 minutes)
: When concluding the activity, provide an opportunity for an open
discussion focused around a question such as: What do these documents tell us about what
happened in this event?
(5 minutes)
: Debrief the experience of analyzing the text by responding to example
debriefing questions such as:
What else would I like to find out?
What questions do I now need to ask?
B. Six Thinking Hats (Adapted from Burdick, 2011)
: This is a simple and effective parallel-thinking process that helps students to be more
focused and involved. The purpose of this protocol is to help students look at decisions from a
multiple perspectives in history, current events, or government/civics.
Neutrality (White)
: Asks Questions. With the information provided, what are the facts?
Feeling (Red)
: React with gut instinct and statements based in emotional feeling (absent
of any justification).
Negative judgment (Gray)
: Looks for inaccuracies in the discussion by applying logic and
pointing to barriers.
Positive Judgment (Yellow)
: Is in pursuit of harmony by using logic to highlight benefits.
Creative thinking (Green)
: Generates conversation by prompting group with statements
of provocation and investigation.
The Big Picture (Blue)
: Keeps the group on task and establishes objectives (This is
typically the role of the facilitator).
(1-2 minutes for each student) Organize students into groups of five, one person for each color.
The sixth color should be assigned to the facilitator. Students are each assigned a card with the
assigned color, and then take on the role represented by the color during the discussion.
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
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During each participant’s time, participants speak from the role they have assumed, and only
from that perspective, discussing the topic highlighted for that discussion.
It is also useful to use prompts/material for discussion may include, but not limited, images or
quotes of significance to lesson theme such as controversial images, articles, quotes, or media.
C. Provocative Prompts (McDonald, Mohr, Dichter, & McDonald, 2007; McDonald et al.,
This protocol helps promote a course culture that considers disagreement as
productive for learning and a natural part of democratic life. This protocol offers an
opportunity to facilitate a discussion around controversial topics while giving students the
opportunity to examine a topic from various points of view--a necessary skill in a participatory
: Instructor chooses quotations (provocative prompts) in advance. Copies of the
chosen quotes with sources are prepared. Each group is given the different quotes, and they are
shared with the groups within the class.
Quotes Distributed:
The facilitator distributes quotes randomly; each written on a piece of
(3 – 5 minutes for each student) First Quote Chosen (Agreement): Each group member chooses one
quotation and shares one by one going around in a circle why he or she chose it.
(3 5 minutes for each student) Second Quotation Chosen (Disagreement): Each group member
chooses a second quotation that provokes him or her to think differently about the topic at hand
and writes a brief account of why this impacted his or her thinking.
(3 5 minutes for each student) Partners are Created: Each student shares his or her thinking
around the quotation. After the students have shared their thinking, the rest of the group
reflects back on what was shared. Each group member reads his or her quotation and responds
in that moment.
: Facilitator posts quotations on chart paper around the room. Students use Post-It
notes to post ideas and thoughts surrounding the quotations with questions and comments
where necessary.
Note: Three Sample Protocols are adapted from Table 1. Protocols Adapted from Face-to-Face to
Online (Ehrlich et al., 2013).
A proper curriculum for democracy requires both the study and the practice of democracy (Parker, 2005, p.
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies
Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
351). [emphasis added]
Discussion protocols can help teachers overcome the issues that were noted by Hess (2004)
earlier in this article, as well as serve as explicit structures for discussions. Structured protocols can
foster a trusting environment and encourage critical thinking and different perspectives in the
classroom (McDonald, Zydney, Dichter, & McDonald, 2012). Protocols for discussion serve to
improve not only students’ experiences in classroom discussions, but also ultimately improve the
depth of understanding and reflection that occurs within these conversations. It is then that
teachers and students can move from reading and viewing content to connecting and
understanding, transforming learning about their place in our democracy. When we survey the
apathy of young people towards politics in the US (Pew Research Center, 2014), we must wonder
if the social studies education that they received has contributed to these feelings. It does seem odd
that the one subject area designed to prepare students for political participation does not, through
the traditional methods that teachers use, allow students to practice the skills that are required for
thoughtful and deliberative participation in our democracy. If we want our students to discuss,
debate, and consider alternatives in the political realm as members of our democracy, shouldn’t we
allow them the space to practice these skills in social studies classrooms? The use of protocols, as a
pedagogical tool, allows teachers to foster conditions in which students can practice the skills
required for active citizenship.
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Vol. 77, No. 1 (2016)
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Additional Resources for Teachers
(Protocol repository)
(Pedagogical repository: setting discussion expectations)
(Protocols for Online Discussions list)
(Small Group Discussion Protocols list)
(Article and list: Protocols for Culturally Responsive Learning)
... Through active teaching approaches, pupils engage in experiences that develop fair-mindedness, and encourage recognition and serious consideration of opposing points of view, respect for well-supported positions, and sensitivity to cultural similarities and differences, and a commitment to individual and social responsibility (Chandler and Ehrlich, 2016). ...
... The Civic education teachers therefore are required to use more active teaching methods for learners to be civically engaged. Commenting on the use of active teaching methods in Civic Education, Chandler and Ehrlich (2016) contend that it is in Civic Education were students should be given opportunities to grapple with decision-making, reaching consensus, participation in groups, and controversy in preparation for life in and outside of school. ...
... However, when the literature is examined, it is understood that discussion is not the mainstream method or skill that is considered important in classrooms. On the contrary, several studies report that discussion is a rare phenomenon in classrooms (Chandler & Ehrlich, 2016;Flynn, 2009;Nystrand, Gamoran, & Carbonaro, 1998). In a study, it was stated that, despite its importance in democratic and active citizenship, TCs and teachers were not willing to use discussion skills or methods (Sheppard, Ashcraft, & Larson, 2011). ...
Full-text available
A healthy democratic culture depends heavily on consensus based on rational and free discussion. Since there are students from different families in terms of socio-economic level, gender, culture, ethnic group, belief group and worldview in an average class, the school is considered as a reflection of the society. Learning how to discuss a topic together at school is an important civic skill in their daily and prospective life. So maintaining and sustaining democracy will require certain habits of mind. In order for citizens to adopt democratic values, they need to learn to argue and discuss, thus improve their decision-making and critical thinking skills. Therefore, discussion is both a democratic civic skill and teaching method. It is a skill which is acquired rather than described as innate. Democratic discussion requires students to be experienced. It has been observed that social studies stakeholders are generally keep their distance toward discussion. It can be argued that the reason for this situation is due to negative attitudes towards certain conditions of the discussion. When the relevant studies are examined, it has been observed that there are few studies carried out on the discussion attitudes of teacher candidates in the context of social studies. It is observed that pre-service teachers have both positive and negative attitudes towards discussion. On the other hand, the number of studies examining secondary school students' attitudes towards discussion is limited. Current study aims to examine the attitudes of three participant groups (student, teacher and pre-serive teacher) towards discussion. The survey model, which is one of the quantitative research methods, was used. The sample of the study consists of 269 students, 617 teacher candidates and 167 teacher, a total of 1053 participants, determined by the convenience sampling method. In order to collect data, the argumentative attitude scale developed by Infante and Rancer (1982) as 20 items and adapted into Turkish as 10 items by Turunç, Eser and Dinç (2018) and a personal information form developed by the researchers were used. Frequency and percentage distributions regarding the demographic characteristics of students, pre-service teachers and teachers, as well as the argumentative attitudes of the participants were determined according to the independent variables. The research shows that although teachers, students and prospective teachers have positive attitudes, they also have various concerns towards discussion. Related results denote that teachers, students, and pre-service teachers have conflicting feelings (Infante & Rancer, 1982) about discussion. In the light of the results in addition to ensuring the participation of teachers, students and pre-service teachers it is recommended to examine those in carefully prepared and conducted discussions beside conflicting emotions with process-based qualitative research.
... With the discussion method, it is expected that in the learning process there will be no one-way communication, where only the teacher plays a role but also students can carry out their obligations as a student in full [12]. With discussion, students are encouraged to use their knowledge and experience to solve problems, without always depending on the opinions of others [13]. Students can express their opinions verbally because it is necessary to practice a democratic life [14]. ...
An extensive body of research details the lack of discussion and collaboration occurring in K12 classrooms in the United States. This study seeks to examine this issue by exploring the associations preservice social studies teachers make between the underlying principles of democratic education and the use of discussion in the social studies classroom. The present qualitative multi-case study uses a collection of field-based data and university coursework to examine how six preservice social studies teachers at a large southeastern university conceptualize and value discussion as a pedagogical approach. Findings suggest that preservice social studies teachers do see value in the use of discussion and associate it with broad themes of democratic education. However, because their understandings of democratic education are often vague and unclear, the associations being made often do not reflect the work being conducted within academia in regards to social justice.
Instructional Strategies for Middle and Secondary Social Studies is an exciting methods-based text that integrates appropriate management and assessment techniques with seven distinct teaching strategies. Writing explicitly for pre-service social studies teachers, veteran teacher educators Bruce E. Larson and Timothy A. Keiper offer detailed descriptions of a range of teaching techniques, from lectures to role plays to student-directed investigations. It provides a practical guide for considering when to use what strategy, how to determine that students meet learning objectives with a particular strategy, and how to keep the learning environment positive.