Conversations with Tim: The Discussion Project

From left: Dean Hess, Katie Stenz, Lynn Glueck, Merideth Trahan and Tim Boals.
From left: Dean Hess, Katie Stenz, Lynn Glueck, Merideth Trahan and Tim Boals.
February 7, 2022

This edition of Conversations with Tim features a discussion between Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, Diana Hess and Lynn Glueck about the Discussion Project, which is housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (just like WIDA!). Diana is dean of the UW-Madison School of Education and principal investigator for the Discussion Project. Lynn is the program director for the Discussion Project. The Discussion Project is a professional development program designed to help educators create welcoming, engaging and academically rigorous classroom environments in which students experience productive classroom discussions on important issues and topics.

Tim, Diana and Lynn joined Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to talk about the significance of the Discussion Project and how educators can take part in and learn from this exciting program!

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading this abridged version of their conversation, which has been lightly edited.

Tim: Before we talk about the Discussion Project, is there anything you'd like to tell us about the UW-Madison School of Education?

Dean Hess: Thanks for that question, Tim! The School of Education here at UW-Madison is an unusually large school and is growing quite rapidly. It’s an unusual School of Education because not only do we have all the things that you would expect – departments, such as curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies, and a large research center, the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (where WIDA and the Discussion Project are housed) – but we also have three departments devoted to the arts and three departments that are devoted to either physical or mental health kinesiology. And we have [rehabilitation] psychology and counseling psychology.

For those of you who are interested in teaching, which I know is almost everybody in the WIDA community, we are now in the second year of something called the Teacher Pledge, which is a program that is unlike anything else being offered in the country. Anybody who wants to go through one of our 14 teacher education programs has the opportunity to have their tuition and student fees, etc., paid for as long as they pledge to stay in Wisconsin to teach for either three or four years. This is an $18 million experimental program that we're also doing research on, so if anyone out there is reading this and wants to become a teacher, we really encourage you to come to UW-Madison!

Tim: That sounds like a great offer! Madison is a little cold this time of the year, but I can say this is a great place to be and it's a wonderful university. Let's get into the Discussion Project. Diana, can you tell us a little bit about the mission and what inspired its inception?

Dean Hess: The Discussion Project started in 2017. It was designed to help instructors working on our campus facilitate high-quality classroom discussions – regardless of what they teach, everything from Arabic to zoology. We were interested in both improving the quality of discussion, because we know discussion is such a powerful pedagogy, and we were also interested in doing whatever we could to help all students feel included in classrooms.

Tim: Would you like to tell us a little bit about the three distinct parts of the project?

Dean Hess: The first part of the Discussion Project is a professional development program that's available to any instructor on the UW-Madison campus. It’s a very interactive, lengthy program that's designed to help people become better facilitators of classroom discussion.

The second part is a research project, where, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, we're doing research to find out answers to a number of questions related to the professional development program. We’re also taking the professional development program out to other institutions of higher education through Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services (WCEPS), a nonprofit that's attached to the School of Education.

Third, we're really excited because we're developing a high school version of the Discussion Project that will be available to high school teachers from all over the United States, and we hope internationally. That project is in development right now and we hope to field test the curriculum sometime this summer.

Tim: Who participates in the project and what should they expect to gain by participating. Lynn, do you want to jump in on this one?

Lynn: Sure! As Dean Hess mentioned, any university instructor can take part – a graduate student, academic staff or faculty. We are an interdisciplinary course, so we have had people from every school and college at UW-Madison. In our courses, we not only have a mix of disciplines, but a mix of levels of instructors. At first, we thought that could be a problem, but it's been a strength.

As Dean Hess said, we are offering this program to other institutions of higher ed. It could be a community college, research university or a small liberal arts college. We’re flexible about the way that we offer it: either in person or online. And either focused on a particular content area, or in an interdisciplinary and multi-level manner.

Tim: With the project serving as an ongoing research effort, what are some of the things you've learned in the past few years and have any of those things nudged you to change elements of the project?

Lynn: Our three main research questions for our Mellon Foundation grant are

  • How effective is the course in terms of what the instructors learn and how the students benefit?
  • Can we scale this up at UW-Madison?
  • Is our curriculum and instruction portable to institutions that are different from UW-Madison and, in particular, our demographics? As a majority white institution, we want to do work at Hispanic serving institutions and historically black colleges or universities.

Already, we have some answers! We have found that the course is highly effective with our population at UW-Madison – from our qualitative results and in our feedback from program evaluation forms. We have been able to scale up from just a few, small cohorts of between 15 and 20 people to almost 700 instructors across the campus – in all schools and colleges and 130 different departments.

We have learned in the quantitative and qualitative data that the instructors’ benefit from learning structures, learning to be deliberate and understanding the purpose of a discussion and tying it to learning objectives to plan a bit more than they ordinarily would. Some of the things that have made us change elements of our project are realizing how important it is to think about where our instructors are starting from and meeting them where they're at – which is a range of places but understanding that some instructors have been teaching for 20 years and they still haven't had an opportunity to get feedback on the way that they run a discussion. Through the process of having our instructors plan and get feedback, they have said, “Wow, I’ve never done this before and I have benefited from this kind of deliberate planning.”

Tim: It sounds like the research is really giving you a lot of reasons to feel hopeful and excited about the potential of this project. How could the discussion project specifically benefit educators of multilingual learners?

Lynn: It gives that impetus to have multilingual learners get into conversation and discussion and use their language skills to access higher order thinking. Our course is about creating the right kind of structure and safe environment and the goal setting around growing in the areas of speaking and listening. It’s helping you increase the speaking and listening that your multilingual learners engage in to learn another language and continue to learn in their first language.

Tim: That sounds really great, Lynn. One of the things that we push at WIDA is the idea that language learning takes place through content learning. The Discussion Project is such a wonderful example of how, if teachers are able to engage students in real discussions around social studies, science – any topic, multilingual learners benefit from being in those environments.

Merideth: You’re right, Tim, a lot of the work that we're doing at WIDA is trying to foster the same kind of environment for learning. Will you share a few examples of what we’re doing at WIDA?

Tim: The WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition really puts engagement front and center. Many of the resources and professional learning associated with the 2020 Edition talk about engaging students in civics, history, science – you name it. Getting kids to discuss what they're learning about is an essential part of that.

The Making Science Multilingual (MSM) project, which is in the middle of a pilot with a few of our states, just released a new self-paced eWorkshop. This project is another example of getting kids engaged and discussing science topics. MSM teaches teachers and students to do what we call “language moves,” which are seven or eight key moves that students and teachers learn that help to promote and carry on the conversation. I’ve always said that I think that one of the things that people forgot in the early days of cooperative learning is that it’s more than just getting kids in groups and doing the nuts and bolts of group learning, you've got to have skill at interacting and discussing.

Dean Hess: Let me build on that. The tagline for the Discussion Project is “learn to discuss and discuss to learn.” We want students to become better participants in discussion, just like we want students to become better writers in school or better musicians, or better mathematicians. We want to make sure that students see discussion as something that they can become better at. We also believe that discussion is a tool to learn, that you learn different perspectives from interacting with people who have ideas that are different from your own.

Tim: Anything else to add?

Dean Hess: I would love for Lynn to talk about the instructional coaching that we're doing as part of the Discussion Project.

Lynn: This dovetails with what we were just talking about. The kind of growth mindset, formative approach to improving skills over time. It's the same thing with learning to design and implement a discussion in your classroom. You don't come right out of the gates knowing how to do it. So, we encourage our participants to sign up for instructional consultation. This involves a co-planning session with an instructional consultant to build out that discussion plan and where you see some sticking points. Then, when the observation occurs, which is the next step, the person observing can zero in on what that instructor wants help with. Then after the observation there's a feedback session. We always start by asking the instructor

  • What do you think went well?
  • What do you think you would change for next time?
  • Where are you going next when we think about your goals?
  • Where did you get to with it?

From there, we build into the next instructional consultation cycle. Every person who's engaged in the process has said that is what's helped them see the areas where they need to grow and get feedback and make reasonable goals and change. Everyone needs a coach, and we would like to continue to promote that. Running a great discussion is so gratifying – to hear students learn and discuss. However, it's not as immediately apparent how to do it and people need help with it.

Tim: I couldn't agree more! It's wonderful to hear that there is a coaching component to this. Thank you both for joining us today. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from teachers out there as they talk to us about what more they’d like to learn about the Discussion Project.

About Conversations with Tim

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a WIDA news article series that features a conversation between WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and a colleague or two in the field of multilingual learner education. Together, they discuss the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place today.


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