Fertilizing the Garden of Ideas

Designing quality discussion prompts can be a challenge whether building an online discussion forum or trying to better engage the classroom learner. As instructors, we’ve all asked questions of our students that failed to lead  them to our verdant garden, blossoming with student ideas. Instead, at one time or another, we’ve led students to deserts of superficial or pat answers that lay shriveled in darkness with only the chirping of crickets as adulation.

The Power of Conflict

In retrospect, what we needed, many times, was a richer discussion prompt. There are diverse strategies and approaches, but one of the most effective ways to generate conversation is to build some narrative tension into the discussion. Just as a good story contains elements of narrative conflict, conflict in the classroom around ideas and the expression of perspectives is inherently engaging. The trick is to manage that energy, keep it focused, positive, and constructive. Constructive is an appropriate word, particularly in this context. Your prompt provides the rich humus in which student understandings may germinate and grow; your prompts should also challenge students’ critical thinking and reinforce habits of evidentiary-based reasoning. Constructive discussion prompt are part of a solid constructivist pedagogical practice.

Weeds in the Garden

Unqualified statements, half-truths, and statements addressing common misunderstandings represent ripe pickings for the instructor seeking to foment engaging discourse. Further, discussion prompts should open issues at the heart of your course and ask students to address what Wiggins and McTighe call “big ideas” in Understanding by Design. (Wiggins and Mctighe 2005) Complex understandings arise when students grapple with substantive issues having messy or complicated answers. And, if you seek to re-emphasize course content, you can require student statements to be based on evidence obtained from course materials.


One downside of this type of managed interaction is that students who answer first tend to shape the direction of discussion. Students who disagree will often remain silent or get distracted by the conflict rather than focus on their own reasoned argument. One simple solution to this problem is to have students submit short written responses to the prompt prior to the discussion. Online settings work particularly well for this as responses can be posted by students ahead of time. Face-to-face courses can add an asynchronous online discussion component, or student classroom discussion or debate groups can be built around positions in written responses The secret here is to make sure students are invested in their ideas before the discussion occurs. They need “skin in the game” to care about the process.

Sample Discussion Prompts:

Who won World War II?

In what ways did the U.S. Constitution create (or not create) a

       democratic government?

How is the U.S. criminal justice system designed to deliver justice?

How is the Pythagorean Theorem essential in our everyday lives?

Who colonized North America first? Why is this important?

What is our responsibility as consumers and Alaskans to the

       development of Alaska’s resources?

More to Come

The tension inherent in your prompt, and in the materials you provide, creates the driving energy behind your discussions. As students absorb concepts, build their own understandings, and wrestle with the ideas of their peers, you are nurturing the garden of their ideas. However, even the best designed prompts can fail if delivered with poorly planned timing. Next week we’ll talk about the fine art of synchrony in your student discussion gardens.

Learn More

Here’s an article on facilitation discussion from iTeachU at UAF eLearning.


Here are some additional ideas for designing effective discussion questions from Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning.