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Deepening Student Understanding with Collaborative Discourse

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

(Originally published by ASCD April 4, 2019.)

Most educators agree that asking students to engage deeply with the content they are learning is quite different from asking them to recall surface-level information. Knowing what deeper understanding looks and sounds like will help teachers employ collaborative discourse as a go-to strategy for almost any lesson.

This approach requires first knowing what rigor is and dispelling some common misconceptions, such as: "All students cannot think deeply"; "Rigor just means doing more or harder work"; "Deeper thinking should not require scaffolding". When adults engage with complex tasks, they don't simply do more or harder work. They develop a deeper understanding of the work, benefiting greatly from scaffolding (such as seeing exemplar models or getting feedback) and collaborative discourse with peers. There is no reason to think that children cannot do the same.

In my work with Depth of Knowledge and cognitive rigor, I've uncovered six ways we can move students' thinking to deeper understanding. We can observe evidence of deeper thinking when ...

1. Students make and support connections to consolidate their learning.

2. Students construct knowledge by building schemas - taking the "whole" apart to see how the parts work together.

3. Students generate open-ended questions that require investigation and drive learning.

4. Students can define the challenge within a complex situation or problem and plan a solution path.

5. Students engage with peers to find solutions or meet a group goal.

6. Students apply (transfer) what they've learned to novel situations.

I've applied these ideas to the design of "kid-friendly" tools that facilitate collaborative discourse. My Collaborative Inquiry Plan is one such tool.

Making Thinking Visible

While some educators believe that individual work is more manageable and perhaps a more efficient use of class time, let's consider what is most effective in terms of all students achieving deeper understanding. From the early work of researchers through today, we find compelling support for thoughtfully designed small group work. Robert Slavin’s research (1991) on "team learning" identified two essential elements of collaboration: shared group goals and individual accountability of all group members.

The work of Nottingham, Nottingham, and Renton (2017) stresses the power of group dialogue to move student thinking from surface-level knowledge to deeper understanding of concepts.

It is the structure of small group investigation combined with collaborative discourse that teaches students how to think, how to express ideas clearly, how to respectfully listen for divergent viewpoints and give critical feedback, and most of all, how to formulate their own reasoning. The research is clear. Collaboration activities that are intentionally structured for shared goals, individual accountability, and focused discourse drive deeper thinking within groups and can have a major positive effect on each student’s learning.

Collaborative discourse assists teams in thinking through the PLANNING phase of completing a complex task. Thinking through the task requirements together helps students to clarify and take responsibility for directing and monitoring their own progress. When students learn to organize how they will work to accomplish their goals they become more independent learners. My rule in using this tool is that your team cannot begin the task until you have approval on a clear plan that teachers can use to hold each student accountable.

So, how do we thoughtfully design small group work for collaborative discourse and deeper thinking? An activity I call “Picture Search” can illustrate how a teacher might introduce use of the Collaborative Inquiry Plan to students. Small groups are presented with a photo, picture, visual symbol, or historical artifact and given a few questions to answer. Unlike yes-no or fact-based questions, the answers require investigation and must be supported with evidence from multiple, credible sources.

Before students can begin their investigation, they must develop a plan: clarify the task, determine HOW they will approach the task, identify resources needed, assign roles to each member specifically describing what each person will contribute, and restate the success criteria for the task.

Sample Collaborative Inquiry Task using Picture Search

Students are shown a picture of a historical painting (e.g., Washington DC).

  • What is this a picture of?

  • Approximately what time period is this depicting?

  • How do you know? Provide three different credible sources of evidence to support your answer.

Bonus: Can you also find something interesting or unique about the picture or time period?

Students first need to draw upon their collective prior knowledge (does anybody recognize anything?); use investigative skills to determine which clues in the picture might lead them to the answers (e.g., what monuments are there/not there, what kinds of transportation are depicted/not depicted); and determine how to check credibility of sources.

Then, students develop – and get approval from the teacher on their inquiry plan. I suggest that teachers co-design a plan with students before giving students more independence in developing their own plans.

After all, shouldn't a learning goal for each student be to develop the ability to drive their own learning?


Nottingham, J., Nottingham, J. & Renton, M. (2017). Challenging learning through dialogue: Strategies to engage your students and develop their language of learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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