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Peer Discussions

Class Meetings  
Moral Dilemma Discussion 
Teacher as Discussion Leader
Problem Solving Discussions
Literature-based Discussions
Tips on Conducting a Class Discussion

Peer discussions are another promising practice to develop character traits such as respect, fairness, self-discipline, and courtesy (Berkowitz, 2003).  These character traits are manifested through social-emotional behaviors such as being a good listener, understanding others’ perspectives and points of view, understanding one’s own and other’s feelings, showing sensitivity to social cues, disagreeing with someone without making it personal, cooperating, decision making, and problem solving skills.

The Institute for Character Education will highlight and present several different types of peer discussions: class meetings, problem solving discussions, moral dilemmas, and literature-based discussions.  Closing this section are tips for conducting a class discussion.  Discussion can be to be used to develop character competence through academic content learning, be an explicit teaching strategy to address classroom issues and problems, focus on developing moral reasoning in a developmentally appropriate way, and facilitate the growth of decision making skills.

Class Meetings

A class meeting is a strategy which brings students together for the purpose of providing them with a voice and choice in the classroom and school life. It can address intellectual, character, social, and emotional issues (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002).

There are several versions of class meetings described in the literature of character development and social-emotional competence development (Kriete & Bechtel 2002; Charney, 1992; Developmental Studies Center, 1996).  While there is no one formula for instituting class meetings, the shared purpose of all the variations is to “provide students with a voice and choice in the classroom and school life” (Beland, 2003, p.22).  This strategy can also be used to create a shared set of norms, code of conduct, or classroom rules in a democratic manner.

Following are some guidelines to consider to achieve the best results regardless of the type and purpose of meeting used.

  • Design a meeting space conducive for sharing.
  • Create a safe and trusting atmosphere.
  • Be a facilitator-participant rather than a teacher.
  • Model respectful listening.
  • Encourage perspective taking.
  • Involve students in planning and decision making
  • Involve students in solving problems. See the “problem solving” section for guidelines.  (Beland, 2003, p.22)

Here are some variations of class meetings.

Morning Meetings (elementary)

Starting the day with a morning meeting structure is a way to establish a caring, trusting classroom community.   A morning meeting can set the tone for the day, and is a proactive way to merge and address the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of students.  The effects of a morning meeting can extend throughout the day.  It can also motivate children by addressing their need to feel significant, to belong, and to have fun. It creates an environment of respectful learning and establishes a climate of trust (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002).  The duration of the meeting time can be determined by the teacher considering the age and developmental level of her students.  A morning meeting is a powerful strategy for students to practice observing, reflecting, speaking, and listening skills.

The following is a format for morning meetings:

  1. Greeting
  2. Sharing
  3. Group activity
  4. News-announcements (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002, p.3)

Circle of Power and Respect (middle school)

For middle school students, a version of the classroom meeting is the Circle of Power and Respect (CPR). The four components of the CPR are the same as the morning meeting however the emphasis changes to meet the needs of middle school students. Like elementary students, middle school students “thrive in an atmosphere of trust and belonging created by this ritual” (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002 p.105)

Seated in a circle during CPR, all students are seen and acknowledged.  They learn to greet each other with respect; communicate with power and authority without putting each other down; and listen to each other’s stories, hopes, and fears.  They also talk about the business of the school day ahead and learn and practice a wide range of academic skills, including language arts, math, science, geography, and test-taking. (Kriete & Bechtel, 2002 p.105)

Middle school students are experiencing physical changes, emotional changes, and are immersed in a peer culture that often rewards antisocial behavior. All of these forces can impede intellectual and personal growth.  Through an established ritual like CPR, students can practice relationship skills and higher level moral thinking.  This process can also reinforce academic skills such as critical thinking, asking questions, solving problems, and working cooperatively.  CPR can provide the opportunity for students to turn their need for peer connections into a positive, dynamic learning strategy. (Kriete & Bechtel 2002, p.108-9)

Problem Solving Discussions

A problem solving discussion is a strategy which brings students together to define problems, generate solutions, commit to trying a solution, and reflect upon the effectiveness of the solution selected.

Problem solving discussions can be used to provide students the opportunity to apply their values to social issues that they experience at school and in their daily lives. Forging character occurs through our interactions with others and this strategy can address issues between students, as well as issues which the whole class may face. A problem solving discussion is a strategy which brings students together to define problems, generate solutions, commit to trying a solution, and reflect upon the effectiveness of the solution selected.

The steps of a problem solving discussion are to:

  1. Define the problem
    Students describe what they have observed and look at the problem form the perspectives of those involved.
  2. Generate some solutions
    Students brainstorm alternative solutions, but refrain from making judgments at this stage.
  3. Evaluate the solutions
    Students discuss the potential positive and negative consequences of each solution. This step provides an opportunity for students to discuss solutions in relation to specific values; Is the solution fair? Does it take people’s feelings into account? Does this solution uphold (or violate) any core ethical value? Is so, what value and in what ways?
  4. Choose a solution and use it
    Based on the discussion in step 3, students choose a solution.
  5. Determine whether the solution is working and change to another solution if necessary.
    Students evaluate progress.  If the solution is not working or not working well enough, they try an alternative solution.  (Beland, 2003, p.25)

Moral Dilemma Discussion

A moral dilemma discussion, sometimes called ethical decision making, is a strategy in which students “are presented with a social dilemma by a teacher who promotes interaction among students whose goal is to find some resolution to the dilemma” (Schonert-Reichl, 2004). 

A moral dilemma discussion, sometimes called ethical decision making, is a strategy in which students “are presented with a social dilemma by a teacher who promotes interaction among students whose goal is to find some resolution to the dilemma” (Schonert-Reichl, 2004).  This process facilitates the application of students’ moral reasoning skills to the conflicts and dilemmas which they face in their daily lives. Whether the genuine dilemma discussed comes from literature, current events, or the lives of the students, this type of discussion provides students the opportunity to develop and foster moral development. Moral development refers to growth of an individual’s ability to distinguish right from wrong, to develop a system of ethical values, and to learn to act morally (Rest, 1986, as cited in Schonert-Reichl, 2004) The teachers role is to pose questions to elicit student opinions and challenge them to reach for a higher moral plane. Students take on different perspectives and are presented with the moral reasoning stage that is one level above theirs. (See section, “Stages of Moral Development”)

Steps for Conducting Moral Dilemma Discussions

Essential elements of the discussion should include:

  1. Focus on the lives of students; it should be considered a genuine dilemma
  2. Central character (or primary group of characters). Students should make judgments about what the central character should do
  3. Choice: the character in the dilemma should have two action alternatives which present a definite conflict.
  4. Social issues (some moral issues include: social norms, civil liberties, life, personal conscience, contract, property, roles and issues of acceptance, authority punishment, truth, care for others, responsibility towards others.)
  5. A “should” question—this is what makes it a “moral” dilemma. Only after students have answered what “should” be done should they get into discussion about the disparity between what should be done and what would be done (Schonert-Reichl, 2004).

Another approach to this type of discussion is ethical decision making developed by Josephson and adapted by Beland (2003).  This is called the ethical decision making strategy.

The steps to using this strategy include:

  1. Analyze the dilemma
    What is the dilemma? What are the ethical issues?
  2. Generate alternative decisions.
  3. Evaluate the alternatives.
    Evaluate the facts and assumptions of each alternative. Does any alternative require the sacrifice of an ethical principle? What are possible consequences of each alternative? Is there a suitable compromise? Can you make a decision based on the answers to these questions? If not, apply step 3.
  4. Apply decision–making guides to each alternative:
    Would you want to be treated this way?

If everyone in the world did it, is that the kind of world you would want?
Would you want your parents (or kids) to know of your reasoning and decision?
Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were publicized to the broader community?

  1. Decide and take action.
    Based on the answers to questions in steps 2 and 3, make a decision, devise a plan of action, and implement it.
  2. Reflect.
    Revisit your decision. What were the consequences of your decision? Would you make the same decision today? Why or why not?    

(adapted from Josephson 2002, as cited Beland, 2003, p.24)

(See the Section the “Teacher as Discussion Leader” for tips on conducting a classroom discussion.)

Literature-based Discussions

A literature-based discussion uses the content of compelling literature, narrative, and historical texts to discuss and promote students’ understanding of moral and social issues and ultimately make connections with their own life experiences.

The ICE Institute is supporting teachers to develop and implement character-based reading-language arts and history-social studies curriculum that is based on the academic content standards and uses effective teaching practices for literacy development, content knowledge development, and character development. “One of our jobs as educators is to nurture in children the desire to read great literature and narratives that address our struggling to make sense of our lives and learn the value of the virtues we hold dear, such as being responsible, respectful, kind, courageous, and loyal” (Vincent, 1999, p.103). Vincent believes that “what children read and how they are taught to read can affect the development of good character traits” (Vincent, 1999, p.101). This section will discuss the benefits of using literature to discuss ethical issues and will also present two additional discussion strategies, Literature Circle and Socratic Seminar.

Using the content of compelling literature and narratives, discussions can be facilitated by the teacher using the moral dilemmas and social issues embedded in literature (nonfiction, fiction, parables, myths, poetry, historical documents) to facilitate discussion and reflection.  The format of the discussion can be a moral dilemma discussion, a problem solving discussion, or a discussion focusing on key questions and ethical issues taken from the text.

There are several benefits to using literature-based discussion themes around issues of character.  First, everyone enjoys a good story for it engages both the mind and the heart.  Students can discuss literary characters and take their perspective without the personal disclosures that can be uncomfortable. Placing themselves in the shoes of the literary characters is a way to practice perspective taking and can expand understanding of other cultures and communities.  Literature illustrates value and moral issues within a social context.  In social studies, much of the content has ethical issues embedded in the story of history and in the lives of historical figures.  Through literature and narrative students can be engaged in higher level moral reasoning and thinking: analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and reflection.

A cooperative approach to discussion is the Literature Circle. Lead by students, this discussion strategy provides for students to choose literature to read, develop questions to discuss and lead the discussion themselves.  Roles are designated for students such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper (Beland, 2003, p.35).

Another approach to discussion is the Socratic Seminar in which students are not asked to answer questions, but are engaged in dialogues and responding to questions with questions. Students examine and improve their own thinking through this method called the dialectic which requires the suspension of biases and prejudices. The goal is to not prove someone wrong or win a debate, but to encourage questioning of one another’s thinking to jointly reach the best conclusion. (Beland, 2003, p. 19) Discussion prompts are selected from course reading materials.

Following are some useful student-created guidelines for the Socratic Seminar from the Excelsior Academy in San Diego, California. Notice that character is in both the process and the content.

  • Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not “learning a subject;” you are aiming at understanding ideas, values, and issues.
  • Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.
  • Do not participate if not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session.
  • Listen carefully, talk to each other, not just to the teacher.
  • You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don’t know it or admit it (Beland, 2003, p.20).

The co-director of the project and teacher, Frank McGuire, speaks of the benefits of this discussion method:

“The shared inquiry discussion methods teach students to voice their opinions and support their ideas and statements with evidence from the text. I have found that these discussions help students to understand others’ points of view, and students often transfer the skills they learn in discussions to writing about ideas and issues prompted by the reading” (as cited in Beland, 2003, p.20)

(A selection of literature, categorized by character trait, can be found in Developing Character in Students, by Philip Vincent, pp121-136.)

The Teacher as Discussion Leader

Teachers may have concerns or fear about conducting a moral discussion in their classroom.  They are unsure about how to respond to students who may argue for “bad” or “relative” values.  Especially in high school, students may be “cynical” and be “more glib in arguing their case; and in many cases, more experienced at and casual about irresponsible behavior” (Lickona, 1991, p.251). The problem comes when the “teacher doesn’t know what to say in response to low-level student thinking. To remain silent, not to get students to examine critically an ethically deficient position, or even to dissent unpersuasively feels like an educational failure to the teacher—and, unfortunately, it is” (Lickona, 1991, p.251).

In response to this concern, Lickona (1991) believes that the solution lies in the quality of the teacher’s strategies and discussion leader skills. He presents five guidelines to assist teachers in facilitating an effective moral discussion. These guidelines can be equally useful for a moral dilemma discussion or a literature-based discussion focusing on a moral issue. The five guidelines are:

  1. Set a nonrelativistic context for discussion.
  2. Plan problem-specific questions that will challenge. Questions can start with knowledge and comprehension level and then move to higher level, critical thinking questions where students can apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.
  3. Choose a reflection-discussion format that requires careful thinking. (See the formats in this section.)
  4. Challenge students to keep thinking about the issue.
  5. Anchor discussions in a curriculum-based approach. (Lickona, 1991, p.251-254)

Tips on Conducting a Class Discussion

A well-planned discussion develops higher-level thinking of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as well as problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and creative thinking. It provides an opportunity for students to practice communication and prosocial skills. This teaching strategy helps students learn information when they discuss it, actively engaging them in their own learning.  Since students’ learning styles differ, incorporating effective discussion within the curriculum, addresses the needs of the auditory learning while promoting students’ social skill development. Some students learn best when they can talk about what they are learning.  Discussion shows the student that their classmates are resources for each other.  Students are often pleasantly surprised at the insights and experiences of their classmates.  Students can learn from one another.

What's the weather like in your classroom?   Classroom climate is one of the most important aspects of conducting a successful discussion for a positive climate of trust and respect can get the most involvement from your students. Here are some guidelines for developing a conducive climate for fruitful discussion and preparing for the discussion. 

Preparing the Climate

Set ground rules.

For example: Respect views of others.  Listen to each other.  Don't get personal.  Argue without anger.  It's OK to disagree if done in a respectful way. 

Some students may not have had many experiences where they have been allowed to question authority or respectfully disagree with their teachers.  They need to know that this is OK and they need practice.

Set the tone.

Your manner and tone of voice encourages or discourages participation.   A threatening or condescending tone works to cut off discussion.

An example given by a student:  Telling a student he/she is wrong.  This doesn't work as well as telling them you disagree because...or asking what is the evidence or rationale for such a view.

Arrange room.

All students should see and hear each other.  In small groups students should face each other.  In a large class discussion, arranging the chairs in a circle facilitates communication.  This also encourages students to look at and talk to each other and not just to the instructor.

Value silence.

Silence is OK. Give students time to think following a question (3-5 seconds).   Students need time to process the question, see the connections, and generate a response.  Not everyone thinks at the same speed.  This can prevent fast-thinkers from dominating the discussion.

Preparing for the Discussion

Start small.

Small groups can begin discussion then move to whole class sharing or vice versa.  Start with a simple group task, for example:  "List all groups in the community that would be influenced by cheating in school."  This task will also serve to focus the thinking.  Small groups (from 4 - 8) allow the most participation from students. 

Another format is to introduce discussion questions at the start of class, then lecture or make a presentation, followed by the discussion.  Students have time to process and focus on the information.  This can result in more involvement. 

Be prepared.

Plan topics and goals.  You don't want a "free for all."  But be flexible.  If you know your topic focus you can bring back your students when they wander off the topic.  Decide what your purpose is for the discussion.  (See different discussion formats in this section.)  Is it to problem solve?  Is it to facilitate students to be analytical about the topic?  Is it to get them to think in creative ways?  Is it a debate or moral dilemma discussion among various viewpoints?  Is it a combination of these purposes?

Start with factual questions, then move to higher level questions.

"What does prejudice mean?"  "How did school change M.L. King's life?"  Then move on to higher-level thinking questions:  "How did Rosa Park's decision to sit in the front of the bus change M.L. King's life?"  "How did her decision change history?"  "What promotes more social change:  nonviolence or violence?  Give a rational or example to defend your answer."

Other techniques are to start with students' questions, a common experience, role-playing, or two-sides of an issue to debate. 

Teach students to learn through discussion.

Invite students to build on other's ideas.  Encourage listening; ask students to paraphrase or repeat responses.  Avoid dominating the discussion; ask other members to respond to a student's question or concerns.  "What do you think about that idea?"  "What is your response to that question?"  Summarize periodically.  Focus on what's to be discussed next.

Avoiding the Inevitable Potholes and Pitfalls 

If you have used discussion in your classes, it is likely you have experienced some of the potholes and pitfalls.  They can be overcome with a few simple techniques.

Encourage non-participants.

Invite silent students by name to respond to another's ideas.  "Bill, what do you think about that idea?"  "Hilary, do you agree with that reasoning?"  Smile and make encouraging statements to the infrequent contributor for their response.

Control the monopolizers.

Use subtle body language to discourage a frequent contributor, for example, avoid eye contact or ignore their eagerness to respond or interrupt.  Ask students in private to keep their contributions to a certain time limit to allow others to contribute.  Another technique is to limit the amount of responses per participant, for example, 3 responses per student.

Invite students to clarify vague responses.

Restate ambiguous responses and have the participant confirm or reject it.  Ask "Can you elaborate and give us an example?"  "How does your response address the question at hand?"

Facilitate respectful disagreement.

If students agree too early before a thorough discussion of the topic, play devil's advocate or introduce a controversy, or viewpoints or issues not yet discussed.  "No one has yet mentioned the problem of ...."   "A person with another viewpoint might argue that..."

Focus and clarify conflicts.

Restate both sides of a conflict.  The class can vote and state their opinions and reasons.   Remind students to focus on the issues and not emotions or persons.  Clarify the conflict by summarizing the pros and cons of the issue on the chalkboard.  Turn the conflict into a debate for a subsequent class meeting (Vezzuto, 1994).


Beland, K. (2003) Character education: providing a meaningful academic curriculum. In K. Beland (Ed.), Eleven principles sourcebook: how to achieve quality character education in k-12 schools. Washington, DC: Character Education Partnership.

Beland, K. (Ed.) (2003) Eleven principles sourcebook: how to achieve quality character education in k-12 schools. Washington, DC: Character Education Partnership.

Berkowitz, M. W. & Bier, M. C. (2003, draft) Character education literature review.

Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. (in Press) What works in character education: A Research-based guide for practitioners.  Washington, DC:  Character Education Partnership.

Charney, Ruth. (2002) Teaching children to care:  Classroom management for ethical & academic growth, K-8.  Northeast Foundation for Children.

Developmental Studies Center. (1996) Ways we want our classroom to be.  Oakland, CA:

Kriete, R. & Bechtel, L. (2002) The morning meeting book. Greenfield MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Lickona, T. (1991) Education for character: how our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam Books.

Schonert-Reichl, K.A. (2004) Teaching with moral dilemmas in the elementary and secondary school classroom: strategies to develop students’ moral reasoning. Paper presented at the 2004 Social Justice Conference. Retrieved July 1, 2004 from

Vezzuto, L.A. (1994). Class discussions.  Unpublished manuscript.  Appalachian State University.

Vincent, P. (1999). Developing character in students: a primer for teachers, parents, and communities. 2nd ed. Chapel Hill, NC: Character Development Publishing.

L.A. Vezzuto, Ph.D.

© 2005 Orange County Department of Education