Classroom Discussion Techniques: Handling the Dominant Derailer

We all know the type: the student who is the first to speak in response to every question and drags the discussion in their preferred direction. Either unknowing or uncaring that they are dominating the conversation, they suck out the air from a room of open discourse, creating a challenge for the instructor and potentially frustration for students who might otherwise want to join in. Of all the challenges facing us in leading a productive conversation, this is the one I hear about the most.

Let’s examine five ways of handling the Dominant Derailer.

  1. Establish Class Rules
  2. Acknowledge and Ally
  3. Redirect to a Parking Lot
  4. Return to an Essential Question
  5. Use Discussion Entry Tickets
  1. Establish Class Rules
    To prevent a Dominant Derailer (DD) from taking purchase, start out your course or discussion session by establishing class rules for the conversation. You can even point out that a DD often manifests in classes, and while you are sure that won’t happen this time with this particular group, perhaps you could establish ground rules to make sure that the discussion is as inclusive and welcoming as possible. This has benefits that go beyond a DD, but if you prime students in this direction, you are likely to prevent a DD from manifesting in the first place. Some possible rules include a 1 finger/2 finger model where raising a single finger means the participant has a new point, and 2 fingers means a direct response to the previous point (and therefore trumps a new 1 finger in the discussion queue). If a DD abuses the 2 finger rule, you can say that you just want new points right now, and cut them off. Periodically revisit the rules–you might find that the students are frustrated enough by a DD that they institute a rule restricting the number of times someone can speak, or act as co-enforcers of the rule.

2. Acknowledge and Ally

The Dominant Derailer is still one of your students, and therefore you want to choose a method that doesn’t cut off their opportunity to learn. Sometimes the problem is bad enough that you need to pull the student aside to speak to them, or gently ask them to hold their point so that others can talk. In doing so, acknowledge their enthusiasm as something to be applauded, and ask them to be your ally in this to ensure that other students are able to participate at their level. Partnering with them in this way decreases the likelihood of upsetting that student who feels their contribution isn’t valued, and instead turns them into your partner in the classroom. This allows you to use some humor in your approach–“Neil! We all know that you’ve got the answer, but let’s see if anyone else can get there with you first.”

3. Redirect to the Parking Lot

The Parking Lot is where we send off-topic or tangential points to sit until we have time to consider them. It’s a useful technique for running meetings as well as classes, as it gives you an immediate response when someone raises a point that will derail the discussion. Simply say that you are going to put that point in the class ‘Parking Lot’, and that you’ll check in on the parking lot at a later point. You must, however, follow up and actually return to the parking lot, or students will think you are just trying to shut them down (and thus your parking lot, as one participant in a session I ran today colorfully put it, becomes an impound lot). There are a few ways to do this. The simplest one is to ask the student to bring the point back up later when you ask for it. Another is to write it on the board, or ask the student to write it on a post-it note that goes on a piece of butcher block paper you keep for this purpose. That serves as a visual reminder to return to them, and as parking lot points get checked off, you take off that note. A digital repository also works for a Parking Lot–you can create an interactive poll with the ability to upvote or downvote comments and questions, which lets other students tell you which points are worthy of coming out of the Parking Lot.

4. Return to an Essential Question

Derailing comments sometimes happen because the student doesn’t think of them as derailing: they see the relevance to the conversation. This happens frequently with discussions that begin with questions that are too open-ended, such as ‘what do you think about X topic?’. This practically invites derailment. Instead, start your discussion with an Essential Question as defined by McTighe and Wiggins: a core question that needs to be answered over the course of the discussion. Put it on the board or share it on the screen, and then when comments are raised that would move onto true tangents, you can gently refer back to the visible question and ask the student to explain how their point builds on our understanding to answer that question. This helps provide focus for the discussion and can lead to some self-regulation among the students. Rather than coming up with anything they think of that’s relevant to a topic, they are focused on answering the question.

5. Use Discussion Entry Tickets

Another technique to build more inclusive discussions is to use an entry ticket for the discussion. Ask students to prepare a response to a particular question (essential or otherwise). Maybe its based on the reading for that week and they submit it in advance, or they do it as the first part of the discussion activity. Give students a minute or two to write a response. From there, you can ask students to share their responses either with the large group or initially with a partner or small group. This gets everyone into a participatory mood, meaning that the Dominant Derailer doesn’t get an advantage in having something ready to say. It also would allow you to call on students who don’t contribute as much, as they will have prepared some kind of response you can build on. Its a great method for helping neurodivergent students and those for whom English is not their first language, giving them some time to settle their thoughts before being asked to speak.

So there you go. Five ways to deal with the Dominant Derailer. Please share in the comments or on social media what other techniques you’ve found effective in handling this kind of discussion challenge.