Active engagement in critical thinking is at the core of any
learning community, online or offline. While the voice and tone of your
entry as moderator can provide an appealing, elegant, or illustrative
surrounding for your communication, the critical-thinking strategy you
select to frame your entry impacts the dialogue most directly.
All moderators contend with two recurring issues: Dialogues that lose
focus or are conceptually murky; and dialogues that “wallow in the
shallows,” missing areas in which the potential for deeper insight abounds.
To help you craft effective posts to address these two challenges, we’ve
identified two classes of critical thinking strategies:
• Strategies that sharpen the focus of the dialogue
• Strategies that help participants dig deeper into the dialogue
For each general class, we’ve defined three substrategies targeting specific
needs. As you can see in the figure below, sharpening strategies focus and
constrain by making careful sense of an idea and clarifying it to create
common ground. Ideas and directions are sorted out, and consensus on
the direction of the dialogue is negotiated. Digging-deeper strategies can
then build on common understandings, so that the participants reach for
more generality or examine consequences. How can participants do this?
By following inferences or exploring through analogies to get a wider feel
for what’s being said. Digging-deeper strategies, ultimately, shift the plane
of the discussion as participants 1) embrace analogies or generalities that
resonate, and 2) take on wider, more powerful and useful views of an idea.
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Dialogue-focusing strategies — such as identifying direction, sorting ideas for
relevance, and focusing on key points — are handy if the dialogue loses
direction, becomes too wordy, or becomes so dense that you simply must
do some sorting or unpacking of ideas. Such “intellectual clean-up” —
which involves putting things in order and making key issues prominent
— is necessary in any dialogue.
Critical-thinking strategies that will help you and the discussion partici-
pants dig deeper include full-spectrum questioning, making connections, and
honoring multiple perspectives. With these tools, you can add a deeper
dimension to a dialogue that is “wallowing in the shallows” of a satisfac-
tory, conventional approach or an unexamined vocabulary. You can also
address critical issues of unexamined beliefs or assumptions that might
block the path to productive thinking, or explore the reasons for these
beliefs/disbeliefs through analogies, without arousing defensive reac-
tions. By implementing digging-deeper strategies, then, you lay open for
examination the rationale and implications of participants’ contribu-
tions, and you move beyond advocacy of positions to consideration of
the “why” aspect of propositions or claims that are held to be valid.
Sharpening the Focus
Deepening the Dialogue
Sorting Ideas for Relevance
Focusing on Key Points
Honoring Multiple Perspectives
Let us now look more closely at the three sharpening-the-focus strategies. It’s
important to note that when you select any critical-thinking strategy, your
intervention goal is not to instruct participants in critical thinking, or to
reveal your own expertise. Instead, you must model the form and content
of pragmatic dialogue, in which a “Guide on the Side” seeks to paraphrase,
juxtapose, explore tensions or implications, or extend ideas to new levels
of interpretation — all with the intent of finding new meaning. Ownership
of the direction of the dialogue and the questions that drive it must remain
with the participants.
SHARPENING THE FOCUS
Like face-to-face conversations or interactions in work groups or class-
rooms, online dialogues will often wander and lose their coherence.
Thus, one of your central responsibilities as moderator is to maintain
clarity of the discussion’s direction and continually sharpen its focus. As
such, you must assess the social and argumentative content of the online
conversation and contribute — modeling pragmatic dialogue — entries
designed to push the conversation forward. Negotiating the sense of
space in the course or working group, and making clear its goals and
expectations, is a process you must deal with continuously. Your role as
concentrator of key contributions and keeper of coherence is essential in
maintaining the direction of the dialogue (Bohm 1990).
You won’t accomplish this task solely by marking out or moving toward
rational ground. Rather, you’ll succeed by carefully and collectively
examining why a set of ideas or a position is incoherent. At both the
start-up phase and within dialogues that are in full swing, sharpening-
the-focus strategies are particularly useful (though they’re not limited to
these time frames). The start-up phase of any online dialogue brings
awkward moments for participants and moderators alike. As we’ve
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noted previously, in online learning groups there is no “back rows of the
work space or classroom” in which someone may invisibly “attend” the
class. Everyone’s contributions are written and public, and they require
much more effort than head nods, smiles, or eye contact. As first entrant
in a thread, you the moderator may wish to employ the voice of a Personal
Muse and focus on key points or possible tensions, so that you can “break
the ice” or provide some lines of discussion. Following some initial
postings, you might next — now, perhaps, as a Conceptual Facilitator —
highlight short, relevant segments from several lengthy responses, prizing
gems of expression from a muddy matrix, to guide participants toward
crisp language that supports the form of pragmatic dialogue. Sharpening
the focus strategies inform participants informally of the standards and
expectations of discourse, and they identify and highlight productive lines
If, on the other hand, participants are fully engaged in a mature
dialogue, focusing strategies may again come in handy. In mature dia-
logues, participants themselves may employ thinking strategies to dig
for deeper meaning. As a Reflective Guide, you might bring to the
surface intriguing, though ambiguous, ideas by citing key participant
comments or even parts of assigned readings. Or, in the voice of a
Mediator, you may want to cite different possible directions taken in the
thread and negotiate paths in which the participants’ collective energy
can be best directed.
Let us now look at the three focusing-oriented critical-thinking strategies
— identifying direction, sorting ideas for relevance, and focusing on key points
— and study examples of their use in actual dialogues.
Identifying the Direction of a Dialogue
The first challenge you face as moderator is helping participants make
sense of the general goals of an online working group or course, as well
as the expectations of what it means to contribute to online dialogue.
By carefully reflecting upon the entries in a thread, you can assess the
general tack of the dialogue, its progress, and what appear to be digres-
sions from the goals for each activity or discussion topic. Common
concerns or interpretations give clues as to what participants see as
worthwhile, noteworthy, or perhaps urgent. Digressions within individ-
ual communications and collective side trips can provide essential clues
to participants’ motivations or general lines of thinking. (They can also
be unproductive sidebars best left without commentary.)
As the moderator wearing your Reflective Guide hat, you can select the
identifying-direction strategy to sharpen the dialogue. You can refocus and
perhaps redirect discussion to certain points or issues by selectively
highlighting or paraphrasing pertinent lines of discourse. Similarly, as
the voice of a Generative Guide, you can mull over potential meanings
of phrases or topics and suggest possible directions and alternatives. Or,
as a Conceptual Facilitator, you can weave and integrate ideas that may
seem irrelevant on first reading but, when observed through another
perspective, indicate valid and focused lines of thought.
In mature dialogues, you can use the voice of a Mediator and the identi-
fying directions strategy to indicate current progress in the dialogue by
highlighting tensions or unbalanced expositions. As a Conceptual
Facilitator, you may elect to help identify direction by reviewing wording
of assignments or key concepts for threads and citing participant usage,
commentary, or possible turning points.
Example 7.1 Identifying Direction
Hands-on activities from Craters! (1995), a curriculum about craters on bodies in
the solar system, were done at local sites. “Where was the inquiry in these activ-
ities?” was the assignment. Responses covered a wide range. The moderator
sensed incoherence and tried to set out ways to pull the discussion together. The
moderator elected to post a simple identifying-direction entry to collect ideas
around a few strands of interest. The voice is that of a Conceptual Facilitator. The
tone is neutral. (Note: The same excerpts are framed in a making-connections
strategy in a later example to contrast the two types of strategies.)
What a busy time on the boards this
week! The postings are numerous and
all over the map.
The moderator begins with a social
On the Do It Yourself Cratering
comment, then quickly shifts to six quotes
activity, some commented:
from the discussion area. There are many
tensions in the postings and a considerable
• “This activity supports the NSES
amount of confusion about terms and
Standard A — teaching with inquiry.
expectations for inquiry.
The inquiry is the doing and just as
important as the discussing.”
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• “This would be a very structured
experience in inquiry. The teacher is a
guide, a monitor, to keep them from
The quotes highlight central ideas from
going too far astray from the goal.”
posts that were often rather social. The
• “True, pure inquiry would be the way
moderator models the terse dialogue
in which the original discoveries of
expected for pragmatic discourse.
our scientific laws were made, by the
original scientists who discovered
them. It took years before they knew
that their theories were accurate.”
• “The cratering activity was definitely
an inquiry-based activity. We brain-
stormed the list of variables that
existed in this activity — the list was
• “The activities do not give the
students the answers (relationships)
they will discover. In that way, the
activities are inquiry-based.”
• “It is very structured and is not, in
my opinion, inquiry. It is simply
repeating a structured experiment.”
Such variety! “Where is the inquiry in
Cratering?” was the assignment. “In line
with the standards,” “definitely not
The moderator decides not to pursue a
inquiry at all,” “very structured experi-
common definition at this time, but to
ence,” “not like scientists do inquiry”
instead work toward clearer understanding
are our answers. We don’t all have to be
of common terms.
on the same page here, at least at this
early part of the course. Let’s consider
the common elements of the posts to
see where our dialogue might be best
Discussing or verbalizing seems central.
Is it? And why?
Discussion, “hands-on,” and structure seem
Is inquiry more than “hands-on”? If so,
to need more precise formulation.
The moderator sets out options for
There seems to be a tension between
inquiry and structure. Is it an opposition?
Might “inquiry” be a label given to an
activity at one time and with a certain
population, and viewed as inaccurate for
a different population or at a different
That “inquiry” may be a relational term is
time of year?
included in potential discussion threads.
What are the lines of discussion you
want to pursue here?
Sorting Ideas for Relevance
Any facilitator of online discussions reads, sorts, and rapidly assigns value
to each discussion entry and its components based on the context of the
topic or the course goals. The sorting ideas for relevance critical-thinking
strategy addresses a very different process: Crafting an entry that explicitly,
but informally, makes public the sorting mechanism, leaving options open
for collective input.
In selecting this strategy, you the moderator make a conscious decision that
the group needs to call attention to the sorting of ideas; all are not of equal
weight. In a sorting for relevance post, you identify candidates for primary
issues. You then identify the issues that might be tangents or digressions,
and that, however appealing, the group should leave for another time. It’s
critical that you maintain in your posting indications of the participants’
perceptions of relevance and direction. The sorting for relevance strategy
focuses on relevance and importance; it differs sharply from a strategy
intended to explore what direction the dialogue is taking. At issue is not
what direction makes sense to pursue, but the relative importance of the
active lines of thought.
In the start-up phase of a dialogue, sorting for relevance postings are often
necessary. Like identifying direction postings, they help participants
negotiate the sense of space and the expectations of their participation. As
a Personal Muse using a sorting for relevance strategy, you may seek to
model the process of online reflective dialogue by posing and responding
to a sequence of directed questions that explore issues of relevance in
concepts or the connections among ideas.
In mature dialogues, individual posts can become complex or lengthy,
despite calls for concise expression. Individual posts, or perhaps a series of
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responses, often contain real gems trapped in murky or very diffuse prose.
As such, you may wish to highlight these tidbits for the group by using a
sorting for relevance strategy. Writing as a Conceptual Facilitator or
perhaps in a Role Play, you can bring these nuggets to light and indicate
the relative importance of lines of thought or concepts through narrative
means. You may also seek to distinguish relevant and irrelevant issues by
articulating, in crisp tales or metaphors, the directions discussions have
taken to date.
Example 7.2 Sorting Ideas for Relevance
The following selection uses a sorting for relevance strategy in the voice of a
Reflective Guide. The tone is neutral. The intervention came at a point in the
dialogue when the participants had established the importance of assessment and
students’ personal involvement with material. However, the group members were
still not clear about what they meant by assessment; nor were they clear on the
purposes assessment served for themselves, their administrations, or their students.
MESSAGE SUBJECT: Are All
Tools of Assessment Created Equal?
[Participant 1] asks about options
The entry starts without a social element —
beyond “the regular old quiz,” or does
a moderator option. The dialogue is mature.
that quiz “work just fine?”
The moderator pulls together important
ideas and sorts out different meanings for
[Participant 2] asks students, on a ten-
assessment by comparing the three quotes.
question quiz, to make up two problems
themselves and “solve them in whatever
method is best for them.” “I was amazed
at what some of my students put down,
and it really did give me a clear picture of
where they were.”
[Participant 3] sees himself more tradi-
tionally, and he cites a concern for
making students “test ready.” He wants to
be sure kids can transfer knowledge from
their experiences with manipulatives.
I suppose one needs to step back and
sort out what we believe is the purpose
and relevance of an assessment tool.
We’ve got three very different takes on
• Does the type of assessment have to
change when the learning experi-
• Testing what students think is a
Each participant takes a very different tack
problem is as important as testing
on the use and importance of assessment.
what they think is an answer. Does it
The moderator paraphrases, seeking to
concentrate meaning on these different uses
• Assessments should prepare students
and concepts of assessment. The moderator
for the “real” assessments adminis-
highlights the tensions between traditional
tered at local or state levels.
views and reform-minded or innovative
Are you interested in the answer, the
process, and/or the progress of the
The moderator steps out of the dialogue
student, or in the format of the question
and inquires about the “equality” of assess-
ments, a purposely ambiguous term. How
one would sort out issues is left to the
Are all modes of assessment created
equal, and are they relevant in the
pursuit of knowledge with regard to
these areas? Which are the most relevant
Focusing on Key Points
Though you may take the stance of a “Guide on the Side” in your moder-
ating efforts, the process of moderating itself is essentially directive.
Focusing on key points, as an online critical-thinking strategy, mirrors closely
the function of highlighting key contributions — a tactic used by any
skilled working group or classroom facilitator.
Using this approach, you the moderator work with participant input and
draw on formal structures of the online experience, such as any specific
goals for the group or conceptual organizers. The goal of your focusing on
key points intervention: To highlight essential concepts and connections
made to date. Your posting may also indicate potential omissions or areas
If you use a focusing on key points critical-thinking strategy in a post, it’s
important not to author your message with a view toward summarizing
the dialogue or indicating where it might or should go. With this strategy,
you simply paint a conceptual landscape of the terrain participants have
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visited and commented upon. The images and impressions are in the
participants’ words or phrasings, not yours. Leave assessments of com-
pleteness, value, or accuracy for your students to infer.
Whether it appears early or in more mature phases of a dialogue, a
focusing on key points strategy is basically the same. In fact, focusing on
key points is the only strategy that fits naturally with all six of the “voices”
we described previously.
There are two central features of the focusing on key points strategy. The
first is a list of ideas, citations, or contributions from the dialogue. The
second is context for the list that articulates the connections or potential
connections of the list elements and what these connections might mean.
If you become a Reflective Guide and use a focusing on key points
strategy, you may want to highlight similar lines of thought in individual
contributions or across multiple entries. As such, you might paraphrase
or juxtapose comments or insights so that you can clarify or extend
interaction with key points in the dialogue. If you employ a focusing on
key points strategy as a Personal Muse, you can list, as part of a personal
narrative, key issues or tensions raised within the discussion. You don’t
need to take a stand or attach any value to the entries or opinions cited.
The focusing on key points strategy will be crucial for you if you put on
your Mediator hat. In this case, your posting must not only honor par-
ticipants’ positions or opposition, but also list and compare them, with
an eye toward recognizing the common features in participants’ reasons
for holding assumptions or believing assertions.
A focusing on key points strategy will enable you as a Generative Guide to
lay out existing contributions and indicate — by reference to goals or
specific assignments, or perhaps to conceptual blocks that have developed
— ways to approach potential areas or concepts that participants may have
overlooked. Similarly, the focusing on key points strategy you might use in
a Role Play could enumerate participants’ contributions; an anecdote, a
tale, or a character could sharpen perspectives on weakly articulated ideas
or perhaps ideas that are missing altogether.