Skip to content

Teaching Through Discussion

March 31, 2014

Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 8.56.12 AMOver break I read Discussion as a Way of Teaching (Brookfield and Peskill). The author’s central argument is that discussion is the democratic process we create every day in our classes: only through collaboration and co-operation with others can we be exposed to new points of view (p. 4); discussion takes us out of ourselves and opens us to new realms of experience and thinking (p. 34); discussion lets us see the world as someone else sees it (p. 266); discussion allows students to appreciate ambiguity and complexity (p. 279); and teaching students to talk in these ways to their classmates is the best hope for a civilized and just society (p. 269).

Some of us already practice many of their suggestions. Here are a few I thought can help all of us achieve these worthy goals — to help students listen and collaborate, to help them debate generously and graciously, to foster empathy and deeper knowledge, and to nourish humility that others may know more, or be able to help them learn through such rigorous conversations.

  • When you have students return from pair or small group work, instead of just asking for summaries of what they had discussed, ask them what new questions were raised in their groups. Such a questions validates the work they were doing, it helps them see that there is more to consider, and it affirms their collaboration.
  • “Stand where you stand”: besides getting all the students up and moving, this exercise also lets students persuade others of their thinking; additionally, it allows them to be persuaded in a safe environment. They can change their mind, and see others do it.
  • Create questions as a class, then let students go to the question they are most interested in discussing. Put questions in different parts of the classroom.
  • Keep cold-calling on students, the ones who haven’t spoken and the ones who have, to show your students you value everyone’s contributions.
  • The authors caution against teachers making impromptu “lecturettes” – it destroys the development of the discussion. We need to keep the focus on the students and their thinking, exploration, discovery. Knowledge isn’t something that is “given and received” — instead, people construct it individually and collectively. We need to keep asking the important questions.
  • Video a class to gauge how much you are talking, who isn’t, how much the students are talking to each other or only back to you.
  • Consider giving the students a few minutes in the middle of discussion to think – to be able to reflect rather than be engaged in the discussion constantly. This can be a time to write, to annotate, to work on a problem, and then return to the class together.

The authors encourage teachers to seek feedback from their students, even weekly, with questions (written or oral) such as:

  • What do you know as a result of participating in the discussion that you didn’t know when class started?
  • What can you do as a result of participating in the discussion that you couldn’t do when class started?
  • What could you teach someone to know or do as a result of participating in the discussion?

These questions, activities and intentional engagements remind us of how important every single class is that we have with our students.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: