Talking about things, or why is discussion so hard?

The first year I taught a high school class after years leading college discussion sections, one of my students complained on an end-of-the-year evaluation that “all we do is sit around and talk.”  I was appalled at the difference between her perception of the work of the class and mine, but it was a very useful insight.  Discussion is something we as teachers sometimes take for granted, and we shouldn’t.

“Class Discussion” is a bedrock element of most good classes.  Most teachers are the product of discussion-based learning, in college and grad school if not before, and it seems natural to us. When it works right, discussion lessons are sublime–they produce a feeling of equality, engagement and discovery that is unrivaled in any other sort of lesson.  My favorite teaching memories are nearly all moments from discussion classes–but so are my least favorite memories.  I’ve taught some clunkers, where discussion dragged brutally or where I was uneasily aware of imposing my will on the theoretically free exchange. Of the classes I have observed over the years, many of the least successful have been discussion classes.  Teaching through discussion is hard.

It is hard because it is so familiar–we have a tendency to assume that we all have the same thing in  mind when we talk about discussion classes when, in fact, there are a wide variety of different discussion leading styles.  We don’t spend nearly enough time as a community analyzing those styles and thinking about which elements of them are helping us reach which goals.

Discussion is hard because we ask a lot of discussions, and because our goals for them are somewhat contradictory.  A quick scan of material on the web about discussion classes produces the following goals:  to teach students to think, to help students acquire the skills of argument and analysis, to make class more student-centered, to enlarge student understanding of values, to create a richer understanding of a topic,  to clarify an idea, to check for understanding, to make learning more active, to increase engagement, and to let students try their wings.  I have seen discussions accomplish each of these goals, but rarely all at once.  In particular, and especially with students new to serious discussion, the goals that emphasize process–independence and skill acquisition–tend to come into conflict with goals that emphasize the end result–clarity and higher understanding.  Trying to reach all these goals simultaneously, which most teachers seem to be doing, creates a huge tension around the question of a teacher’s role. What if the students come to a conclusion the teacher knows is flawed? Is that alright?  Or what if the teacher steps in to  give his or her own ‘answer’?  Is that acceptable? The answer depends on what we have identified as the goal of the exercise. Some discussions work simultaneously on all levels but, because these are learning exercises, some don’t.  We need to have decided beforehand which goals we are prepared to sacrifice in a given situation to meet others.

Finally, discussion is hard because it asks a lot of students.  The very reasons that it is so valuable–the fact that it asks students to take initiative, engage in higher level analysis, and formulate questions as well as answers–make really good end results hard to achieve, at least at first.  In addition, scholarly discussions (as  opposed to “just talking”) have a lot of unspoken rules of engagement.  Engaging in a really good discussion is an art form as sophisticated and demanding as writing a really good paper, but it is one for which, in general, we spend far too little time preparing our students.  Because talking comes so easily to humans, we fall into the trap of thinking of the process of discussion as transparent and concentrating purely on the content.  To raise the level in the classroom, we need to be explicit with students about what we are asking them to do and why, and then we need to coach, critique and analyze the skill itself, just as we do when teaching any other skill.

The best discussion classes feel effortless when one is in the middle of them, but they don’t happen by themselves.  I think even we as teachers forget that.  We need to remember that discussion is supposed to be hard.  By making the process more conscious, by being explicit–with ourselves, our colleagues, and our students–about our techniques, our goals, and discussion as a learned skill–we can reach those magic moments more often.

I’ve been thinking a lot about discussions recently, and I’m going to try over the next few days to write posts that capture where I’ve gotten to so far on those three questions.  It’s proving to be an interesting exercise so far.

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About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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