We all know what we want a discussion class to look like: all students should be engaged and active participants, the tone should be one of civil egalitarianism, the points should be on-topic and well grounded in evidence, and the whole should build organically to a satisfying sense that something new has been discovered. But how does that happen and, in particular, what is the teacher supposed to do while the students are saying all these wonderful things? If class is all about students talking, who needs a teacher anyway?
I have a colleague who argues persuasively for a strong teacher presence in student discussions. We, if we’re worth our salt as scholars, have more complex and sophisticated understandings of our subject matter than students are likely to reach in 45 minutes of discussion, he points out, and if we hold those back we are essentially assuring that the class’s level of understanding remains on a more superficial plane than it could reach. He would like to see teachers challenge the points made by students in discussion, offer their own insights, and move the subject forward with frequent probing questions. This describes many classes I’ve been in, and I think it can be a satisfying formula under certain circumstances.
This approach can be problematic if taken too far, though. As a practical matter, it risks killing the give and take of discussion. Students come to us highly conditioned to see teachers as the source of all the answers. The single greatest challenge in teaching inexperienced students to discuss is to move them from a model in which each in turn makes a speech to the teacher and looks to her for approval to one in which students see themselves and each other as the arbiters of the discussion and begin to truly engage each other on the merits. In a strong, confident class that is very used to discussion, a tactful teacher can approach something like equal status in the conversation. It is, however, very easy for heavy teacher participation to turn the discussion into the age-old guessing game of “what is he looking for?” or to make the whole exercise seem false or staged, designed to reach a single acceptable answer.
On a more theoretical level, I come back to the point I made in my last post about the goals of a discussion. A skillful discussion may, in fact, uncover new and subtle insights into a text or event, but if the primary goal of the exercise is for the class to reach a specific, pre-ordained conclusion, then discussion is probably not the most efficient or effective way to reach that goal. If you, as a teacher, are going to end up telling the class your “answer”–as you may well have to do if reaching that answer is your first priority–then it will be more memorable to lead them to it through a more structured exercise such as a carefully constructed primary source analysis or faster to simply share that particular insight in a short, inspiring lecture. If the class does not reach your conclusion organically that is, in essence, what you are doing anyway.
Some popular systematic approaches to discussion such as the Harkness system take the opposite extreme and suggest that teachers should be utterly silent during discussion and should even go so far as to avoid eye contact in order not to inadvertently signal approval or disapproval. This is an important and useful corrective for strongly teacher-centered classes; by ostentatiously withdrawing from the table, one draws student attention to their responsibility to carry the discussion. I do exactly this with my 9th grade classes by periodically announcing days when I plan to not talk at all and expect them to walk into class and get to business without any input from me (although I’ve been thinking, lately, that by making a ceremony of these days I am perhaps de-emphasizing their responsibility for the class on ordinary days, so I’m giving that some thought). While it is a good teaching tool, I am not sure the silent teacher is the ideal long term goal, either.
I went to Exeter, where the constituent myth is that a teacher could stand up and leave the classroom and no one would notice (although I must say that that would not, in fact, have been the case in many of my Exeter classes). Exeter made me a fierce and able debater, but it also left me with the impression that history, in particular, was a sea of relativity in which everything was equally implausible and the only thing that mattered was scoring rhetorical points.
Personally–and I think this is a place where every teacher has to search his or her own heart–I come down in the middle of this spectrum. Here are the four tenets around which I shape (or try to shape) my own discussion teaching:
1) If we want students to learn from discussions, we must be prepared to let them try and fail. Why is it harder to allow a class to hold a bad discussion than to allow a student to write a bad paper? They are, in many ways, the same sort of endeavor, but teachers who would never insist on writing a student’s thesis for her leap in to take responsibility as soon as a discussion falters. I suspect this is because we are conditioned to feel more responsible for what happens in class than what happens outside of it–what would addressing and challenging that assumption do to our teaching?
2) If students are to become better participants in discussions, they need explicit feedback. Just as most of us would not tell a student what her conclusion should be, few of us would send a novice off to write a paper without any guidelines or feedback about the myriad skills involved along the way. What happens if we think of the active teacher, not as a “discussion leader,” but as a coach, focused on process while the students themselves focus on content?
3) We must let students come to their own conclusions. When I, the teacher, do jump in to question a point or to suggest an idea, it should be as a conscious demo, not to force a change of direction. In other words, my role should still be focused on process, not outcome. If I am going to feel that the lesson has failed if the intriguing insight I had about colonialism doesn’t come up, then I need to pick another approach. (I want to say that I don’t mean this sarcastically. I think the occasional brief lecture–thought of not as knowledge transferal but as modelling what this sort of thinking might look like–is not a bad tool. Forcing an allegedly open-ended question to turn out my way is.)
4) Beginning discussion participants need more space from teachers, not less. It is tempting to think that beginners need the most help, but what they really need is the most space. Until students gain confidence in the process and come to trust that you really are not fishing for a single answer, silence is the best gift you can give them. As they become more experienced and more confident, it becomes possible to step in and coach (not compete) more actively without shutting the experience down.
What this all boils down to, I think, is that I am arguing for a shift from a conversation about active vs. passive teacher roles in discussion to a conversation about teachers as leaders vs. teachers as coaches. Once one thinks in those terms, the tensions resolve themselves in a far more manageable way. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my thinking; I’d love to hear some other thoughts.