Approaches to Class Discussion

Well, the end of the semester hit me, and a few days turned into weeks, but now I’m back to thinking about discussions.

I spent awhile this spring systematically reading my way through other the descriptions other teachers have posted on the web of their approaches to discussion classes as a sort of informal professional development.  (There is a lot of more formally published material on discussion classes, of course, but a web survey seemed like an efficient way to get a grasp on actual practices).

There are several organizations out there working to raise the level of discussion teaching by presenting their own systematic approaches: the two best known are probably Exeter’s Harkness System and the National Paideia Center’s Paideia Seminars.  I thought it would be interesting to compare these, and other approaches to discussion, but what I found was that there was so much variation among teachers who characterize themselves as following one system or the other that clear lines of distinction are almost impossible to draw. It was, however, intriguing to see the ways in which they varied.

Neither Exeter nor Paideia offers much detail about its approach on its website, possibly because both raise funds by offering workshops, so I used the accounts of several teachers returning from workshops as a starting place.  The best Paideia description I found is here and the best Harkness description is here.  There is also an absolutely lovely description of one teacher’s first steps in implementing a Harkness approach here–I particularly like the idea of starting with the text itself, even before discussion is introduced.

What Harkness and Paideia (and most of the less systematized discussions of Socratic seminars) share are an emphasis on texts as a source of shared evidence for discussion, an idea that the physical arrangement of classrooms has a powerful effect on what happens in them, and an insistence on student ownership of the process of discussion.

Most everyone seems to agree that, to achieve student ownership, it is important that teachers take a big step back, figuratively and, sometimes, literally.  There seems to be a fair amount of disagreement out there about what that means.  Some argue for total silence no matter what, even to the point of avoiding eye contact, while others envision quite a bit of guiding, with the teacher posing well-crafted, open-ended questions at key junctures:  Socratic Seminars.

There’s also a lot of variation in grading. One of the perennial problems of discussion classes is what to do about the students who say little and coast on their peers’ efforts or, on the other hand, the students who dominate the discussion to the point where other, valuable contributions may not be heard.  One approach to that dilemma is to give the students a single shared grade for the discussion, making them in essence responsible for policing each other.  The drawback, of course, is that this may penalize some students for the failings of others.  Others choose to give individual grades, either daily or more infrequently. There’s the beginnings of a good discussion of those issues here.

One innovation of the Paideia people is the “fishbowl” approach, in which only some of the class participates in the discussion at any given time.  Many teachers use this as a way to critique the discussion, assigning each student in the outer circle the task of evaluating the contributions a student in the fishbowl and rotating them in and out.  In one interesting case I saw, the inner circle and outer circle students worked together, with “wingmen” passing information and suggestions to a speaker in the “fishbowl”:  this is, I think, an attempt to differentiate instruction and allow for greater reflection.

Teachers also seem to vary widely on the role discussion plays within their wider curriculum:  some have adopted a completely discussion-based approach, with discussion every day, while some save it for special occasions, such as every Friday, or for certain sorts of work.

What is one to make of all this variety? It seems to me that there are a number of equally good approaches to discussion teaching, some probably better for certain situations that others.  The important thing seems to me to make these decisions consciously and with one’s particular teaching conditions clearly in mind and to be prepared to revisit them when things change.

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About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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