I have known the blessing of discussion-based education for 40 years, first as a student, later as a teacher. I want first to offer a brief description of discussion classes, then try to explain what is really going on, why educators would want to employ discussion as much as possible, and offer some suggestions for how to lead successful discussions. Along the way, I hope to clear up some misconceptions and answer some objections. (N.B. In this article, I am envisioning discussions with students at least in middle school; discussions with younger students are going to be very different.)
Discussion classes look different from the start. A room set up for discussions will have seating arranged so that students face each other, usually without any distinctive place for the discussion leader. With students seated in this fashion, the discussion leader will begin with a question arising from an original text, which all participants will have read beforehand; the question will frequently concern how to interpret some difficult portion of the reading assignment. Typically, the leader will then remain quiet for some time while students discuss the question among themselves. A student will offer an opinion in answer to the opening question; other students will agree, disagree, offer alternative suggestions, or raise their own questions. The conversation will center on understanding well what the author is saying, but also lead to questioning whether the author is right or wrong, and what significance his writing has.
The leader will help students to clarify their own ideas, sometimes by questions, sometimes by restatement. He will decide which of the ideas need to be explored further, either because they seem more promising, or perhaps because they contain common misconceptions that should be revealed as such. The leader will ensure that students give reasons for their ideas, and will expect students to cite the text under discussion frequently. And, importantly, he will help students to listen to one another: “Gianna, you’re saying that Achilles is petty because he’s crying over an insult. But Sean has said that the goddess, Athena, seems to be taking Achilles’ side. How do you account for that?” Sometimes, such discussions lead to common agreement at the end, but frequently disagreements remain, and spill over into non-class time.
Although often associated with Socrates, discussion classes bear little resemblance to the one-on-one, question-and-answer conversations reported by Plato, or the demanding, challenging questions law professors used to hone the wits of budding attorneys. Many students who visit our college will liken them to the intellectually engaging conversations they have with their parents and siblings around the dinner table.
I have led such discussions with great success with students from high school freshmen through the collegiate years, as well as adults; I have seen them work with middle schoolers as well.
Here are a few examples:
1) “In Act III, Scene 4, line 57, Lady Macbeth asks of her husband: ‘Are you a man?’ How does the play answer that question?”
So I began a seminar discussion of Macbeth one evening some years ago at Thomas Aquinas College. The students launched into a fascinating exploration of the different views of manhood held by Macbeth and his Lady, and how the failure to recognize rational and moral restraints on daring led both of them to lose their humanity.
2) I began a discussion of the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments with my high school Moral Theology class by asking why “God spoke all these words.” This led us to ask further questions: Why didn’t God write them down right away? Why did God bring them to Sinai in the first place? How did the Israelites react to God speaking with them? How important was Moses in the relationship between God and Israel?
3) With an online class of high school sophomores, I asked why Homer’s Iliad ends with the burial of Hector. This question led to seeing how the rage of Achilles was only finally brought to an end by the pity that he felt for Hector’s father, Priam.
My very first experience of discussion classes was during my junior year of high school, when I visited a college where they were the norm. I had no understanding of the broader idea of liberal education or the liberal arts, but was immediately sold by the hope that I would be able to bring up in class all the questions and ideas I had, instead of having to simply take notes while passively listening to a teacher lecturing. Judging by the many applications I have since read, I am not the only young person who has found this freedom attractive.
The evident self-activity of the students also makes many teachers prefer leading discussions to lecturing. Teachers cannot put knowledge into their students; students have to acquire it by their own mental activity. Whether the student is reading, hearing a lecture, or listening to others, he must form his own ideas of what is proposed and then look at his own experience to see if his understanding matches up with the reality. So, in a way, a learner is always engaged in an interior conversation. “That sounds strange; what did the teacher mean? Does what he said match with things I know?” Without this interior dialogue, real learning does not take place. Instead, students act like a tape recorder, taking in words without meaning so that they can replay them on a test and get a good grade.
Discussion classes make the interior discussion exterior and explicit, so that the teacher and the student can see it going on, and better evaluate it. Discussions also stimulate a student’s own thinking. Students can’t always tell when they are acting like tape recorders. Discussions make students publicly responsible for expressing, defending, and modifying their ideas. They train students to distinguish what they believe because of authority and from what they believe because of substance and evidence. They allow them to share in the great good of teaching itself, when what they say enlightens their fellow students, and even, from time to time, their teachers.
Since discussions center around the writings of great authors, they also teach students to read deeply and carefully. Students will come into class with ideas about what an author has said, but they usually learn quickly that they have missed and misunderstood much. Each time the text is quoted in class, the students come to pay attention more carefully to the words the authors have used. This can lead to confusion, but often an increase of excitement as greater depths are glimpsed.
Another important reason that teachers love discussion classes is because they learn so much themselves. Even when lecturing, teachers value active students. The more questions students ask, the more the teacher is challenged to be a master of his subject. When teachers ignite serious discussions among eager students, they find they often learn much more by listening and asking further questions than the students do.
In preparing to lead a discussion class, start with a good reading. Textbooks don’t lend themselves to discussion, because in the attempt to make everything clear and easy to learn, they remove the depth of their subjects. Of course, you can have fine discussions without any book at all, but good books often suggest to students deeper ideas and clearer arguments than they could develop on their own; they have to read great things before they can think in great ways. I will often try to find a selection from an important author that touches on subjects in the textbook; frequently the textbook itself makes suggestions along those lines.
To arrive at a good question, begin by being attentive to your own learning process. If I have studied a great text and come to some conclusions about it, then I must have had a question in my own mind that needed answering. What was that question? What bothered me? What didn’t I understand? What did I really want to understand? Remembering the questions that we ourselves have had on the road to learning is a good guide to figuring out what questions we might ask the students. So, when I first read The Iliad, I wondered why Achilles reacted the way he did to Agamemnon, and why the other Greeks didn’t just call him a baby and treat him like that.
You can also start with things that we think are important moments or statements in the work. In the classroom, we might start by just bringing that up, asking what is going on or what is being said, and then how it came about, or what reasons the author gives for saying it. You might ask, “God tells Moses, ‘I am who am.’ What does that mean and why does he say it?”
Sometimes when we read something, we can see that certain episodes are important without understanding why ourselves. “The Iliad ends with the burial of Hector. Why?” “What is on Achilles’ shield and why?” Those are good questions to ask, even if we don’t see an answer ourselves.
Having chosen a question (or two or four, just in case the first one doesn’t go well), think about possible ways students might go with it. During the discussion, listen carefully. Listening is the most exhausting and most important part of leading discussions. Keep track of the conversation, asking yourself how the current topic relates to the opening question. Try to get students to listen to each other and to pay attention to texts, to give and seek reasons, to quote texts to support their points.
Perhaps the hardest discipline for a discussion leader is resisting the urge to correct mistakes. As kids need their parents to let them fall when learning to walk or ride a bike, the teacher has to let his students make mistakes. Always remember that students are developing good habits of learning even if they are making mistakes about a particular subject. Correcting too quickly or too authoritatively can undermine confidence and sap student initiative. Frequently, through the assistance of fellow students, students will come to see their own mistakes, which increases their confidence that they can learn through their own initiative. Many mistakes are irrelevant to the important issues being discussed; most will be forgotten after class. Mistakes about more important issues will usually come up again in later conversations.
When you do move to correct important mistakes, do it by proposing another text for their consideration. Ask them how this might fit with what they’ve said. Or suggest your idea, giving the reasons for it and asking what they think of that. Leave it open for them to reject what you’re suggesting, as long as they understand your reasons for it. But always make it clear that you are as accountable for giving reasons and answering objections as students are.
Helping students prepare is important. Train students to annotate their reading assignments regularly. Have them note significant passages, and raise questions. A brief reading check quiz at the beginning of every class is a good idea. These can be open book so there is little pressure, but only five minutes, with very short answers, so they’d have to have read it beforehand to get the answers in the short time. Having students submit questions for discussion ahead of time is a great idea. Ask the student whose question is chosen to begin the discussion by raising it in class. This can help quiet students get started.
Discussion and Truth
Some people think of discussion classes as opportunities for sharing points of view, and of discussion leaders as facilitators of conversation rather than teachers. Others use discussions as tools to get students to predetermined conclusions. Many fear that, unless the leader takes this approach, discussions will foster a relativistic attitude towards the truth.
Properly led, discussion classes do not foster relativism, and the leaders are true teachers. All are encouraged to voice their opinions, but they also have to listen to and respond to criticism. Students are encouraged to pay attention to the reasons for and against the opinions that are offered so that they can come to a reasonable judgment. Frequently, this means saying, “Oh, I see that was wrong.” Leaders foster an environment of openness to discussion, but also an expectation of serious criticism of ideas, and an attentiveness to progress toward truth and understanding.
Many times discussions don’t reach a common, agreed-to conclusion, and this can cause anxiety and frustration. Everyone wants to reach conclusions, but discussion leaders realize they must be earned conclusions. That is, to get to solid conclusions students must see the significance and difficulty of the questions they are answering, and then must look for deep answers and strong evidence for those answers. As a great teacher of teachers, John Milton Gregory, wrote in The Seven Laws of Teaching:
The object or the event that excites no question will provoke no thought. Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the devices of teaching, it is really the whole of teaching. It is the excitation of the self-activities to their work of discovering truth.
They have to defend and develop their evidence and their answers in the face of objections, counter-conclusions and counter-evidence. Since the most interesting questions to ask of a great text are also the most difficult, and all serious questions about great texts get wound up in all the other serious questions involved in the text, it is very difficult to get an earned conclusion in an hour and a half discussion with young people. Quoting Gregory again:
The explanation that settles everything and ends all questions, usually ends all thinking also. After a truth is clearly understood, or a fact or principle established, there still remain its consequences, applications, and uses. Each fact and truth thoroughly studied leads to other facts which renew the questioning and demand fresh investigation. The alert and scientific mind is one that never ceases to ask questions and seek answers. The scientific spirit is the spirit of tireless inquiry and research.
This is real life, the real life of the mind. You know how many questions you have had over the years about issues literary, philosophical, theological, historical, political, contemporary, ancient, and how you’ve had to dwell on them, and search them out, and ask people who might know (and often get disappointed); and how many times you’ve changed your mind, either to the opposite or to a much more complete understanding. Why should students be encouraged to think they can earn the answers to questions in an hour and a half?
They should still be able to see, however, that they are making progress. They can see this as they begin to marshal evidence for their own opinions, have to dig deeper to fire back at troublesome opponents, and leave behind simple, sometimes stupid answers. Often the progress comes in just seeing the real question: why the question is a great, hard, deeply important, exciting, and enticing question. They also see that they are noticing more about the work than they had seen before, or seeing the importance of some parts of it they had not noticed before. Teachers can help them realize how much progress they have made by summarizing the discussion from time to time in class, at the end of class, and/or at the beginning of the following class.
Some students depend so much on common consensus that if the class agrees on something, they think it must be right. Without that consensus, they feel simply confused. Good students don’t let the lack of a commonly agreed answer frustrate them in their pursuit of the truth. They often suspect that one of the proposed ideas was the right answer, but will continue to wonder why others disagreed. They will often continue to argue about it after class. This can lead them to realize that, though they might have been right, they were still only seeing part of the truth.
Sharing Your Thoughts
When should a discussion leader jump into the discussion? In many ways, the answer to this is personal and prudential. Different teachers have different styles; different students have different needs; different discussions provide different opportunities; fostering the all-important relationship between teacher and students requires different things at different times. Also, is the leader really jumping in as a participant, or is he entering as a teacher to present solutions that he expects will be accepted?
As a rule of thumb, I think leaders should be very hesitant to enter discussions, unless they enter as a participant with the confidence that students have reached a point of being able to judge what the leader is proposing, and expressing their agreement or disagreement with it. Seeming to enter as a participant when really entering as a teacher undoes many of the goods that a discussion can achieve. This rule of thumb should be especially binding on younger teachers.
This does not mean that discussion leaders should never present their understanding of texts and questions. They should just do it apart from the discussion. When I taught seminarians for a few years, I would have an hour of discussion of a text followed by an hour of lecture. I think that was most effective because I could build on the ideas they had expressed, and they had greater familiarity with text so as to be able to judge what I was saying.
As a teacher, I am pleased when I see students make progress towards answers while recognizing that more has to be done to earn the answers. Discussion classes train students to never be passive, to never take spoon-fed answers, to always look to reality and evidence more than authority, and finally to know that the truth is greater than themselves.
In the spirit of Gregory, I will end, as he does each of his laws, with Rules and Violations (really more Proverbial Advice)
You are not a participant, but a leader and a teacher. Whenever you enter as a participant, you will likely intimidate, often frustrate, the real participants.You are hoping that through the discussion the participants will come to a level where they can converse with you about the particular topic.
Make sure all abstract claims are grounded in concrete, interesting examples. Literary and historical examples are usually better than personal.
Hardly ever continue talking when a student starts talking (unless you have determined that they talk too much).
Ask provocative questions – ones where you see there might be multiple intelligent answers. Intelligent answers need not be true, and can often be contradictory. You don’t have to foresee them; frequently you can see that a question will likely have multiple answers, even if you only see one. But avoid asking questions where you think there is only one intelligent answer, unless you are using it as a step in getting to a provocative question. And always be open to the possibility (which becomes actual very often), that even questions which you think have one intelligent answer will be answered in other ways by participants (not always intelligently). But let those answers have their moment in the court of conversation (“Do others agree with that?”).
Watch your tone of voice when asking a question where you think there is only one intelligent answer and when making a claim that you think is evidently true. Do not show by your tone that you think only one answer is possible; be careful of implying that you are dismissing an idea without allowing the participants to engage it on its own merits.
The Jeopardy approach – “I want them to get to this answer; what question should I ask them to get that answer?” – usually fails until you grow in the prudence of leading.
Sometimes leaders say, “This is a real question I have,” implying that normally they are not asking “real questions”. This is problematic. Always ask real questions. I suspect that every article in St. Thomas’s Summa is a real question; he always begins with objections to show the reader that he is asking a real question. Even if you no longer have them, they should usually be ones you once had, that were at the time real to you, that remain interesting to you, and whose answers you expect you will come to understand better through the conversation.
A good opening question is one you hope will open up a discussion of the whole reading, or the whole of major parts of it. You should not prepare a list of unrelated questions that you hope to get through one after another throughout the discussion. E.g. In Book XXIV of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam weep, then Achilles says, “There is no use in weeping.” Is he right? [This will connect with why they are weeping, how this fits into Zeus’s plans, and allows connecting to the weeping of Thetis, and of the Trojan women.]
When a student says something you like, don’t just use it to go on before finding out whether everyone else has understood and agreed with it.
Always doubt that participants understand what they think they understand. Always suspect that you are too ready to move on before ensuring that points have been discussed to such an extent that their significance is seen by all.
Focus on questions and topics that make the reading and discussion seem worthwhile.
Do not squelch all digressions, but frequently connect or draw back to the main question.
Beware of assuming that anything in the reading is obvious, either in itself, or especially to participants. Leaders far more often make the mistakes of underestimating authors and overestimating participants than their opposites. What you judge to obvious but important in the text is often a great opportunity for getting participants to discover truth in the text for themselves.
Don’t let anyone go on too long.
Be careful about when and to what extent you become a participant as well as leader.
When you ask a question, always be open to following up with answers you don’t like.