Classroom Discussion:
Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations

 

Walter C. Parker

It is no wonder that conscientious teachers are forever trying to engage their students in discussion. Both democracy and understanding rely on it—democracy because forging public policy together is the basic labor of popular sovereignty, and understanding because dialogue is the basis of thinking. Talk is not cheap.

In George Orwel#146;s 1984, we are presented with an unforgettable account of the impoverishment of public discourse. Citizens in this totalitarian society have been dumbed down to the point where they are no longer able to express their true thoughts and feelings to each other. With no public talk—no civic discourse—permitted to them, the people of Orwel#146;s imaginary society are left with “the choice of either expressing themselves within the conventional grooves the language allows them, or remaining frustratedly inarticulate.”1

Many of us who teach claim that we often lead discussions in the classroom. “Today we discussed ____” is a common phrase when telling a colleague about a class. But classroom observations reveal that many of our “discussions” are in fact recitations: Teacher asks a question, a student responds. Teacher evaluates the response and moves to another question and another student.2 Recitation is ideal for some purposes, of course, but it is not discussion, and cannot achieve what discussion uniquely can. Discussion involves a purposeful exchange of views—a dialogue—among the participants themselves. “The distinctive and peculiar contribution which discussion has to play,” writes David Bridges, “is to set alongside one perception of the matter under discussion the several perceptions of other participants . . . challenging our own view of things with those of others.”3

Leading discussions well is one of the “great difficult things” in teaching, as anyone knows who has tried it and is honest about the results. This article features two teachers who are making headway at different kinds of classroom discussion: seminar and deliberation.

 

Obstacles

Let us first consider the obstacles to meaningful discussion so that we have a clear idea of what we are up against. Teachers report that rarely is there sufficient time for discussion, that class size can prevent it altogether, and that students too often cannot or will not discuss. Also, recurrent efforts to hold students “accountable” can undermine discussion by replacing substantive parts of the curriculum with “test prep.”4

There are, additionally, deeper obstacles. First, the absence of discussion models threatens to make classroom discussion a utopian dream. Most of us who teach did not experience sustained classroom discussions as a regular part of our own education; rather, we were apprenticed into recitation. Meanwhile, outside of school, city council members and other policy makers may have good discussions among themselves, but average citizens are rarely involved.

Minority group members are well aware of still another obstacle. Discussion can appear open and democratic while masking domination. Consider these two statements, the first from an African American teacher, the second from a European American social scientist.

When you’re talking to white people, they still want it to be their way. You can try to talk to them and give them examples, but they’re so headstrong, they think they know what’s best for everybody, for everybody’s children. . . . It’s really hard. They just don’t listen well. No, they listen, but they don’t hear—you know how your mama used to say you listen to the radio, but you hear your mother. Well they don’t hear me.5

Dialogue consists of ground rules for classroom interaction using language. These rules include the assumptions that all members have equal opportunity to speak, all members respect other members’ right to speak and feel safe to speak, and all ideas are tolerated and subjected to rational critical assessment. . . . (But this) in its conventional sense is impossible . . . because at this historical moment, power relations between raced, classed, and gendered students and teachers are unjust.6

Discussion leaders themselves, especially the acclaimed ones, add more items to the list of obstacles, one of which stands out: their own limited ability to lead successful discussions. Theodore Greene wrote: “Discussion is an incredibly difficult pedagogical feat which I, for one, have never in my life pulled off to my entire satisfaction. . . . I have never conducted a discussion for which I could honestly credit myself with a grade of more than 75 out of 100.”7 This is not humility, but a tacit set of high standards combined with a candid assessment of the tangle of difficulties inherent in leading discussions.

What topics are worth the effort? This question points to another difficulty. Content selection has always been the most challenging aspect of teaching well, for the universe of possibilities is infinite and time for instruction scarce. How can students be helped to find meaning in a topic? This question points to the difficulty of helping students enter the discussion with their prior knowledge and cultural vantage points present and working. Furthermore, how can young students learn what adults generally have not: to use discussion to seek insight rather than victory? True discussion requires participants to switch loyalties from defending positions and winning arguments to seeking understanding, really hearing others, and struggling to articulate reasons and opinions that are “in progress.”

 

Teachers Who Work At It

I turn now to two teachers who manage to lead discussions well enough and often enough to be considered exemplary. They are Judy Still, who teaches at Campus Middle School in Cherry Creek, Colorado, and Diana Hess, a former high school teacher, now at the University of Wisconsin. I chose these teachers for two reasons. First, readers can view them on videotape leading the same discussions I describe below.8 Judy is shown leading middle school students in a discussion of Howard Fast’s historical novel, April Morning.9 Diana is shown leading high school students in a discussion of a controversial public issue: physician-assisted suicide. It is not necessary for readers to have viewed the videotapes in order to follow my points in this article, but by viewing them, readers can see for themselves what I describe here and correct any errors in my account.

The second reason for choosing these teachers is that they model two different kinds of discussion: seminar (Judy) and deliberation (Diana). By observing them at work in routine classroom settings—a suburban middle school and an urban high schoo#151;we not only see two capable teachers orchestrating purposeful discussions; we also have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of discussion itself—both the idea and the practice—by comparing and contrasting a seminar with a deliberation. Working with this distinction is, I believe, crucial to leading classroom discussions well, particularly in social studies classrooms, where it is important to be flexible in choosing different forms of discussion to suit different curriculum purposes.

 

A Seminar

The purpose of Judy Stil#146;s discussion is to help her students move toward what Dennis Gray calls an “enlarged” understanding (both widened and deepened)10 of the ideas, issues, and values in April Morning. This novel centers on Adam Cooper, a 15-year-old Massachusetts boy whose coming of age is framed by the death of his father, killed by a Redcoat in one of the opening skirmishes of the War for Independence.

To achieve the seminar’s purpose, Judy’s students need the novel open in front of them, engaged classmates around them, a discussion leader who knows both the novel and them well (e.g., their teacher), a shared set of expectations (see the box on this page), and an opening question that is interpretive rather than literal.11 In the videotape, we see Judy opening the third in a series of seminars on this novel. Twenty-eight eighth graders are seated in a circle with two books open before them: the novel and the civics text We the People.12 Judy reminds students of the expectations that govern seminars, which they have been working on steadily in prior discussion. Then she reads the opening question from the chalkboard:

How does Adam’s coming of age compare to that of the nation?

Judy asks, “Who will get us started?” We see and hear students exchanging interpretations, not raising their hands but slipping into the gaps between others’ statements, calling on other classmates to draw them into the discussion, challenging one another’s opinions, referring to specific pages in the novel to back up their own, and deploying concepts they have gleaned from the civics text. Eventually, Judy asks a follow-up question to reiterate and sharpen the focus of the discussion:

If Adam is progressing through childhood, the teenage years, and into adulthood, how is the nation going through these same stages?

This proves to be a powerful question, for it pushes students to read more closely and dig more deeply into the analogy posed in the opening question.

One boy believes he has found a good example of the nation-as-child. He asks everyone to turn to a particular page, where he quotes the reverend saying to the militiamen and onlookers, “Good heavens, brothers, it’s not like we had experience in this line of work. We are not soldiers.” These farmers and blacksmiths weren’t prepared for warfare, the boy explains. The nation shifted into adulthood when the colonists became angry at the British and had to develop a plan of attack.

Another boy disagrees. They didn’t become adults then; they were still teenagers, rebelling against the king and the British. They didn’t become adults until years later, after the war, when they had to think about how they would govern themselves. A girl takes up his case: not until they had to establish a government did they become adults. Another girl challenges this line of reasoning, arguing that adulthood came with the realization that the king was wrong. The first girl defends her position by drawing an analogy: the colonial rebels were like teenagers who believe their curfew has been set too early and, therefore, rebel against their parents. Adulthood begins later on, she says, after independence has been won.

What is important is not whose interpretation is right, but that interpretations are being articulated, challenged, clarified, and, in these ways, improved. The discussion provides a reflective mirror that exposes one’s own interpretations to oneself (according to the adage, “I know what I think once I hear what I say”). This is the essence of education for critical thinking. As well, students’ differing interpretations can be compared and questioned.

One of Judy’s students put it well when, after the seminar, Judy asked the class to evaluate it. This student, a girl who had argued that adulthood began with the realization that the king was wrong, states: “Other people made me see things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.” Here she captures the purpose of a seminar—to achieve an enlarged understanding of the material at hand.

 

A Deliberation

Diana engages students in a different kind of discussion, one involving a controversial public issue. It requires participants to deliberate the issue, that is, to consider the matter, to generate and weigh alternatives, and to work together to forge a decision. Like a seminar, a deliberation is a form of shared inquiry, but the object before discussants is a problem involving a value conflict and requiring a decision that will be binding on all. Deliberation, in short, is discussion with an eye toward decision making.13

Diana is shown leading a discussion in a mixed-grades social studies class at East High School in Denver. She is a guest discussion leader on a question the class has been studying for some time with their regular teacher. The question: “Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Colorado?” Diana’s task is to help students understand this issue by generating and weighing alternatives. To accomplish this, she needs to keep students from rushing to judgment. Accordingly, she takes great care to help participants weigh each alternative thoroughly. “Let’s think about this alternative some more,” she says often. “Who has a different reason why this might or might not be a good thing to do?”

Before launching the discussion, Diana takes time to clarify its purpose. The goal, she says, is to reach a “deeper understanding of the issue,” and the method is to have a “best-case fair hearing of competing or differing points of view.” Then, we see her elicit from students the ground rules they believe are necessary to reach the goal. With her assistance, they generate a set of norms (see the box on this page). Diana then asks students whether they usually raise hands in discussions. When they reply that they do, Diana complies and tells them she’ll call on them, but that they should make sure she does so fairly. In this way, she reenforces the idea that justice is at stake in classroom procedures as it is in the issue before them.

To get the deliberation started, she asks for someone to state a good reason for or against legalizing physician-assisted suicide in Colorado. A girl volunteers that she is against it because it will lead to abuses. Diana asks, “What do you mean by abuses?” The student responds that the law would give doctors too much power, and that they would eventually take advantage of it and kill people because of how they look, or because they have AIDS, or because their care costs too much. Diana restates the student’s position to be sure everyone understands it; then, true to the purpose of deliberation, she suggests that the class stay with that reason and examine it further. “What do others think about that reason?” Two students challenge it, arguing that the central issue isn’t about doctors, but about terminally-ill patients. Don’t abandon patients out of fear for what doctors might do, they argue. Diana helps focus the discussion by pointing out how some students are making the “slippery slope” argument: that a well-intentioned action taken today can have unintended consequences down the road.

“Let’s stick with this reason a little longer,” Diana says. She prompts them to apply the information they read in the preparatory articles about the issue. “What did you read that would support the argument that abuses will surely come and the law will be used unequally?” One student cites statistics from the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, on the number of lives that were terminated without request. Another suggests that dying patients sometimes feel pressured to end their lives against their will.

A new participant enters the discussion to offer a different reason for opposing physician-assisted suicide: life is precious and God-given, and humans should not intervene. Diana now highlights a value conflict that has surfaced in the discussion: valuing life itself as opposed to valuing the rights of individuals. More hands are raised. One student draws an analogy to abortion law, while another responds by asking why, if we have liberty at the beginning of life, we don’t have it at the end of life as well.

As the class period draws to an end, Diana concludes the deliberation in three movements. First, she assigns the class to pairs, and asks each partner to take a minute to express his or her current thinking on the issue. Then, she takes a straw vote on the question (Yes? No? Need to know more?). Finally, she asks students to evaluate their discussion. “What did you do well?” “What do you need to work on?”

 

Seminar vs. Deliberation

Here, now, is a tool that should help clarify the distinction between the two kinds of discussions presented above. It is a classification scheme, or typology (see Table 1.) This typology permits a rough, at-a-glance comparison of seminars and deliberations along four dimensions: (1) the aim or purpose, (2) the subject matter under question, (3) the opening question, and (4) exemplars. Let us briefly consider five of the central terms involved.14

Discussion (Shared Inquiry). A discussion is a form of group inquiry—a consciously shared form that involves listening and talking.

Deliberation. A deliberation is a discussion aimed at deciding on a plan of action that will resolve a problem that a group faces. The essence of deliberation is weighing alternatives. Deliberating public issues is the key citizen behavior in democracies where, otherwise, citizens exercise power (e.g., voting; direct action) without necessarily having thought together about how to exercise it. The opening question is usually some version of, “What should we do?”

Seminar. A seminar is a discussion aimed at developing, exposing, and exploring meanings. A seminar’s purpose is to enlarge understanding of the ideas, issues, and values in a text. The text may be a historical novel, a primary document, a film or play, a photo, a painting. A seminar does not involve planning for action. There may be deliberative moments within seminars, particularly in the social studies curriculum where “What should we do?” is never far from consideration. The seminar’s primary purpose, however, is not to repair the world so much as to reveal it with greater clarity. Seminars enrich deliberation, to be sure, and for social studies teachers they go hand in hand by widening students’ knowledge and deepening their understanding of issues. Seminars and deliberations thus overlap, but their emphases and pedagogical purposes are distinct.

Powers of Understanding. Improving students’ “powers of understanding” is a secondary aim of both seminars and deliberations. Commonly termed “habits of mind,”15 these intellectual arts of interpretation are also termed “critical thinking” or “reasoning.” We can think of them as the inquiry skills and dispositions needed to apprehend the world (the purpose of a seminar) and those needed to help us decide what changes should be made (the purpose of a deliberation).

Opening Question. The opening question is aimed at the purpose of a discussion—to reach a decision (deliberation) or to enlarge understanding of a text (seminar). It gets quickly and simply to the heart of the matter, and it is genuine. A question is genuine when the asker has not made up his or her mind as to the answer. The teacher doesn’t have the answer, but infects students with the same sense of perplexity he or she feels.16 Both Judy and Diana are genuinely curious about their students’ responses to their questions because they themselves, too, are grappling with them.

 

Conclusion

Capable discussion leaders differ in style (Diana intervenes more often than Judy) and procedure (Judy has her students interact without raising hands), but they walk essentially the same path: they value discussion, they deploy different models to suit different curriculum purposes, they help their students hold discussions, and they try to engage their students in the same curiosity they themselves feel about the question at hand. I hope by now it is clear why, in spite of the obstacles, discussion is worth the effort: understanding and democracy both depend upon it. As well, discussions nurture a “we”—a democratic culture—by giving participants the opportunity to decide together how to solve problems they face in common. Our students can achieve enlarged understandings, and because our questions are genuine, so can we.

 

Notes

1. Nicholas C. Burbules, Dialogue in Teaching (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), 150.

2. On the persistence of recitation, see Susan S. Stodolsky, et al., “The Recitation Persists, but What Does It Look Like?”, Journal of Curriculum Studies 13 (1981), 121-130.

3. David Bridges, Education, Democracy and Discussion (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1979), 50.

4. Linda McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform (New York: Routledge, 2000).

5. Quoted in Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York: New Press, 1995), 21.

6. Elizabeth Ellsworth, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy,” Harvard Educational Review 59 (1989), 314, 316.

7. Theodore Greene, “The Art of Responsible Conversation,” Journal of General Education 8 (1954), 36.

8. Barbara Miller and Laurel Singleton, Preparing Citizens: Linking Authentic Assessment and Instruction in Civic/Law-related Education (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1997). Included are a manual and videotapes.

9. Howard Fast, April Morning (New York: Bantam, 1961).

10. Dennis Gray, “Putting Minds to Work,” American Educator 13 (1989); Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal (New York, Macmillan, 1982).

11. An interpretive question concerns the meaning of the ideas, issues, and values in a text. It has no single correct answer as does a literal question; accordingly, there will be disagreement.

12. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1995.

13. J. T. Dillon, ed., Deliberation in Education and Society (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1994); W. C. Parker, “The Art of Deliberation,” Educational Leadership 54 (1997), 19-21.

14. Further explanation of this typology, along with its use in instructing new teachers in leading discussions, can be found in Walter C. Parker and Diana Hess, “Teaching with and for Discussion,” in Teaching and Teacher Education 17 (2001): 273-289.

15. Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas (Boston: Beacon, 1995).

16. See Socrates in Plato’s “Meno,” in Protagoras and Meno, tr. W. K. C. Guthrie (New York: Penguin Classics, 1956).

17. See Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, Turning the Soul (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988); the discussion leader training and curriculum materials of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago and the National Paideia Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; Gray; Adler.

18. See Donald W. Oliver, Fred M. Newmann, and Laurel R. Singleton, “Teaching Public Issues in the Secondary School Classroom,” The Social Studies 83 (1992), 100-103; David D. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson “Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy,” Educational Leadership 45 (1988), 58-64; the issues booklets developed for the National Issues Forum (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt) and for “Choices for the 21st Century” (Providence, RI: Center for Foreign Policy Development, Brown University); Ron Evans and David Saxe, eds., Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996).

 

Walter C. Parker teaches in the social studies education program, College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle, and is department editor of “Research into Practice” in Social Education.

 

Expectations for a Seminar

 > Don’t raise hands.

> Listen to and build on one another’s comments.

> Invite others into the discussion.

> Support opinions by referring to passages in the book.

> Tie what you know about the history of the Revolution into your interpretation of April Morning.

 

Norms for a Deliberation

 > Hear all sides equally.

> Listen well enough to respond to and build upon each other’s ideas.

> Talking loudly is no substitute for reasoning.

> Back up opinions with clear reasons.

> Speak one at a time.

 

Good Reading on Classroom Discussions

 > Burbules, N. C. Dialogue in Teaching. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993.

> Dillon, J. T. Using Discussion in Classrooms. Bristol, PA: Open University Press, 1994.

> Haroutunian-Gordon, S. Turning the Soul. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

> Wilen, W. W., ed. Teaching and Learning through Discussion. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1990.

 

Table 1. A Typology of Discussion (Shared Inquiry)

Dimensions

Seminar

Deliberation

Purpose

1. Reach an enlarged understanding of a powerful text.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

1. Reach a decision about what a “we” should do about a shared problem.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

Subject Matter

Ideas, issues, and values in a print or film selection, artwork, performance, or political cartoon.

Alternative courses of action related to a public problem.

Opening Question

What does ______ mean?

What should we do?

Exemplar

Socratic Seminar17

Public Issues Model18