Academic journal article Social Education

Discussion in Social Studies: Is It Worth the Trouble?

Academic journal article Social Education

Discussion in Social Studies: Is It Worth the Trouble?

Article excerpt

IN A FAMOUS "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" sketch, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, playing a high school history teacher, attempts to start a discussion with rote factual questions, such as "Who was Britain fighting in World War II?" The agonizing recitation that follows never evolves into a discussion; it becomes painfully clear that the students know virtually nothing about the topic, and even less about how to participate in a productive discussion. Finally, Seinfeld gives up, swallows a handful of pills to quell his upset stomach, and accedes to a student's offer to bring in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark to show in class the next day. While simultaneously hilarious and depressing, this skit also illustrates an unfortunate reality: Even though many social studies teachers value classroom discussion, it is rare in most social studies classes.

As a case in point, Martin Nystrand and his colleagues observed social studies classes in 106 middle and high schools and found that 90 percent of the instruction involved no discussion whatsoever. When there was discussion, it was short: 42 seconds in length, on average, for eighth grade classes and 31 seconds for ninth grade classes. (1) The difficulties teachers encounter when trying to promote high quality discussion among students undoubtedly contribute to the brevity and rarity of such discussions. Teachers report that discussions fail because only a few students have usually completed the necessary preparatory work for effective participation, because some students persistently monopolize while others are silent, because their own facilitation skills are weak, and, most significantly, because what students say is often of low quality and their remarks are often off topic. Given these problems, it is not surprising that teachers question whether discussion is worth the trouble.

Here, I address that question by drawing together research that (a) defines discussion, (b) clarifies the problems of implementing discussion in classrooms, (c) specifies the benefits and characteristics of effective social studies discussions, and (d) suggests what teachers can do to facilitate good discussions. My conclusion is that discussion is particularly important in social studies courses because it is uniquely able to help students learn what social studies courses should be teaching.

What is Discussion?

Just as there is "a literature" on academic topics such as the causes of civil wars or how children learn to read, there is a literature on classroom discussion. One of its central concerns is how to define discussion. Consider the following definitions developed by scholars with expertise in the theory, research, and practice of discussion.

Discussion is:

"the free exchange of information among three or more participants (which could include the teacher); (2)

"an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique"; (3)

"a particular form of group interaction where members join together in addressing a question of common concern, exchanging and examining different views to form their answer, enhancing their knowledge or understanding, their appreciation or judgment, their decision, resolution or action over the matter at issue"; (4) or

"a kind of shared inquiry the desired outcomes of which rely on the consideration of diverse views." (5)

Notice the differences among these definitions. The first is minimalist--requiring only a small number of participants and the simple exchange of ideas. The next definition describes the ethos of discussion (alternatively serious and playful) and its content (sharing views and critique), but not the goal. The third identifies a precondition for discussion (there must be a question of common concern), the content (exchanging and examining views), and the purpose of the discussion (to form an answer, build knowledge, understanding, appreciation, or judgment). …

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