Academic journal article Social Education

Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations

Academic journal article Social Education

Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations

Article excerpt

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 Orwell'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 Orwell'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.


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. … 
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