Is Discussion Overrated?

It’s a near-truism of education that giving students ample opportunity to discuss, primarily with each other, is important. This sharing of perspectives is supposed to both solidify their understanding and develop a sense of community. I confess, though, that I’ve long been skeptical about the boosterism for discussion. From what I can tell, many discussions are so poor that the time might be better spent being lectured to, reading, or just napping.

Most of what I hear from colleagues who are discussion fans is based on students’ enthusiasm. “They really get into it!. Everyone talks!” What I usually think, but don’t often say, is “but what were they talking about? How, if at all, did that talking facilitate real learning?” In other words, I’ve long suspected that ebullient classroom chatter, such a feel-good boon to both students and teachers, gets confused with genuine, pedagogically valuable dialogue. Though my worry is about discussion in general, I think its problems are amplified in the online environment for reasons I explore in an upcoming post.

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It’s worth pausing to consider what’s supposed to make discussion so important to learning in the first place. Because I’m a philosopher by training, I have been more conditioned to think of dialogue as pedagogically sacred than most. And though I am a recovering philosopher, I think there are good reasons why the Socratic method is the paradigmatic dialectical learning process. A skilled, passionate, knowledgeable interlocutor can nurture students’ intellectual development. Disciplined, professor-led discussions are often effective precisely because the teacher has traveled this road many times. She has a map and a destination in mind. Although there are lots of legitimate critiques of this approach — the hierarchical power relationship comes to mind — lots of students become better thinkers by way of it.

There’s another, more common, sort of discussion that gets confused with the Socratic version. It is more flexible and open-ended, and more closely related to consciousness-raising practices than to Socrates, even though many teachers who practice it almost exclusively claim that their method is “Socratic.” This looser sort of discussion prioritizes students’ experience, aiming to empower them personally and intellectually. It’s an especially good practice for teachers who value, as I do, the development of marginalized voices. For some of our students (though not at all for others), a barely-bounded classroom discussion becomes a precious opportunity to give voice to fears about sexuality or experiences of persecution. Because education is both personal and political, such discussions are important.

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That said, I think we do damage when we lazily conflate these two kinds of discussion. When we speak of discussion — people talking at and to one another — as an unqualified good, we forget that only some kinds of discussion work for some purposes. It is all too easy to be fooled by the volume of students’ chatter into believing that something meaningful is occurring. We are probably especially susceptible to this delusion because of how hard it can sometimes be to get students to pipe up at all.

There are, of course, lots of strategies to facilitate effective discussion of all sorts, both face-to-face and online, but my focus here is much more basic: What if, in brutally honest fashion, we question the value of discussion as we have been practicing it? Though students would often prefer to talk to each other than to us — and we would often prefer that they do so as well — how much of it has really mattered?

One thing I know for sure: The fact that I and my students may feel great when they proclaim their feelings, experiences and preferences — and this is usually what they are most passionate about sharing — doesn’t mean I haven’t just wasted their time.

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