Read an Excerpt
Discussion as a Way of Teaching
By Stephen D. Brookfield
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-7879-7808-6
Chapter One Discussion in a Democratic Society
Recently one of us led a discussion that confirmed for us why we value the discussion method so highly. Steve Preskill was teaching a course on educational ethics and had found a newspaper article describing a local school board's refusal to honor a "do not resuscitate" (DNR) order. A DNR order is issued when a person is gravely ill. It is a legally binding document that is signed by the individual's next of kin and a supervising physician. They declare that the patient's medical condition is so fragile and grave that if the patient goes into cardiac arrest, no effort should be made to resuscitate. The article Steve found involved a schoolchild whose parents had signed a DNR order. The school board took the position that human life is unconditionally sacred. Because preserving life takes precedence over everything else, the board claimed, all efforts must be made to save a child's life, regardless of circumstances or DNR orders.
Steve projected a summary of the article on an overhead screen for the whole class to read. Steve describes the experience in the following vignette.
I had brought this article into class that day to illustrate what it meant for an organization to take a principled stand on an issue. In previous classes we had been reading articles that took a highly principled view of the value of human life, so I expected that most students would support the school board's position without much disagreement. I went into class believing that the school board's decision was courageous and morally defensible. The first students who spoke up after reading the summary supported the school board's decision. As I heard their comments, I smiled and nodded in agreement, all the while quietly celebrating how much my students were learning from my lectures and the readings I had assigned. But as the group probed deeper and as more students spoke, more information as well as opinion emerged. A few students argued that the board showed a marked lack of respect for the parents' carefully reasoned decision. I was taken aback by this dissenting view and was even more surprised by the students' ability to defend it from the same uncompromising position on the sacredness of human life. One student who had had a lot of experience with DNR orders explained that they are written only after agonizing deliberation among parents, health care professionals, attorneys, and educators. They therefore should not be taken lightly. Others pointed out that despite the board's good intentions, the members had acted out of ignorance of the legal, medical, and even ethical issues involved. By now I was starting to realize that things were not nearly as simple as I'd imagined. What I'd thought would be a straightforward illustration of a principled stand was turning into a deep probing of a situation in which a single, seemingly unassailable principle was being employed to defend diametrically opposing views. This was disconcerting, surprising, and gratifying in equal measure. I felt pleased that things were taking an unexpected turn but uncertain that I could stay on top of the discussion and make some good connections between what students were saying and the concept of taking a principled stand. And at the back of my mind was the contrary thought that it wasn't my duty always to make connections for students. Despite my uncertainty, I was engaged by this exchange of views and asked someone to explain in what way the school board showed an ignorance of ethical issues. A different student explained that DNR orders are usually inspected by ethicists before they are issued. Another student noted that it wasn't up to any one person or entity to defy such an order, that what to do in such situations was the responsibility of the community as a whole. Furthermore, this student argued, the DNR order was closer to being a reflection of broad community participation than the unilateral fiat of the board was. This last view showed a sophisticated understanding of communitarianism (a view we hadn't even covered yet!) and led to other students' expressing the opinion that the school board's decision could be defended only if certain conditions were met. The school board members needed to show that they had consulted with as many different people as the authors of the DNR order had, and they also needed to show that they had engaged in the same level of careful forethought as that displayed by the parents and physicians in arriving at their position. I rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet, a bit shaken by this collective display of knowledge and wisdom. My initial conviction that the board was in the right had been thoroughly undermined, causing me to wonder how many more of my beliefs would be thrown into doubt if I exposed them to the consideration of this group. How humbling and disconcerting! And yet how inspiring to take part in a discussion that deepened understanding by allowing many points of view to emerge and to be carefully weighed by all involved.
This vignette demonstrates why we place such store in discussion as a teaching method. As Steve's experience illustrates, discussion is a valuable and inspiring means for revealing the diversity of opinion that lies just below the surface of almost any complex issue. Although there are many ways to learn, discussion is a particularly wonderful way to explore supposedly settled questions and to develop a fuller appreciation for the multiplicity of human experience and knowledge. To see a topic come alive as diverse and complex views multiply is one of the most powerful experiences we can have as learners and teachers. In a discussion where participants feel their views are valued and welcomed, it is impossible to predict how many contrasting perspectives will emerge or how many unexpected opinions will arise.
In revealing and celebrating the multiplicity of perspectives possible, discussion at its best exemplifies the democratic process. All participants in a democratic discussion have the opportunity to voice a strongly felt view and the obligation to devote every ounce of their attention to each speaker's words. In this minidemocracy, all have the right to express themselves as well as the responsibility to create spaces that encourage even the most reluctant speaker to participate.
Discussion and democracy are inseparable because both have the same root purpose-to nurture and promote human growth. By growth we mean roughly the same thing as John Dewey (1916) did: the development of an ever-increasing capacity for learning and an appreciation of and sensitivity to learning undertaken by others. Democracy and discussion imply a process of giving and taking, speaking and listening, describing and witnessing-all of which help expand horizons and foster mutual understanding. Discussion is one of the best ways to nurture growth because it is premised on the idea that only through collaboration and cooperation with others can we be exposed to new points of view. This exposure increases our understanding and renews our motivation to continue learning. In the process, our democratic instincts are confirmed: by giving the floor to as many different participants as possible, a collective wisdom emerges that would have been impossible for any of the participants to achieve on their own.
But we do not prize discussion solely because it helps us attain worthy democratic aims. We practice it eagerly simply because it's so enjoyable and exciting. Unpredictable and risky, it is the pedagogical and educational equivalent of scaling a mountain or shooting dangerous rapids. Never sure what we'll encounter as we push toward the top or as we careen around the next bend, our level of alertness and attentiveness remains high. Indeed, there is an exhilaration that we experience in the best of discussions that is not unlike the thrill we enjoy in the most challenging of outdoor activities. This is why we like teaching democratically. In remaining open to the unexpected, we feel engaged and alive. So our commitment to discussion is not just moral and philosophical but also deeply personal and importantly self-gratifying. Even if we lacked a principled rationale for favoring discussion, we would still keep the conversation going because it gives us so much pleasure.
Blending Discussion, Dialogue, and Conversation
Certain authors who agree about the potential of group talk have attempted to make distinctions among conversation, discussion, and dialogue. The philosopher Matthew Lipman (1991) argues that conversation seeks equilibrium, with each person in turn taking opportunities to speak and then listen but where little or no movement occurs. Conversation, Lipman claims, is an exchange of thoughts and feelings in which genial cooperation prevails, whereas dialogue aims at disequilibrium in which "each argument evokes a counterargument that pushes itself beyond the other and pushes the other beyond itself" (p. 232). Dialogue for Lipman is an exploration or inquiry in which the participants view themselves as collaborators intent on expeditiously resolving the problem or issue they face. Educational philosopher Nicholas Burbules (1993), while less inclined than Lipman to distinguish sharply between conversation and dialogue, suggests that conversation is more informal and less structured than dialogue and that dialogue focuses more on inquiry and increasing understanding and tends to be more exploratory and questioning than conversation.
David Bridges (1988) claims that discussion is different from conversation and other forms of group talk by its "concern with the development of knowledge, understanding or judgement among those taking par" (p. 17). He believes that discussion is more serious than conversation in that it requires the participants to be both "mutually responsive" to the different views expressed and disposed to be "affected by opinions one way or another in so far as (on some criteria) they merit acceptance or approval" (p. 15). Similarly, James Dillon (1994) argues that whereas conversation is aimless, carefree, and effortless, discussion, in his view, is highly "disciplined and concerted talk" (p. 13) in which people come together to resolve some issue or problem that is important to them.
Other observers prefer the word conversation, meaning something a little less formal and structured than what Lipman, Burbules, Bridges, and Dillon call dialogue or discussion. The neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (1979) thinks of philosophy itself as a stimulus to a great and continuing conversation. For Rorty, keeping the conversation going is the most important thing. As long as conversation lasts, he remarks, there is hope "for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement" (p. 318). Bringing people together in conversation and challenging them to use their imaginations to create new meanings and move toward greater human inclusiveness is, for Rorty (1989), a moral endeavor. To him, conversation extends our sense of "'we' to people whom we have previously thought as 'they'" (p. 192) and provides a forum for acting on our obligation to achieve solidarity with others.
A major influence on Rorty is the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1962), who characterizes group talk as an "unrehearsed intellectual adventure" (p. 198) in which as many participants as possible are invited to speak and acknowledge one another. Despite the inevitable and irreconcilable differences between them, the act of conversation allows them to emerge from the experience broadened and enriched. For Oakeshott, participation in conversation is a distinctively human activity. Becoming skillful at this involves us in discerning how each voice reflects a different set of human interests. Through the process of discernment one becomes more sensitized to neglected or discounted voices and to finding room for them to air their views. In Oakeshott's view, conversation is one of the most important ways for human beings to make meaning, to construct a worldview, and to provide a "meeting-place of various modes of imagining" (p. 206). While each person who contributes should have the serious intention of engaging others, the best conversations maintain a tension between seriousness and playfulness. "As with children, who are great conversationalists," Oakeshott offers, "the playfulness is serious and the seriousness in the end is only play" (p. 202).
Although we use the term discussion to explore the theory and practice of group talk, we are actually blending or synthesizing the descriptions of discussion, dialogue, and conversation put forward by Lipman, Burbules, Bridges, Dillon, Rorty, and Oakeshott. Our understanding of discussion incorporates reciprocity and movement, exchange and inquiry, cooperation and collaboration, formality and informality. We acknowledge that much can be said for a simple exchange of views that does not oblige the participants to critique one another's opinions. Simply to understand more fully the thoughts and feelings of another increases our capacity to empathize and renews our appreciation for the variety of human experience. We also know that discussion that primarily entertains has merit and is an important part of human experience and education. However, in general we define discussion as an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique. The purposes of discussion are fourfold: (1) to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, (2) to enhance participants' self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, (3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and (4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world. Discussion is an important way for people to affiliate with one another, to develop the sympathies and skills that make participatory democracy possible. It is, as James Dillon (1994) has said, "a good way for us to be together" (p. 112) so that we can share personal stories of triumph and trouble and stretch our capacity for empathizing with others. In telling our stories, we employ different forms of speech to stimulate and move others, to emote and express strong feelings, and simply to celebrate the joys of coming together.
Making Discussion Critical
Whether labeled "discussion," "dialogue," or "conversation," the liveliest interactions are critical. When participants take a critical stance, they are committed to questioning and exploring even the most widely accepted ideas and beliefs. Conversing critically implies an openness to rethinking cherished assumptions and to subjecting those assumptions to a continuous round of questioning, argument, and counterargument. One of the defining characteristics of critical discussion is that participants are willing to enter the conversation with open minds. This requires people to be flexible enough to adjust their views in the light of persuasive, well-supported arguments and confident enough to retain their original opinions when rebuttals fall short. Although agreement may sometimes be desirable, it is by no means a necessity. Indeed, continued disagreement may be a productive outcome of conversation, particularly if some explanation for those differences can be found. An airing of differences can stimulate additional discussion and offer an opportunity to clarify one's own view in relation to another's.
Henry Giroux (1987) offers a view of critical discussion in which teachers become transformative intellectuals who engage and empower their students to probe the contradictions and injustices of the larger society. Building on the tradition of ideology critique in the Frankfurt School of critical social theory, he argues that classrooms are sites where students and teachers converge to make meaning by "interrogating different languages or ideological discourses as they are developed in an assortment of texts" (p. 119). Conceived this way, discussion discloses the ways in which different linguistic, cultural, and philosophical traditions can silence voices. A critical posture leads people to analyze these traditions to understand how they have kept entire groups out of the conversation. Teachers and students probe their own taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions to uncover the ways these serve dominant interests. This kind of critical discussion helps people see how their choices can either perpetuate injustice and continue silence or contribute to growth and even emancipation.
Excerpted from Discussion as a Way of Teaching by Stephen D. Brookfield Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
Praise for the First Edition of Discussion as a Way of Teaching Winner of the 1999 Choice Selection of the American Educational Studies Association
"Stimulating good discussions is often one of the more difficult tasks of teaching. In this book, Brookfield and Preskill offer a wealth of information and strategies for improving dialogues in the classroom. I found the teacher- and student-centered tone of the book refreshing and the connections drawn between democratic education and discussion methods quite meaningful."
Mary Deane Sorcinelli, associate provost and director, Center for Teaching, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
"Discussion as a Way of Teaching addresses an important, often underutilized pedagogical approach—the discussion method. The book is a practical and valuable resource for all faculty seeking to improve their teaching and create more learner-centered teaching environments."
Jodi Levine Laufgraben, director of first-year programs, Temple University
"It would be hard for anyone to read this book and not And up with a large number of ideas about how to use discussion in the classroom. Even experienced teachers are likely to be challenged in some of their own assumptions."
David Boud, professor of adult education, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia
"This book provides an excellent overview of how to cultivate and nurture democratic dispositions and discussion habits in students. Each chapter provides adaptable, practical, and clearly articulated strategies that both novice and experienced teachers can use."
Gary Cale, associate professor of language and literature, Jackson Community College, Michigan