The Art of Discussion Leading: Part I

This is a guest post from Bok Blog contributor Stephen Tardif

For even the most experienced teachers, discussion leading can be a source of anxiety. Unlike lectures which can be planned, rehearsed, and performed or even seminars wherein the burdens of presentation and participation are divided and shared, discussion-based instruction is distinguished for the unique pedagogical challenges that it presents—shy students, aimless tangents, and dreaded silences, to name but a few. Yet, the pedagogical opportunities that discussions create are singular as well. With roots as deep as the medieval academy’s disputatioand arguably even further back to the philosophical dialogues of the ancients—, discussions open spontaneous, unrepeatable occasions for learning and discovery. Indeed, they answer to the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s description of conversation, “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” While a range of topics related to discussion leading could be explored—how they can be started and structured, how the skills they require can be identified and developed, and how common problems can be addressed and overcome—, the present post will first address a more general set of questions: What is a discussion? What intellectual function does it serve? And in what sense can it be lead? 

In the first chapter of his mischievously-titled book, Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, Donald Finkel poses the following challenge to his reader: “Thinking back over your whole life…list the moments (or events) in which you discovered something of lasting significance.” Finkel then reveals that the students to whom he has given this task have all reported—and not without some surprise—that their most  “significant moments of learning did not take place in school and did not have teachers playing any part in them.” Though the lesson that students (and readers) will draw from Finkel’s exercise is meant to be provocative, it actually points to the same pedagogical intuition behind activity-based learning—namely, that some students learn best by doing. Nevertheless, the revelation of this exercise will be chastening for some teachers. Yet Finkel intends his lesson about the inherent limitation of the teacher’s role to be enabling—and, insofar as it invites them to recalibrate their aims and expectations, it is. Since “good teaching,” according to Finkel, is the creation of “those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others,” all learning is really, in some sense, autodidactic. Although his view represents an extreme, Finkel proposes a healthy shift in the perspective of most teachers: rather than simply being communicators of information, they can become facilitators of personal, independent discovery.

This teacher-as-facilitator model is especially well suited for the discussion-based classroom. In these settings, teachers and students can share the same goals and seek the same answers collaboratively. The task of the teacher, in such contexts, is to curate the conditions for learning: to participate in, while also observing and refereeing, the emerging conversation. The labor of articulating cogent thoughts—what D. H. Lawrence called the “struggle for verbal consciousness”—will remain the students’ own. But they will be aided by a leader who, while keeping sight of the larger issues and aims of the discussion, will, at the same time, help students in their efforts by listening, reacting, repeating, replying, clarifying, and synthesizing their contributions. The discipline that the teacher imposes on classroom contributions in such settings is precisely that of the academic discipline within which these discussions takes place. And when the intellectual norms of a discipline emerge naturally in the course of a discussion (through subtle acts of selection, amplification, and direction), they will appear to students, not as an irrational set of arbitrary top-down constraints, but as productive, enabling standards, the rules of a thrilling game that structure the process of discovery.

Besides creating a space in which to model the protocols of disciplinary inquiry, discussion-based instruction can further a teacher’s other pedagogical aims as well, such as the development of paper-writing skills. When classroom conversations become a low-stakes forum in which ideas can be floated without risk, students discover a valuable analogue to the exercise of “free writing.” When those same freely offered ideas are exposed to the constructive correction of either the teacher or the student’s own peers, the value of careful editing can be illustrated immediately. And, when even improved comments are tested, contested, and scrutinized by the group, students can see, at a glance, the importance of counter-examples to a successful argument, as well as the necessity of the argumentative structure itself. The plurality of perspectives which will emerge in any classroom conversation proves to students that no point of view is obvious, inevitable, or irrefutable; one’s thoughts, therefore, need to be cogently, consistently, and persuasively elaborated in order to be truly understood and considered by another.

Conversations in the classroom also show students why, in addition to making an argument, every paper they write will also make an “essay,” a more or less provisional attempt. The words “research” and “error”—whose respective Latin roots, circare and errare, can both be translated with the English word, “wander”—are etymological synonyms for good reason. Discoveries often take the form of a deviation, and the raw materials of writing are often less-than-promising. Yet when, at the end of a fruitful but digressive discussion, a skilled teacher superinduces a structure on the class’s confused conversation, and shows how errant insights can be organized and synthesized, students receive an invaluable lesson about both the origin and final form of academic writing.

This aleatory aspect of learning—its dependence on circumstance, contingency, and chance—is hard to convey in any other context but a well-led discussion, because a conversation is all of these things; in Oakeshott’s winning phrase, “an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Moreover, this fortuitous quality of conversation also explains why they are essentially peripatetic, flowing from “place” to “place” (and the Greek root of “topic” means exactly that). Since every participant can add something unexpected and unforeseeable, the collective end of a conversation is impossible to predict in advance. 

And yet, a well-run conversation is both purposeful and spontaneous, goal-oriented and open-ended because, in some sense, the ultimate goal and purpose of every discussion is really the discussion itself; its peculiar ends are achieved in and through its own means. As Hannah Arendt says of a rather infamous conversationalist in The Life of the Mind: “The meaning of what Socrates was doing lay in the activity itself…To think and to be fully alive are the same, and this implies that thinking must always begin afresh.” Hence, the goal of any good discussion is not arrivals but outsets, not results but methods, and not answers per se but new ways of asking questions with greater clarity, penetration, and depth. And, when answers do emerge, they will be of the kind that open new avenues of inquiry for future conversations. 

Thus, although Finkel claims to offer instruction in the art of Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, he is really showing his colleagues how to keep the avenues of discovery open for their students. And nowhere are these avenues more easily accessed than in discussion-based instruction. Unfortunately, anxiety is a constituent element of this form of teaching, but this is precisely due to the contingent quality of its emergent possibilities. This is also why the silence of shy students and the inevitable tangents from the main line of an inquiry are not reliable reasons for teachers to become discouraged, for these, too, may be the unassuming, otherwise invisible moments wherein invaluable learning occurs. Sometimes teachers themselves, no less than their students, need to be led—and the unpredictable pathways of a classroom conversation are exactly what they need to follow.