10/24/2017

Discussion: Practice & Purpose
by Laura Berquist

Discussion is very important in our program. We know that to make a position your own, you need to be able to articulate it. We also know that it is through discussion that a teacher most certainly comes to know her students’ minds. But sometimes we hear objections to discussion as a method of learning: People say, “Lectures are a better method of learning, because the student has the truth clearly laid out for him, rather than a discussion wherein one has the blind leading the blind.” The right response is twofold: First, there is a certain aspect of teaching that cannot be done as well with lectures, namely the explication of the most fundamental ideas, and second, there are essentially lectures at the basis of every discussion, as a matter of fact.

As to the first, Dr. Neumayr, one of the founders of TAC, says, “Each one of us brings certain fundamental ideas to education which must be made explicit before learning can advance. Discussion is the optimum means to bring them forth. The student must, as it were, give them birth; the teacher, as a good midwife, only assists the labor. Tradition calls this the Socratic maieutic, from the Greek word for obstetrics, because the basic ideas we use in education come forth from our own minds, not from the teacher’s. . . . Nature sees to it that we all grasp certain fundamental concepts and distinctions about reality — ideas we are hardly aware we have — that allow us to judge all other ideas put forth about reality. Genuine education leads the mind forth to see these seminal ideas openly before it applies them to further notions. Every science and every discipline is rooted in these basic ideas. No matter how far we may advance in a subject, whatever we find to be true and sound resolves back into the first notions. . . . No lecture can plant these into our minds. They are already there. The task is to bring them out. Here discussion is vital. . . . A good teacher is able through the right questions to make us aware of our most basic ideas in the light of which we are able to make judgments about other things.”

So we want to be thinking, while we are discussing with our students, whether in our homes or in a classroom, "What principles is he invoking to make that point? Could it be so basic as the principle of contradiction?" "What is he assuming is true?" Then you want to help him see what his foundational ideas are.

There is no substitute for this process. Each person has to make explicit those fundamental common notions, such as the principle of contradiction, or the axiom that a whole is greater than its parts, which he has in order to proceed well in the intellectual life. That is what you are aiming for in your discussions with your students. You want them to see that this statement agrees with that, or it doesn't, that this concept includes others, or not. 

Dr. Neumayr says, “This is why Socrates searched the souls of his disciples with questions. If any responded saying ‘I have heard such and such …’ he would invariably reply: ‘But what do you think?’ [We should remember that.] He was not asking for their opinion; he was asking just what they really thought and knew about things. It is not easy to say accurately just what we really think. Often upon hearing a response, Socrates would ask, ‘But don’t you also think such and such about it? How do these two ideas fit together?’ And so the discussion would go until the disciple began to harmonize his own thoughts.”

So the discussion method provides an opportunity to make explicit the first common notions on which all intellectual progress is built, and it allows the teacher to help the young student integrate those common notions with the first intellectual steps that are built on it. We want our students to harmonize their own thoughts.

As Dr. Neumayr says, there are no short cuts in this process. “Neither computers, calculators, audiovisual techniques, nor even lectures can make us see these  all-important truths that are in our souls. A student may be able to take up technology in its latest form without having to go back to the first inventions and repeat all the labors of his ancestors. But this is not so in liberal education. In this way it is more like moral formation. Our parents may be courageous and just, but we cannot take up where they left off; rather we must go through the whole experience of acquiring virtue as they did. No short cuts. So too in genuine education. We ourselves must do it from the bottom up. It is as basic and   unchanging as human nature. There may be short cuts to ‘know how’ and technical skills, but not to wisdom.” Discussion is necessary to come to wisdom.

As to the second point, that there are lectures at the basis of every discussion, the fact is that in our discussions we are usually discussing a text. The text provides a presentation of truth, which the discussion helps the student penetrate. After the discussion he can go back to the text with a better understanding, and he will see things in that presentation that he didn't see before.

Now, there is the practical consideration of how to get the discussion started, and how to keep it going. This is going to vary from stage of formation to stage of formation. There are certain factors, though, that are universal.

The teacher has to be open to and supportive of ideas. If a student knows, or thinks, that the teacher will say, in effect, "That isn't true", or "That won't work", then most students will not talk. 

This doesn’t mean, though, that the teacher should just be absent, or that he should make it seem two contradictory statements are both fine. Rather, he should direct the discussion. When George says, "Alexander the Great was crazy. He thought he was a god. He let the Persians worship him," and Tom says, "Alexander was the wisest of all ancient  leaders, because of the way he treated conquered peoples," the teacher shouldn’t make a judgment, at least immediately. He should ask Tom and George what they think about the two statements. He should open up the question to the floor, "Was Alexander crazy or was he wise?" 

Then the teacher shouldn’t really comment on or evaluate every answer as it comes, because, if he does, what could be a discussion will develop into a conversation between one student and the teacher.  When there is one student and the teacher, that’s ok, but in a group setting it's better to say something like, "That's interesting! Do you think that fits with what George said?" or "Hey, George, isn't that interesting? Does that fit with your idea?" Or, "Great thought! That reminds me of what you said earlier, Annie. Could you restate what you said about x?" or "That is a really good start to our consideration. Let's note that, and see what the other possibilities might be. Remember, you aren't committing yourself to anything yet, we are just laying out the possibilities." Even with a one on one conversation, the teacher has to be careful not to shut down the exchange of ideas.

I like to remind the students that a discussion is an external deliberation. We all have to deliberate before we come to judgment. There are two parts to the process of arriving at the truth. First you consider the various alternatives, and one of those eventually emerges as clearly true, or most likely of the possibilities you have considered. Then your mind comes to rest in that answer. In other words, then you make a judgment.

When you are working alone, the deliberation takes place internally, as you 'mull' over the possibilities. When you are working together with others, the deliberation takes place externally, and you have more experience to draw upon. Then the judgment comes, internally of course, but also, often, externally, by consensus. You all see the truth you have been seeking.

What you want is for the students to start actually carrying on a deliberation. This is an art, and they have to practice to perfect their art.

Discussion questions are not reading comprehension questions. Now, reading comprehension questions at the beginning of a discussion period can loosen things up, especially for younger children, and set the stage for a more theoretical question, but there is just one right answer for a reading comprehension question, so the student either gets it right or doesn't. That is not a discussion. "When was the battle of Zama?" or even "Who were some of the major characters in the Punic wars?" will not generate discussion, though they might be useful in getting the students used to answering questions orally.

Discussion requires questions which are more open-ended; there have to be a number of possible answers. These could be questions that are personal: "Which character seems more real to you and why?" Or they could be questions that require more sorting out to find the answer: "Who is the main character in Antigone?" Or a question that calls for judgment: "Was it a good political move on Creon's part to forbid the burial of Polynices?" "Was Antigone right to bury her brother?" Or "Was Alexander the Great crazy or was he wise?"

The first question (Which character seems more real to you and why?) is 'safer' and therefore better to use with younger students, or students who are getting used to discussion, while the second (Who is the main character in Antigone?) is a better question in itself, as it requires exploration of the story, and of the definition of tragedy, but it leads to a real, objective, conclusion. The last three are taken from the ends of rhetoric: the expedient or inexpedient (Was it a good political move on Creon's part to forbid the burial of Polynices?), the just or unjust (Was Antigone right to bury her brother?) and the blameworthy or praiseworthy (Was Alexander the Great crazy or was he wise?).

Discussion also flourishes when it is in an untimed setting. If you get a real discussion going, it's best if you can continue into the next period, or take it up the next day, or be willing to stop without arriving at judgment. If you have only one hour, and you have to get to the answer in that hour,  the teacher will have to stop the discussion at some point and make a judgment. That can be done, successfully, but ongoing discussion is a good way to build real intellectual habits of inquiry.

So to sum up:

  1. The teacher has to be open to and supportive of ideas.
  2. The teacher shouldn’t comment on or evaluate every answer as it comes.
  3. The teacher should direct the conversation to include other students, when possible, so as to facilitate external deliberation.
  4. The questions need to be  open-ended in the ways I mentioned.

I want to note here, that as in other teaching and parenting techniques, the positive gets you further than the negative. Really be open to and supportive of ideas. When someone has an interesting thought, pick up on it. Say that it is good, or interesting. Say that you never thought about that before. Restrain yourself from saying, too soon, that it is right or wrong. You can say, "Wow! I want to think about that! Let's see how that would fit with X." The bottom line is you want the student to see that deliberation, working with ideas, comparing various ideas to one another to make sure they harmonize and to help one come to the truth, is the whole point of discussion. It's ordered to wisdom, not just to information.