Discussion: Practicum
by Laura Berquist

I have one more general thing to say about discussion. The materials and the questions have to fit the stage of formation. 
Don’t use complex materials, at least for discussion, before the student is ready. Reading the Greek myths from the Oxford World Classics to young children would be a mistake. They aren't ready for the complex language, let alone the complex ideas. But reading D'Auliare's Greek myths would be fine. The material has to suit the child. 

For similar reasons, even with that kind of appropriate material, the questions asked about it have to be suitable for the child. There has to be a proportion between the material, the thought about the material and the ability of the child. This works in both directions. Using materials that are too easy for older children is less of a problem, but it is still a problem, as the older student loses interest in a story that is not complex enough, or questions that don't go beyond the surface.  

So having a pretty clear idea of the stages of formation of students is very significant. I know we have talked about this in principle before and applied it in practice in various places.  What I am about to say, then, will already be somewhat familiar to you. 

In K-5 students should concentrate on telling a story with a beginning, middle and end (Aristotle confirms the importance of this concept in the Poetics. It's a fundamental concept: For a plot to be a complete whole, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is a point that does not necessarily follow from anything else, which naturally has consequences following from it. The end is a point that naturally follows from preceding events but does not have any necessary consequences following it. The middle is a point that is naturally connected both to events before and after it.)
Remember the skills belonging to this age - observation, sequencing and memorization. These activities are found in every assignment. They are ordered to improving the power of making images and to the quality of the images made.  This is a skill that, again, is absolutely fundamental to thought. The importance of improving the strength and docility of the imagination cannot be over emphasized.  About 4th grade there is a new emphasis: developing patterns of language. 

Discussion in these grades should primarily be a kind of working together, as preparation for full blown 'communal' deliberation ordered to judgment. Little children like to converse, and they like to tell you what they think. But they aren't very good at prolonged discussion comparing ideas. 

So here are my suggestions for discussion starters for the early grades:

Retellings, done together, can demonstrate how to work together. 

  1. Before reading something new, think together about what we already know about the topic. Jot down some notes. 
  2. Then make predictions about what we will learn (scan the chapter or article utilizing bold words, topic sentences, picture captions, etc. to provide a picture to us about what we think we will more specifically learn regarding the topic)
  3. Now read the chapter, or, in the case of a story, the story, and discuss as led by the child. If he asks “What does this mean?” tell him. Add to what we know about the topic. 
  4. Have a separate place to note down questions that have been raised by the new material. These are items to explore. We want our children to wonder, and we want to encourage them in that quality. It is the basis of all learning.  Don’t stop the story for those explorations, though.  

Compare and contrast questions tend to be harder for little children because they have to concentrate on seeing a whole, first, before comparing wholes. That requires analytic skills. Little children are not ready, by and large, for analysis. 

In 6th to 9th grades, on the other hand,  one should concentrate on analysis. The method at this level is to summarize, analyze, collate information, recognize an argument, learn how to order material in an order of importance, and construct an argument. These activities are all intended to help the student improve his ability to construct and hold an argument in his mind.

There is a strong emphasis on clear thinking in these grades, with a particular emphasis on seeing relationships between various parts of a whole.  Questions that encourage close analysis of a text, or of a position, are very appropriate. 

6th grade concentrates on analysis of texts, and questions arising from that. 

1) As summarizing is an important skill at this level and as it requires an order of importance as opposed to a chronological order, questions about what is most important in a story or about an event are good questions.

For example, we have the students read a number of texts about ancient civilizations, especially Egypt, in 6th grade. I am drawing examples from our discussion questions:

2) Thought provoking textual analysis is also appropriate for 6th graders (From Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum): 

3) Extrapolation is another important skill to practice and questions about what you learn from a passage can generate discussion:

4) Questions about the goodness of particular actions are also helpful. The students have to think about what makes an action good to answer those questions. This is a question they will be considering over a long period of time. The understanding of what makes an action good is arrived at over time by considering various good actions. (You are moving in the direction of action 'in accordance with nature', following right reason, the right use of the powers of the soul - virtue, in other words. But it takes time to really see that.) 

I want to mention that it is generally better not to have an answer key. Once we have an answer key, we are looking for the 'right' answer. As teachers we need to truly listen to and think about the answers we receive. We need to think about how that answer is right, and/or why the student sees that as an answer. I have learned so much from my students over the years. They see truths in a text that I didn't see. But to profit from it I have to be willing to listen and willing to truly entertain an answer I didn't have in my own mind. 

7th grade concentrates on looking for causes, and questions arising from that. You want to help students see reasons for actions or positions that are taken. The question, "Why does (or did) this happen?" should be a regular part of the student’s school day. In history in 1st semester of 7th grade we read three types of material: the Greek myths, the Persian Wars (Herodotus), and specific famous people The students are exploring the reasons for men’s actions (the gods, the large issues like freedom, and specific men’s characters) so the kinds of question we ask have to do with good and bad decisions, good and bad influences,  good and bad actions.  

8th grade students can use critical thinking skills to answer a question having different levels of meaning, extrapolate relevant information from a complex whole, comparison characters, actions and works, recognize different points of view. 

Different levels of meaning are within the scope the student of this age.  Lord of the Rings is a text many of you are familiar with, so I am using it for this section.

[Comparison is very important to analysis. One needs to be able to line up two accounts, or two examples, and notice how they are the same and different. This requires a trained imagination, and an overlaying, as it were, of the two accounts. In the comparisons, one’s attention is directed to the points of contrast. This helps reveal the truth.] 

In grades 9-12, in my experience, one should concentrate discussions around the   ends of rhetoric. The student should be working on presenting a position eloquently and cogently, polishing arguments, and putting together coherent thoughts on a subject quickly and accurately. 

As I have often said, rhetoric is of three kinds: the political, the forensic and the ceremonial. These three kinds differ in their ends. The political aims at establishing whether a proposed course of action is expedient or inexpedient ("Were the Romans right, politically, to keep rebuilding their fleet during the Punic Wars?"); the forensic, whether an action done was just or unjust ("Should Achilles have stopped fighting?"); and the ceremonial, whether someone deserves praise or blame ("Is Caser a good man?"). In my experience, the student in the rhetorical stage is interested in the high and noble, he cares about what is good and bad, and about what is blameworthy and praiseworthy. So the ends of rhetoric are by nature of interest to the high school student. 

So good discussion questions are best framed around those ends:

There are also some good discussion questions in DYOCC, General Questions for the Study of Literature: 

I hope this gives you some ideas for discussions with your students.