In an earlier article, I wrote about planning for teaching sessions. In the next few articles, I will provide overviews of some teaching and learning methods you might consider.
Discussion is frequently taken for granted, perhaps regarded as just ‘having a chat’ with students or, worse still, derided as not ‘proper teaching’. Discussion deserves serious consideration as a learning and teaching method, particularly in the development of active, constructivist learning and critical thinking. However, we should not assume that we can naturally introduce and run discussions in our teaching in the same way in which we ‘naturally’ make conversation. If discussion in teaching is to be effective it needs to practised and reflected on.
The essence of discussion is dialogue and the expression and exchange of ideas, opinions and knowledge. Brookfield and Preskill state that discussion “… Incorporates reciprocity and movement, exchange and enquiry, cooperation and collaboration…”1 Discussions can range from structured and planned learning experiences to the unplanned but welcome opportunity to air some ideas. Discussion is an excellent method for developing thinking skills and higher-order learning. Discussions are important when exploring opinions, beliefs and attitudes and encouraging students to appreciate and challenge other points of view.
Why use discussion?
Many arguments are put forward for not using discussion. The most frequent objection is, given the amount of content to be covered, there simply isn’t time for discussion. If we worry too much about coverage, we are likely to become less concerned with understanding. As Gardner suggests
“The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. As long as you are determined to cover everything, you actually ensure that most [students] are not going to understand. You’ve got to take enough time to get [students] deeply involved in something so they can think about it in lots of different ways and apply it …”2
Because discussion can be an unpredictable method and the outcomes uncertain, many teachers avoid it. However, in a time of planned learning outcomes, the possibility of some unpredictable and emergent outcomes seems highly desirable and very much in the interests of wider aspects of learning such as creativity and employability.
More positively, there are many good reasons to use discussion, not the least that it promotes understanding and the development of critical thinking. Using discussion in your first, or early meetings with students, gives you an opportunity to find out what they already know, or don’t know, and, more importantly, sends a signal that you expect them to be actively involved in learning. Good teachers have a repertoire of teaching and learning techniques which they can employ, planned or unplanned, to encourage learning and to provide variety in classes. Whilst many would argue it is not the lecturer’s job to provide variety there is much evidence to suggest that students, in common with most other people, have short attention spans and, consequently, changes in pace and activity are vital.
Guidelines for using discussion
- Do you need some stimulus material or something to start the discussion, perhaps a brief reading or, more simply, a controversial point of view?
- Students may be unwilling to take part. Encourage them and provide opportunities to explore ideas. Value their contributions, even ones which seem a little ‘off the wall’.
- Teachers shouldn’t dominate discussion or impose their ideas and opinions on the group. Like good chat-show hosts their role should be to encourage and facilitate inputs from others.
- You will sometimes need to take the role of chair to keep things under control and to keep the discussion focused on the main point. Occasionally, you will need to thank contributors for their inputs but ask them to hold back so that others can join in.
- It’s a good idea to establish some rules – only one person can speak at a time; no interrupting; no offensive or inappropriate statements or actions; listening to each other.
- Make sure everyone is involved, and willing to be involved, in the discussion. I have observed a number of sessions in which teachers are really enjoying an in-depth discussion with a few like-minded students about an item of mutual interest whilst the majority of the group are showing clear signs of boredom.
- Don’t let a discussion ramble on. When it’s reached the end of its useful life, bring it to an end but don’t forget to summarise the key points and relate them to the topic – better, still, get the students to summarise.
- Consider the room layout. Everyone needs to be able to see each other, so old school-style rows with people looking at the backs of heads is not appropriate.
Brandt, R. (1993) On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner Educational Leadership 50 (7), 4-7
Brookfield, S. and Preskill, S. (1999) Discussion as a Way of Teaching Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press