At the same time, though, discussion is a frustrating component of teaching, as our previous discussions of discussion suggest. For one, it can be hard just to get discussion going. Second, it's a genuine challenge to figure out how to make discussion a worthwhile learning experience. Presumably discussion is not an end in itself: We're trying to teach students something via discussion. But what is it, and how do we teach it?
A recent post at Faculty Focus reminds us that there is not one pedagogical aim that discussion serves: There are many.
- Discussion helps students master content. One worry here is that discussion only helps students master content if they have already have a rudimentary grasp of content. What should we do with students who lack even a rudimentary grasp of content — what's their role, if any, in discussion?
- Discussion enables students to learn from one another. I've got no ego in the learning process and am happy to let students learn from one another. But the worry above recurs: How will students without a rudimentary grasp help each other learn? Arguably, those students are likely to impede their peers from learning.
- Discussion helps students become fluent in disciplinary vocabulary. This is an interesting one: When I've done small groups in classes, it's remarkable to see the huge differences in how much of the disciplinary vocabulary I confront when I eavesdrop on them.
- Discussion connects students with course content. Discussion can be a powerful tool to stimulate students' interest.
- Discussion connects students with one another. Useful in large courses where students may well feel anonymous and disconnected from the instructor.
So what are the aims of discussion in the philosophy classroom? This list suggests two points for me: First, (obviously) discussion needs structure and instructor oversight. Goals 1-4 aren't likely to be met by telling students to talk about the material with no larger pedagogical purpose in mind. Second, discussion can't compensate for lack of student readiness. Students without some rudimentary content grasp may well be harmed or confused by discussion.
So what are the best ways to make discussion work to meet these goals?