Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The point(s) of getting students to talk

Most philosophy instructors think that in-class (or online) discussion is vital to philosophy education. Philosophy is a discursive inquiry, so how could students possibly become skilled at it without discussing philosophical positions and arguments?

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Discussion connects students with course content. Discussion can be a powerful tool to stimulate students' interest.
  5. 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?


  1. For me it's simple (ergo probably I haven't reflected enough on this)--Philosophy _is_ dialogue, whether between people or within a person. So my main goal in discussing things in class is simply to model for my students what Philosophy is. I think of in-class discussion as akin to a demonstration by a dance instructor, or, if you prefer, a martial arts teacher. Demonstrations of moves in these fields are, of course, often interactive...

  2. As for students with rudimentary content grasp--I diagnose their misunderstanding and nudge them into a better understanding through constructive questions. If students begin to address each other, I take a moderating and translating role, making sure to direct things back to the relevant content when things begin to go astray.

    I guess this isn't very concrete... it's pretty improvisatory I'll admit.

  3. I usually have students discuss in small groups, have someone from each group summarize their discussion for the class, and then I interact with them. Of course, this is common practice. However, in this context, when students who fail to have a rudimentary grasp of the content raise mistaken points, it gives me the chance to summarize the material again with a (fairly gentle) correction of their point. This helps them gain an understanding, or at least has the potential to do so, and it provides me the opportunity to repeat the material which can help even those students who have done the reading and get it at some level to confirm, deepen, or correct their understanding.

  4. I will add my confirmation of a point that others have suggested: one of the main purposes for discussion is diagnostic. I learn how much my students know and, just as important how much they don't know. When I see the blanks in their knowledge, I can fill in the gaps.

    Of course, without the rudimentary knowledge, discussion is pointless. I frequently begin a class with discussion questions on the required reading. On one occasion, I realized that none of the students had read a single word. "Okay," I said, "There's no point discussing this if you haven't even read it. I know that it is boring listening to one person's voice for an hour, but what else can I do?" I then spent about an hour reading the article aloud.

  5. Whatever the purpose for discussion, one of the things we often forget to do is to make clear to students why we are having the discussion (which, of course, requires that we have some clarity about the purpose ourselves) and what counts as a good performance in a discussion. We could model a good performance, describe it in criteria, or contrast it with the poor discussion performance they are used to seeing in the media. We could have the students self assess their own performance in relation to criteria they are given in advance, or give one another peer feedback on their discussion performance. Any or all of these strategies would raise the stakes for class discussion, and help students - and teachers - get more out of it.


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