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Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms

By Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill
Jossey-Bass
272 Pages
1999
ISBN: 0-7879-4458-0 (cloth)
$34.00

Reviewed by

Päivi Hoikkala

Department of History

Cal Poly Pomona


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The title of this book provides an important clue to the authors' premise. For Brookfield and Preskill, discussion is a way of teaching, not just another strategy to engage students. They register their alarm that "so many of our students and colleagues appear to have lost hope in the moral, political, and pedagogical promises of discussion" (p. viii), and offer instead a vision of classroom discussion as a training ground for democracy. Having attached this undeniably consequential meaning to discussion in the classroom, the authors proceed with practical advice on preparation and techniques to keep discussion evocative and inclusive.

Brookfield and Preskill define discussion as "an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique" (p. 6). Good discussion helps participants to reach a critically informed understanding of the topic, self-awareness and capacity for self-critique, appreciation of diversity, and informed action. The authors conclude that discussion is "an important way for people to affiliate with one another, to develop the sympathies and skills that make participatory democracy possible" (p. 7). A word of caution is in place, however, because discussion does not provide instant gratification. Instead, it requires a lot of planning and care.

Indeed, preparation is the key to success in using discussion in the classroom. As the authors point out, good discussions do not just happen; they require a solid foundation. One of the most useful chapters in the book deals with preparing for discussion. Brookfield and Preskill emphasize the importance of modeling as preparation for students, providing suggestions for faculty to model democratic discussion in their own teaching. For example, opening each lecture by raising a series of framing questions will open student minds to the idea of education as a continuous inquiry. Ending each lecture by allowing students to write down unanswered questions serves the same purpose. Other ways to model democratic talk include the deliberate introduction of periods of silence in teaching, and the use of 'buzz groups' where students have the opportunity to spend a few minutes to discuss an issue raised in the lecture. In addition to modeling, the authors emphasize the importance of structuring the process to help students get ready for discussion in the class. This structuring involves a set of ground rules that students and faculty develop in cooperation with each other. It is also critical that the instructors be clear about their expectations and purposes for using discussion as a teaching strategy. Such clarity helps combat students' cynicism and maximizes their chances of participation.

The book proceeds from how to get started to how to keep discussion going. These chapters provide a plethora of strategies, some generically useful, others suitable to specialized classes and experienced instructors. The list of mistakes to avoid at the beginning of a discussion is useful for any instructor starting on this difficult road to student engagement. Using the circular response discussion with its emphasis on collective and cumulative understanding might best serve its purpose in a small, specialized course. The most important insight offered in these chapters is the power of silence. "Real-life discussion is not a talk-show," the authors warn, calling on discussion leaders to ensure that periods of reflective silence become accepted and necessary elements in the classroom (p. 66). Even more importantly, the instructor should not fill these spaces of silence, instead allowing the students the time to reflect and compose their answers in their minds.

Chapters on cultural and gender diversity offer strategies for inclusiveness, followed by advice on how to keep student-and teacher-voices in balance. Of special value are the checklists of questions to pose when faced with a clear imbalance of voices in discussion. The book concludes with a chapter on evaluation, which, the authors acknowledge, is somewhat problematic because of the nature of discussion. They believe that there are really no standardized protocols or universal measures that can be applied to assess a discussion leader's competence or the students' contributions. Critical of positivist evaluative systems, they offer suggestions for evaluative criteria such as course portfolios and discussion logs. Indeed, the authors emphasize appreciation as a major element in evaluating discussion. Based on mutuality and reciprocity, the efforts of all participants need acknowledgement and recognition.

Discussion as a Way of Teaching provides good insight into and advice on how to make discussions work in the classroom. Its most important contribution comes in the authors' suggestion that using discussion in the classroom prepares students for a democratic society. This powerful rationale can help dispel many a faculty members' disillusionment with classroom discussion. The book also offers much good and practical advice for making discussion work in the classroom, although some of the suggestions seem more appropriate for the communications classroom. Following the authors' advice all the way in preparing students for and making discussions central to the classroom experience would require most of the teaching faculty in the CSU to fundamentally change their classes-and most of us do not have the luxury of time to do so. And there is the issue of content coverage in preparing students for their professional lives. Yet, Brookfield and Preskill offer a compelling argument for the use of discussion, and their book includes many ideas that can be applied in any class.

Posted July 10, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Päivi Hoikkala.

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