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The Discussion Method

The Discussion Method

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TheDiscussionMethod
in
Classroom
Teaching
MeredithDamienGall
UniversityofOregon
MaxwellGillett
NepeanCollegeofAdvancedEducationKingswood,Australia
98
TheoryIntoPractice
Remarkablyversatileanddemonstratedasef-fectiveatallgradelevels,thediscussionmethodhasgreatpotentialforclassroomteaching.Yetmanyteachersarereluctanttousethismethod.Thispaperdiscussesthereasonsforthisreluctance,thecharac-teristicsandbenefitsofthediscussionmethod,andwaysinwhichitcanbE'includedintheclassroom.
Why
TeachersDon'tUseDiscussion
Studentreticence.
Teachersusuallyjudgethesuc-cessoftheirdiscussionsbytheextenttowhichstu-dentstalk.Unfortunately,manystudentsclamupwheninvitedtoparticipateinadiscussion.Forexam-ple,Applegate(1969)found:Aclassdiscussionimpliesopenandactivepar-ticipation.However,inmostinstancesitbe-comesalimiteddialoguebetweentheteacherandafewpupils,withtheremainingonessittingmuteandinactive.(p.78)Somestudentsfeelunabletosaywhattheymeanandareafraidofbeingwrong
if
theycontribute.Othersareintimidatedbythedominantparticipants,andsodonotspeak.Sensingstudents'discomfort,manyteachersfeelthatthediscussionmethodsimplydoesnotworkinaclassroomsetting.
Lossofcontrol.
Classestendtogetabitnoisyanddisorganizedwhenthediscussionmethodisintro-duced.Noiseanddisorganizationarethreateningtosometeachers.Theysuggestpoorcontrol,evenbadteaching.Thefactthatthediscussionmethodgivesstudentssomeresponsibilityforstructuringverbalinteractionalsothreatensteachers.Thesharingofin-structionalresponsibilityconflictswiththetradi-tionalviewthattheteacheraloneshoulddeterminewhatandhowstudentslearn.
Learningoutcomes.
Someteachersdonotap-preciatethepotentialofthediscussionmethodtohelpstudentslearn.Theyarguethattheyaretoobusy"teaching"tohavetimefordiscussion.Atatimewhen"backtobasics"isonthemindsofmanyeducatorsandparents,discussionisseenasa
frill.
Theydonotrealizethatdiscussionisahighlyver-satilestrategythatcanbeusednotonlytohelpstu-dentsdevelopproblemsolvingskillsandtoshareopinions,butalsotoattainsubjectmattermastery.Studentreticence,anxietyaboutlossofcontrol,anduncertaintyabouttheplaceofdiscussioninthecurriculumarereasonswhysomanyteacherscon-sciouslyorunconsciouslyrejectthediscussionmethod.Yetwehavefoundthatteachers,whenprop-erlytrained,dovaluethismethodandareeagerto
Copyright©2001.AllRightsReserved.
 
incorporate
it
intheirteachingstyle.
Training
isthekey.Teachersneedtrainingtounderstandwhatthediscussionmethod.is,andtheyneedpracticeindis-cussionskillstoinsureitseffectiveuse.AsWeshallstresslater,studentsalsoneed
trainingIn
discussionsincetheburdenofresponsibilitytorverbalinterac-tionisonthem.CharacteristicsoftheDiscussionMethodThediscussionmethodisoftenconfusedwithrecitation.Anyonewhohasobservedclassroomteachinglisfamiliarwiththispatternofverbalinterac-tion:teacherquestion
(e.g.,
"Whatisthecapitalof
Oregon?"),
studentresponse;teacherfeedback
(e.g.,"Correct"}.
Thissequenceof"rapid
-fire"
questioningisrepeatedagainandagain,withtheteacherinitiat-ingandcontrollingeachinteraction.Indiscussion,however,theteacherencouragesstudentstointeractwitheach
0
ther.Therearerelativelylongsequencesofone
studen
tcommentfollowedbyanother,withlittleorno
teachrer
intervention.
Another
differencebetweenthetwomethodsisthat
recitatiion
tendstofocusonstudents'recalland"reciting"
of
subjectmattercontent.Incontrast,dis-cussiontendstofocusonhighercognitiveobjectives.What,then,isthediscussionmethodinteach-ing?
It
is
as.trategyforachievinginstructionalobjectivesthatinvolvesagroupofpersons,usuallyintheroles
of
moderatorandparticipant,whocommunicatewitheachotherusingspeaking,nonverbal,andlisteningprocesses.
Noteinthisdefinitionthatthediscussionmethodrequirestheteacherandstudentstoorganizeintoa
group,
whichhasbeendefinedas"acollectionofinteractingpersonswithsomedegreeofreciprocalinfluenceoveroneanother"(SchmuckandSchmuck,
1975,
p.6).Thiselementof
reciprocalinfluence
impliesthatstudentslearnnotonlyfromtheteacher,butfromeachother.Similarly,theteachermust
be
opentolearningnewideasfromstudents.Teacherswhohsvebeentrainedindiscussionsaythisisoneofthemostrewardingaspectsofthemethod:
it
enablesthemtofindouthowstudentsareorganizingthecurriculumintheirheads.Discussionhelpsteachersrealizethatthe"seaoffaces"intheclassroomareuniqueindi-viduals,eachinterpretingissues,problems,andsub-jectmattercontentinhis/herownway.Anotherimportantcharacteristicofdiscussionisitsemphasison
speaking,nonverbal,andlisteningprocesses.
Conventionalinstructionreliesprimarilyonstudents'useoftwolearningmodalities:readingfromthetextbookandwritinginworkbooksordoingotherwritingassignments.Discussionengagesothermodalities(speaking,observing,listening)throughwhichstudents
can
Jearn.Teachersagreethat,theop-portunitytospeakaboattheir
OWT\
ideJISendtolistentoothersspeakhelpsstudentsJearn.Furthermore,thenonverbalmessagescommunicatedbetweendiscus-sionparticipantsaddsaffectivemeaningtothecur-riculumthatisoften,missingin"dry"textbook
ac-
countsofideasandhappenings.
Purpose
of
the
DiS<lllssion
M~04
Thediscussionmethodisremarkablyversatile.Teacherscanvaryitsusetoachieveseveraldifferentinstructionalpurposes.
Subjectmattermastery.
WilliamBin(1%9)hasdevelopedavariantofthediscussionmethodforachievingtraditionalinstructional
goals
relatingto
subjectmatter
mastery.Afterstudentshave:readorviewedsomecurriculummaterial,t~teacher
con-
ductsadiscussionthatincludes
'these
points:termsandconceptsinthecurricuJumselection,theauthor'smessage,majorthemesandsu'btopics,relationship
'Of
thematerialtootherknowledge,appJications'oithemateriai,andevaiuat,ionofthea'at!hor'spresentation.Subjectmattermasterydiscussions
are
characterized
by
teacherquestionsatthecom.pre:hension,analysis,application,synthesis,andeveJuation
,levels
oftheTaxonomyofCognitiveObjectives
(Blooea,1956).
Studiesby
Hill(1969),Gd
andhisassociates
(1978),
andareviewoftheresearchlitera,turebyMcKeachie
(1965)
demonstrate
that
this
useof
thediscussionmethodiseffective.
Issue-orienteddiscussi'ons.
The
feces
ofissue-orienteddiscussionisonstudents'opinionstowardpublicissues.Themostbaskpu.rpose'ofthis
type
of
discussionistoincreasestudents'awarenessofth'€irownopinionsandt"heopinionsof'Others.Otherpur-posesaretohelpstudentsanalyzeandevaluateopin-ions,andtomodifytheirownopinionsinawayconsistentwiththeiranalysisaMevaluation.Someteachersusetheissue-orienteddiscussi0n
to
h~theirstudentsreacha
consens'Us()pinion
onanissue.Researchstudiesdemonstrateconsistentlythatthistypeofdiscussion'canleadtoattitudechange,F'Orexample,Fisher(1968)conductedanexperimentinwhichonegroupoffifthgradestudentsreadaseriesofstoriesdesignedtopromotepositiveattitudes
to-
wardAmericanIndians;anothergroupofstudentsreadthesamestories,andinaddition,parodpatedi.nadiscussionaftereachreadingperiod.Studentsinthediscussiongroupdevelopedsignificantlymore
posi-
tiveattitudestowardAmericanIndiansthandidthestudentswhoonlyreadthestories.MillerandBiggs(1958)obtai.nedasimilareffectworkingwithsecon-daryschoolstudents.
VohtmeXIX,Nrmtber
29'9
Copyright©2001.AllRightsReserved.
 
Thereareseveralpossiblereasonswhydiscus-sioniseffectiveinchangingattitudes.Onereasonisthatdiscussioncompelsstudentstoreflectuponandclarifytheirattitudes.Thisprocessalonemayinduceattitudechange.Also,changecanoccurthroughcoer-cionbyotherstudents,orbysimplemodelingofviewsexpressedbytheteacher,whoisoftenper-ceivedasanauthorityfigurebystudents.Infact,thesechangeprocessesaresopowerfulthattheteacherneedstomoderatethediscussionskillfullytoinsurethattheyarenotmisused.
Problem-solvingdiscussion.
Theteachercanusediscussiontohelpstudentssolveproblems;forexam-ple:Whatisthesimplestwaytomeasuretheperime-terofaroom?Whatisagoodtitleforthisstory?Whatkindofanexperimentcanbedesignedtotestthistheory?WhatclassprojectshouldwedotoconcludeourstudyoftheIncas?Onecriterionofaproblem-solvingdiscussionisthe
quality
ofthesolution.Anothercriterionistheextentof
commitment
thatstudentshavetowardthesolution;thatis,howwillingaretheytocarryoutthesolution?Athirdcriterionisfoundinbrainstorming,whichisonetypeofproblem-solvingdiscussion.Studentsaimatgeneratingalarge
quantity
ofsolu-tionswhilewithholdingcriticism.Then,thelistofgeneratedsolutionsiscriticallyevaluatedtoselectthebestone.Muchresearchhasbeendonetodeterminewhetherdiscussiongroupsdevelopbetterproblemsolutionsthanindividualsworkingalone.Generally,researchhasfoundthatdiscussiongroupsaremoreeffectivethanindividualsinsolvingproblemswhich"requirestudentstodrawonthediversetalentsoftheirpeers,whichhavemultiplesolutions,andwhichwillcommitstudentstoacourseofaction"(GallandGall,1976).
Otherpurposes.
Apurposeofthediscussionmethod,irrespectiveoftype,istohelpstudentsinimprovingtheirdiscussionskills.AsGageandBer-liner(1975)observed:Theabilitytolistentoothers,toevaluatetheirarguments,toformulateone'sownviewsintheheatofgive-and-take,toresisttheinfluenceonone'sreasoningofpersonallikesanddislikesforothers,tocontinuetofocusontheproblemathanddespiteemotionalargumentsandinflu-ences-theseskillsrequirepracticeindiscus-sion.(p.470)Anotherpurposeofdiscussionistomotivatestu-dents.Theveryprocessoftalkingandsharingknowl-edgewiththeirpeersmaymotivatestudentstolearnmore.
100
TheoryIntoPractice
------_._------_
..
Finally,thediscussionmethodcanbeusedtohelptheteacherevaluatestudents'entryorexitlevelsofunderstandingofsubjectmattercontent.Writtentestscanbeusedtoachievethesamepurpose,buttheyaremuchmoretime-consumingfortheteacherandstudents.EffectiveDiscussionTechniques
Groupsize.
Asuccessfuldiscussionrequiresarelativelysmallnumberofparticipants-fivebeinganidealnumber(Schellenberg,1959;Hare,1962).Theaveragenumberofremarksperparticipantandthepercentageofparticipantswhotalkinthediscussiondecreasessignificantlyifthegroupisenlargedmuchbeyondthisnumber(StephanandMishler,1952).The"five-participantrule"createsaproblemforteachers,whomayhavefrom10to40ormorestudentsintheirclass.Therearetwosolutionstotheproblem.Oneisthe"fishbowl"methodinwhichtheteacherselectsfiveorsixstudentswhositinadiscussioncircleinthecenteroftheclassroom.Theremainingstudentsarrangethemselvesinalargercirclearoundthisgroup;theyobservethediscussion,makenotes,andcancontinuethediscussionafterthemnercirclehasfinished.Teachershaveusedthistechniqueintheirclassroomswithgoodsuccess.Anothertechniqueistobreakaclassof,let'ssay,20studentsintofoursmalldiscussiongroups(fivestudentsineachgroup).Thismethodwiltworkifthestudentsareaccustomedtoworkingtogetherinsmallgroups,andifstudentshaveatleastaminimumlevelofdiscussionskills.Theteachershouldappointonestudentineachgrouptoactasadiscussionleaderandrecorder.
Seatingarrangements.
Thetraditionalclassroomseatingarrangement-studentsinrowsfacingtheinstructor-severelyrestrictsparticipationinadis-cussion.Acirculararrangement,whereteacherandstudentscanseeeachother,ismuchmoreeffective.Forexample,Steinzor(1950)foundthatamemberofagroupismorelikelytointeractwithothermembersofthegroupifheorshecanseeaswellashearthem.
Discussionskills.
Gallandhiscolleagues(1976)havedevelopedalistofskillsforfacilitatingthedis-cussionprocess.TheskillsarepresentedinTable
1.
Youwillnotethattherearecomplementaryskillsformoderatorandforparticipants.Theteacherasmod-eratorandstudentsasparticipantsshareresponsibil-ityforkeepingthediscussionmovingforward.TherearefourmajorprocessskillsshowninTable1:maintaininganopendiscussioninwhichstudentsfeelfreetosaywhattheythink;listeningtoothersandkeepingthediscussionfocused;analyzingdifferent
Copyright©2001.AllRightsReserved.

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