Discussion in a Democratic Classroom

Promote Human Growth

To promote human growth.

I discovered the above quotation (then highlighted, and apparently even underlined it) in a  (photocopy of a) book that Q lent me this week, Discussion as a Way of TeachingAnd with each of my classrooms providing affirmations or further questions about various aspects of the introductory chapter, I wanted to see if I could synthesize and share some of my thinking here with the hope that it might lead us somewhere meaningful.

Confluence of Conversation

In one of those subconscious coincidences that arise from time to time, a few different planets have aligned to allow both the TALONS classes, as well as the twenty-odd program alumni that are taking Philosophy 12 this semester, are creating a thorough deconstruction and re-imagining of their views about democracy through their respective current studies. For the TALONS, this has been the American Revolution, where a series of blog posts and comments have charted a thoughtful exploration of both personal and collective interpretations of historical events.

Ironically enough, the TALONS initial reading about the topic came by way of a few of the former class’ bloggers who find themselves discussion Social and Political Philosophy.

In either case, the groups are addressing fundamental questions about the nature of social democracy as it has been practiced since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The younger class (grade nine and ten TALONS learners) are coming to the subject by way of the fight to establish the American republic; there is much discussion around the usual suspects: taxes, representation, unity and propaganda. But there are questions about the future here, too:

If we can see and understand how blatantly unfair it was for people back in the American Revolution, why hasn’t more changed? I will admit that things have gotten a lot better here in America, but what about other places around the world?

The philosophy class spent a few days last week discussing some of the foundations of our thinking about democracy, and brainstormed different framings and questions from which they could interrogate them. The group set about trying to define the roles of idealism, pragmatism, education and the media could (or should) play in a democracy, questioning the value of “true” democracy, the societal safety-net, and how it is that our evolving knowledge of human nature influences group development.

Across digital and in face to face conversations, each of the blocks I am teaching these days is consumed with an inquiry into what it means to be a critic and participant in the democratic process. I’ll admit to getting more than a small kick out of the type of political engagement and discussion I seek out as an adult learner and voter, and something I am privileged to find in my colleagues in the Social Studies department at our school.

Dialogue beyond the classroom

On a given week in the last few years, there has been an ongoing and at times heated exchange of political ideas across members of the Socials department relating to current events, historical interpretations, the “big ideas” that may reside in aspects of the various curricula. With each of the teachers in these email threads possessing disparate ideologies and frameworks of understanding, arguments and perspectives from all points along the  political spectrum are often represented in these arguments that serve as serious debate, rhetorical sport, and the sharing of opinion from a variety of personal news and editorial sources.

Such is the influence that these passionate (and often humourous) exchanges bring to the history and political courses at our school, the last year has seen recent graduates instigating, challenging and benefiting from these email conversations (that in some cases have spanned more than 40 responses including tens of thousands of typed words). The vibrancy of our school’s Model United Nations, Political and Debate clubs are certainly signs of a politically ‘awake’ student body (which we probably owe to Steven and Liam more than anything we’ve done as teachers), something that inspires some of the modeling that a few of the teacher debates can supply as a means of exploring the different ways to approach various topics.

One of our school’s History 12 teachers and I are even trying to start a podcast based on the exchanges we have with and for his class.

Democracy and Discussion

I think why my Social Studies colleagues and I get such a charge out of all of this discussion, both inside and out of our classrooms, is because it is an engagement with one of the fundamental functions of democratic schooling: to cultivate and prepare the citizenry that will inherit the reigns and responsibilities of the future.

Discussion and democracy are inseparable because both have the same root purpose – to nurture and promote human growth. By growth we mean roughly the same thing as John Dewy (1916) did: the development of an ever-increasing capacity for learning and an appreciation of and a sensitivity to learning undertaken by others. Democracy and discussion imply a process of giving and taking, speaking and listening, describing and witnessing – all of which help expand horizons and foster mutual understanding

And something that has struck me this week is that the things that are difficult about bringing about a discussion‘s potential are of a similar nature to the tendencies that limit the possibility of a optimal democracy, and it is for this reason that I agree (along with the authors) with Richard Rorty’s assertion that

…bringing people together in conversation and challenging them to use their imaginations to create new meanings and move toward greater human inclusiveness is, for Rorty (1989), a moral endeavour. 

The working definition that Brookfield and Preskill posit of discussion itself extends this morality to affirm the notion of classrooms functioning as democratic laboratories, where students prepare to meet the tasks of political responsibility.

We define discussion as an alternatively serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique.

The purposes of discussion are fourfold: 

    • To help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, 
    • To enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique
    • To foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly,
    • And to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world

…empowering students to probe the contradictions and injustices of larger society.

As participants in discussion-based education build a critical awareness of “the ways in which different linguistic, cultural, and philosophical traditions can silence voices,” the macro-micro analogy can become instructive as students and teachers alike can look upon opportunities for learning about improving elements of classroom discussion can build outward into society. To this end the introductory chapter of Discussion as a Way of Teaching highlights nine Dispositions of Democratic Discussion, each of which could serve as an opportunity for reflection for people engaged in this type of learning.

Nine Dispositions of Democratic Discussion

Hospitality

How well does each party in the discussion help foster “an atmosphere in which people feel invited to participate”? I think we often consider our positioning as teachers toward projecting hospitality (for different ideas and perspectives, diverse expressions of the self, as well as challenging arguments and evidence) but having watched and talked to a few of the TALONS who facilitated a class discussion this week, realize that cultivating an awareness of these dispositions – perhaps this first one especially – among students themselves is key to realizing the collaborative potential of the class.

Participation

Similarly, the responsibility  to encourage full-participation – in democracy, as in conversation – is something that ultimately falls to each member of the community, who would do well to remember that

the incentive to participate diminishes when what one says or does is ignored or leaves no discernable impact. Everyone in democratic classrooms, but especially the instructor, must work at encouraging widespread participation and finding spaces during class time to receive more than just perfunctory responses from the class. For us this means that we must in some cases ask follow-up questions, at other times rephrase what has just been said, and in still other situations show clearly and assertively how one person’s contribution is related to other ideas already presented. 

Mindfulness

Something GNA Garcia has always brought to our conversations about life, learning, teaching and most points in between is an ever-present mindfulness that manifests itself as a reverence for what the authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching might describe as “the whole conversation – of who has spoken and who has not – and of doing what one can to ensure that the discussion doesn’t get bogged down in the consideration of issues that are of concern only to a very small minority of participants.”

It is important to remember here that “group cohesiveness and the give-and-take of a good discussion are usually more important than any particular thing that we feel compelled to contribute.”

Humility

Central to the process of expanding one’s understanding is the willingness to let go of our prior notions of Truth or objectivity. The authors here remind us that “Humility helps us remember that learning is always an uncertain, even uneasy quest.”

If we admit the limits of our knowledge and opinions, we are more likely to work authentically to create a greater understanding among group members. 

Mutuality

Mutuality means that it is in the interest of all to care as much about each other’s self-development as one’s own.”

This is something that I think we practice in the TALONS classroom with regularity, and in many tasks – especially those centered around our experiential or outdoor learning opportunities – the necessity of each individual contributing to the group’s success is a baseline expectation. But I do think that we might be able to look for ways to improve this sense of mutual responsibility for supporting discourse in the classroom, or on our blogs.

Deliberation

To approach discussion with a disposition toward deliberation, participants must cultivate an awareness that “the ensuing exchange of views may modify their original perspective.” Here, we see the fallibility of the combative talking heads that are presented to explore contentious topics in our print, radio and televised media:

Unless there is a general commitment to deliberative practices that foster reflective and informed judgements, democracy is robbed of its authority and moral meaning. 

Which isn’t to say that a capacity for deliberation must be bound to the goal of forming consensus (while that might be ideal); the authors propose that “it may be just as desirable if deliberation results in continuing differences’ being better understood and more readily tolerated.” 

Appreciation

As delving into the emotional terrain that many of these conversations hopefully mine can be a daunting and risky enterprise at times, it is important for members of the discussion community to demonstrate appreciation for the sharing of diverse opinion and thought. This is another area that I see teachers concerned with where students and other stakeholders could emphasize their appreciation not only for the different perspectives and viewpoints being shared, but also for the willingness of others to commit to the process of open and honest discussion.

Hope

“Without the hope of reaching new understanding, gaining a helpful perspective, or clarifying the roots of a conflict, there is little reason to go on talking, learning and teaching.” 

I think the worst of human behaviours and thoughts come about when individuals and groups have lost this most basic sense of hope toward a resolution of conflicting ideals, values or perspectives even when that resolution seems least likely. Here, the authors again invoke John Dewey and his notion of Democratic Faith: 

Democratic faith implies that pooling the talents and abilities of individuals increases the likelyhood that new light will be cast on old difficulties and everyday common sense will be brought to bear on problems said to require technical expertise. 

If teachers and classrooms fail to operate atop a foundation of this sort of faith and hope, our schools risk becoming the antithesis of how they are conceived in a democratic society.

Autonomy

In the end, what these dispositions, and what a truly democratic society is capable of nurturing, is a society composed of individuals capable of interrogating their own base beliefs against the paradigm of their culture, and commit to living and behaving authentically and ethically as a result.

Without individuals who are willing to take strong stands and to argue assertively for them, democracy is diminished, and the opportunities for growth and self-development, partly dependent on the clash of contending wills, are greatly weakened.