Teacherless Discussion

Teacherless Discussion

Mapping the teacherless discussion.

Something the Philosophy 12 group experimented with in last year’s cohort was the idea of holding teacherless discussions. As research and work in my own graduate studies took me further into notions of citizenship education and a confrontation with contemporary political apathy, I began to look at the structure of classroom activities as a means of engaging student and peer ownership over the learning process.

I was inspired initially to take this course of action by the writing of Paulo Freire, who highlighted the need for emancipatory education to reconcile the student-teacher contradiction. “The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics,” he writes, “the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Perhaps more simply put, as I explained to the philosophy class today, ‘school’ should be less something that happens to students than something they make happen for themselves. And while teachers may approach their classroom activities with the best of intentions in this regard, there is still ultimately a group’s propensity to rely on a designated instructor / leader / teacher to move things along, creating a broadly perceived apathy that allows a minority to dictate – often without opposition – the course of the community.

So I started sometime last year deliberately ‘going dark’ for some of our classroom discussions, and found the results of the experiment to be immediately palpable, if not specifically nameable. Something which also struck me was the shift in participation, posture and presences making their way into discussions in which I re-inserted myself, as students reverted back to offering their responses more directly to me than the group, seemed to seek my approval or appraisal of their thoughts, and otherwise seemed to lose sight of their community of peers.

This morning I sought to begin our teacherless discussion efforts earlier in the semester with a dissection of the New York Times Opinionator Blog essay “Logic and Neutrality.”

The map above shows the course of the conversation as it moved about our classroom. Numbers show the order of speakers, with the two volunteer moderators (Jeff and Cassidy) noted in red. Dashed lines show spontaneous interjections, and numbers otherwise note the order of speakers as neatly as I could manage.

In my own notes I also highlighted several contributions which furthered the discussion, as well as a few points where things seemed to stall, and asked the class to create their own lists of these points in the conversation.

A few of those helpful contributions included:

  • Asking guiding questions to outline course of discussion in progress,
  • Attempting to define different vocabulary and concepts being used,
  • Highlighting quotes from the article at hand,
  • Incorporating examples from popular culture or common experience,
  • A willingness to pose what may sound like a ‘silly’ question, or hypothesis, and
  • Synthesizing board notes or past points and challenging the momentum of the discussion.

A few places where the class’ momentum faltered:

  • Getting bogged down in controversial or opinion-based hypotheticals (in this case the question of the morality of murder that was ended deftly by someone’s suggestion that “we move off murder”),
  • Moments where a more common understanding of discussion aims and/or vocabulary would have created more clarity around topics,
  • Encountering quiet moments of thought following tough questions or attempts to synthesize discussion.

As an initial effort in the teacherless discussion this semester, the Philosophy 12 group demonstrated many characteristics of successful group discourse, and will continue to build on these strengths as the class moves on into more individual and collective inquiry.

Ethics Unit Feedback and Reflection

Rate the unit's effectiveness

This semester I’ve been using Google Forms to collect reflections, self-assessments and unit feedback from both the Philosophy 12 bunch, as well as the TALONS. As with many aggregating aspects of the web, what I appreciate about this method of collection and feedback is the ability to analyze trends and other information (beyond the individual response to the unit or learning opportunity).

Building on the questionnaire for the Metaphysics Unit – the results of which were shared here – the Philosophy 12 class reflected on their course of study in Ethics by completing this Google Form posted on the class site.

Here are some of the analyzed takeaways from the class’ responses:

Which philosopher influenced your study of Ethics?

It is interesting not only to hear in a formative manner which readings and ideas “stuck,” but also in collecting the salient understandings that these concepts came to represent over the course of the unit. Here is a word cloud of the collected responses to the follow up question, What about this philosopher’s ideas influenced your study of Ethics? 

What about this Philosopher's Ideas influenced your study?

Some responses that stuck out:

Utilitarianism is probably the most memorable form of ideology that I will remember because it’s the idea of “the greater good.” It helped me realize that it’s not always moral to sacrifice the minority to satisfy the majority. John Stewart Mill’s ideals of Utilitarianism have some valid reasoning, but Immanuel Kant says pretty much the opposite. Kant believed that every life was an end unto itself, so there should be no purpose to where life should be used as a mere means. 

Immanuel Kant’s theory of universal law: A decision is only ethical if a universal law of its principle could be put in place. For example, it is not ethical for a man to end his life because he is unhappy, because we could come to a collective agreement that it would not be ethical or practical if every sad person killed themselves. 

The absolute nature of ethics of the Enlightenment, and the post-Enlightenment thinkers caught my attention, supporting my dislike of indifference. The requirement for thinkers, and abstract theorists to uphold a hokey vision of humanity and their actions is far more necessary and influential than previously thought. These visions are often difficult to accept and refute: In absolute reason, they’re impossible to refute without making some leap of faith. Ethics is a subject of absolute reason, without room for faith. Essentially the research we have done has widened and strengthened my perspective on the whole ordeal. When you perform an action, it must be equal efforts of ends, means and intent. There is little room for faith, or irrational selfish requirements. Ethics is a subject of absolute, ultimate logic in action. 

I liked Rawls’ Theory of Justice, as it gave a different perspective of what equality looks like. It let me look at things from a different way of a lot of different topics. For example, how non-human persons might be able to be accounted for as they should have perhaps equal opportunity to go about their animal business without oppression from humans. 

Jurgen Habermas doesn’t have as much to do with Ethics as he does with Social and Political Philosophy, but he nevertheless influenced my study of Multiculturalism which ties into Ethics. He strongly believes in multiculturalism and that if we integrate ourselves more with people from other countries, we will become more worldly and accepting of other cultures and less xenophobic. 

What Q's did the Ethics Unit Raise for you?

Above are the collected responses to the prompt, “What were the main questions the unit’s study raised for you?” Followed by a few highlighted responses:

If there really is an ultimate good in people? 

When is it OK to be selfish?

How should we treat others and how might society fit into what we know of biology? (Ie, what makes a person a person? What is the meaning of life, and when is OK to end it? How should/would we treat others from behind a veil of ignorance?)

Where did our sense or morality come from?

How ethical and effective is our system of voting and democracy?

I have a lot of questions regarding the fair treatment of animals and non-human persons.

Should euthanasia be legalized? Should it be included as a basic human right? Why are people opposed to it?

What is the government’s role in our life? Where do our individual liberties intersect with our obligations to society?

What is good and bad? Where do we draw the line? Should we take the Utilitarian point of view and say that anything which benefits society is just?

Should we be more considerate to animals, and life in general? How would this effect humans, or the ecosystem?

Does democracy really work? Is it possible?

Is equality necessarily a good thing?

Main questions: 1. Is voting ethical? 2. If not, can we make the act of voting ethical while increasing its efficiency and total effectiveness, and how? 3. Is there a way to improve the effectiveness of voting on its own? 4. How can we involve everyone in a democratic system, yet disallow those who do not contribute valid ideas to the system? 5. And, would the ideal from question 4 in any way be made ethical?

Describe your process in attempting to answer one or more of the above questions. 

Is it possible to live complying to two different, contrasting normative ethics? I tried answering this question when studying the ethics of animal experimentation. For example, Utilitarianism could justify both cosmetic and scientific animal testing. However, Kantian ethics could also justify both types, depending on what maxim we acted upon. This led me to question whether there was a certain ethical philosophy which is “more right” than the other, and if so, how would we know? How do we determine if utilitarianism is better than Kantian ethics, or visa versa? Should we treat each ethical problem on a case-by-case basis and use Rawls’ philosophy to solve one problem, Mill’s to solve another, and Kant’s to solve a third? Or is there one ethical philosophy we could adhere to? And if so, what would that look like?

I found out that something inside of me gets fired up when we hear ways that our individual liberties are being infringed upon, and though I still haven’t been able to fully articulate what this is specifically, it was a great inner discovery for me to come to.

I realized that most people weren’t black and white with their decisions about ethical topics. In fact, most people were grey and I realized that most people picked the decision they hated the least, or the one that had the most compromise. For example, we may have only seen two options at first, but then after discussion a third option came that was more appealing to the majority because it included aspects of both.

Discussable Object Creation

Screen shot 2013-10-22 at 4.04.24 PM

Discussable Object Photo Set on Flickr

Today the #Philosophy12 bunch culminated a study of Metaphysics that has emerged slowly out of individual inquiry undertaken by members of the class. The group engaged one another in a discussion that left a recorded physical ‘tail‘ that could be seen, and held onto.

Indeed, it was an ‘object‘ that came into being only by virtue of being suspended between the class’ interrelated ideas, and whose creation facilitated a synthesis of collecting thinking and learning.

We began a little more than two weeks ago with the introduction of various philosopher’s metaphysicslearning about Shoepenhaur’s views on the Will, Epicurean paradoxes, and Wittenstein’s unspeakable coolness and arranging for small group discussions to coalesce around thematic ideas.

After having first imagined that I would engage in the assignment as a participant, I became (in that ‘lead-learner’ sort of way) consumed by questions at the heart of the constructivist learning experiment ahead of us, and drew on many ideas of Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta, among them the notion that:

“…knowledge is neither a representation of something more ‘real’ than itself, nor an ‘object’ that can be transferred from one place to the next. Knowledge is understood, rather, to ‘emerge’ as we, as human beings, participate in the world. Knowledge, in other words, does not exist except in participatory actions.”

And so my own metaphysics project became the conceptualizing and contextualizing of the task at hand: to create a representative learning object within an emergent, constructivist classroom design. With all sincerity, I embraced Osberg and Biesta’s idea that:

“…to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

 Here, I was led by Paulo Freire:

“The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

Julie at work on visual notes.

With this, more than one class meeting was organized around the generation of the contradiction at the root of each group’s metaphysical thematics; it is in the symbolic codification of such contradictions, Freire says, that such themes can become “cognizable objects[:] challenges towards which the critical reflection of the decoders should be directed.”

Having identified their philosopher’s major metaphysical ideas, and explored these ideas within the larger themes of their assembled groups, the class took advantage of last week’s school-based professional development day in the form of #PhilsDayOff, the requirements for which were spare:

    • Time must be spent consciously and deliberately engaged with a selected question of metaphysics;
    • This engagement can include activities, reflection, discussion, or other modes of inquiry, reflection and understanding; but it should not be time spent doing something participant’s ‘usually’ do;
    • Participants must create, discover, or record a meaningful artifact they think represents their metaphysical thinking, reflection, or understanding on Phil’s Day Off.

The learning went into the wild, and returned with lessons like the one Dylan offers here:

“I made a bus trek by bus up to household jam session as part of the Phils Day Off endeavor. I went up there to contemplate Schopenhauer’s ideas while enjoying some music (which, I’m sure, Schopenhauer would have been more than happy to participate in.) At the beginning of the night, a friend and fellow bass player took me over to the side to show me a trick that allowed the string’s on my bass life span to be extended, making it so that you wouldn’t have to buy strings as often.

“What he did was loosen the strings on the bass so that they were still on the instrument but loose enough that he could pull it up away from the fretboard a good distance. He loosened the string, and continue to pull the string up and then smack in back down onto the fretboard. He would do this over and over again on each string for a few minutes at a time.

“What this was doing, he later explained, was releasing all of the dead skin cells and extra debris that was caught in the strings, making it so that the strings became cleaner again, and thus could be repeated whenever the string would go dead or dull and wouldn’t need to be replaced as frequently. Other than being a sweet tip for a young-unemployed musician such as myself, it also came to be a great metaphor for all these talks of suffering and pleasure in my mind. You can look at life as a dead bass string, and you can view the debris as suffering. You can see it as Schopenhauer would, as something chokes life and ultimately makes life worthless. And no matter how much we clear up the debris temporarily, it will become dirty and dull again soon after.

“You can look at from one who would not worry about the suffering, and instead of focusing on the dirtiness of the string, would completely ignore it and go out and buy a new string right away. Or, you can look at it from the cleaning method that my friend taught me about the strings.

“Acknowledging the dirt and debris and how it’s affected you, and then turning it around and cleaning it up and turning it into something that is pleasurable.”

Dylan’s is just one of the stories we heard today as the class related their philosopher’s biography and ideas, touched upon themes explored in #PhilsDayOff and their group discussions, and connected their thinking (agreeing and contrasting) by tracing the conversation with different colours of yarn (with gratitude to our home economics teacher Ms. Priestly!). While Julie sketched out themes and notable ideas as they took shape on the board, the class emerging understanding took shape.

The activity took us from:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12To:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12To:

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be collecting reflections on individual learning, and the unit itself (both content and form, Aristotelians!), by way of this Google Form, and looking ahead at planning our Epistemology unit. The Discussable Object now behind us – wound back up into woolen balls and returned to the textiles classroom – I’m curious to know what the group thinks now of one of the quotes that brought us here:

“Knowledge […] does not exist except in our participatory actions.”  

TALONS Panel: Open High School Learning

I had the great pleasure this morning to speak with TALONS alumni Liam St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, Clayton Dowdell, Megan Edmunds, Zoe Fajber and Iris Hung (along with Verena Roberts & the #ETMOOC crowd via Google Hangout) about the experiments and experiences in Open Learning we’ve embarked on in their four years at Gleneagle.

We mostly worked chronologically from the introduction of the TALONS blogs and RSS feeds (which coincided with Jonathan & Liam’s arrival in grade nine more than four years ago), to the creation of the class blog, Defying Normality, and how these publishing channels contributed to learning in and around the classroom. We talked about publishing work in public, the other mediums that could ‘work’ in lieu of text-only posts, and what it means to blog ‘authentically,’ before moving into a discussion about Philosophy 12’s open structure, Stephen Downes, and the value (and drawbacks) to learning on the open web.

Many thanks to Verena for moderating and inviting us into the #ETMOOC conversation, and to the TALONS who brought their incredible insight and voices to the discussion.

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. 

Syllogisms, Reasoning & Logic with Batman