Clarifying Goals for Discussion Leaders
Did you know that not all discussions in homeschools are conducted alike? You probably did, at least in some ways.
For instance, you probably know that discussing what she learned from dissecting a frog today with your high schooler is a different kind of thing than discussing why your second grader hasn’t yet cleaned up her room, which differs yet again from discussing your fifth grader’s history text readings on Christopher Columbus. These differences display the first point I’d like to make in this post: the word “discussion” is a pretty open-ended one for a lot of teaching parents.
For instance, what some people think of as discussion is really just a chat. It’s a conversation about that frog and how surprising it was that its brain was so small, or about what game we’ll play as a family after dinner tonight, or if we liked or didn’t like the latest movie, and why. These are all fine things to talk over, but it can clarify the specific academic nature of what we’re after in discussions within homeschooling to remind ourselves that academic discussions, such as we want to have over history or literature readings, especially in our student’s older years, is more purposeful and directive than a casual chat.
On the other hand, a discussion in the context of school subjects should also not be merely a lecture: a one-sided talk by an authority who provides an organized, linear, tidy presentation to one who may or may not be listening with rapt attention. True discussions are far messier: they have no preset agenda and–in their mature state–should feel more like voyages of exploration than scripted plays where all the lines are predetermined. It’s not that there’s never a place for lecturing in home teaching; it’s just that we shouldn’t confuse lecturing with discussion. Whether you lecture your second grader on the state of her room or your high school student on the state of the presidency, you’ll do all the talking and your student will not get a chance to voice opinions, much less questions or dissents related to what you’re communicating. This is why lecture isn’t really the same as discussion.
Neither is a discussion just a debate, though there are times when elements of debate may become part of a discussion. Generally speaking, debates involve parties taking adversarial positions that become more and more entrenched as the combatants hold their positions against all arguments and persuasion. Mature discussions, by contrast, should be mostly collaborative. Participants should be seeking truth together, exploring topics, and looking for solutions to complex problems with the idea that all options are on the table, at least until any of them is proven unworthy or unworkable. Sometimes we do debate a sub-point of a discussion in order to prove (or disprove) its merits but, overall, a discussion is (or should be) different from a debate.
Finally, I would argue most strenuously that discussion is not the same as a Question and Answer (Q & A) session, wherein the teacher’s goal is to go over what the student has learned independently, so as to make sure that he’s understood the main points of his reading and understands what information the teacher thinks is important (and will thus be on the test). In a majority of traditional, grade-school classrooms, this is the working paradigm what passes for “discussion.” And thus, it’s the mental picture that parents who are new to homeschooling bring to their academic discussion times. They believe that their role is to reinforce the independent learning, cement comprehension, and highlight the important information that the student should retain. But this format leaves no room for inquiry by the student, for independent thought, or for the collaborative exploration that are the keys to learning to think, to parse, and to reason for oneself.
So… if I’m saying that all of the above is not what we mean (or should mean) by the word “discussion” then–what is “discussion”? As above mentioned: it is (or should be) a collaborative, free-flowing exploration of ideas, of facts, and of possible solutions to complex issues or problems. It involves conversation, which means that the leader doesn’t do all the talking. Neither is the leader the “expert,” though s/he is usually the mentor and facilitator. It includes questions that are posed by both the leader and the participants. The leader need not–in fact, should not–pre-plan each phase of the discussion. S/he should have a general idea of where the discussion is headed at the outset–about key concepts to be explored–and s/he can share that direction with the participants, but a mature discussion will be a bit messy, and hardly linear. It will follow the questions, thoughts, flashes of insight, and the collaborative offerings of its participants–leaders and students–not to mention the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Now, I want to emphasize that this picture of “discussion” that I’ve just been describing by contrasts is of a mature discussion. It’s what we look for when working with high schoolers who have been prepared through years of practice. In earlier, pre-discussion phases that build specific discussion skills, discussions have differing formats. For younger children (K-6), for instance, practice with narration (as popularized by Charlotte Mason) is a major tool in the teacher’s arsenal. Along with other verbal exercises, the goal of the teacher is to build habits of verbal exchange and expression over academic content. In dialectic (junior high) years, the focus is on developing and populating mental categories with information that is gleaned from independent readings. Students at this age need practice with forming and using such categories before they’ll be ready for mature discussions. In the rhetoric stage (high school), students who are thus prepared can enter into the exploratory and collaborative mature discussion which centers on the analysis of complex issues and the synthesis of solutions and worldview.
In my two-part Sessions 5-6, that are part of our Master Teacher Training series, I’ve discussed not only the distinctions outlined above that become clarifying elements to help parents set reasonable goals for discussion, but also gone into a lot of detail about the ways that parent-educators can work in younger years to build key skills that allow older students to reach their full potential as mature discussion participants. If you feel that you need help with leading better discussions in your home or co-op group, why not check out these webinars and see if they might not serve you?