Students in class at Rhodes College

Learning discussion: allowing students to learn on their own terms

I’ve been working on my fall courses, preparing syllabi and gathering materials. As I plan for teaching, I realize that most of my preparation involves building a framework for student learning. Once we close the door and sit face-to-face in the classroom, most of the work is up to the students.

I have long known that the more preparation I do, the less learning there will be for students. That’s not to say I don’t prepare at all. But, as I mentioned, my role involves building a framework and making learning opportunities.  I strive for the sweet spot of creating the right conditions for student learning without overpreparing or determining inflexible learning goals. Too many professors, by far most that I have seen, overprepare and consequently deprive students of opportunities for better learning.

By deciding ahead of time what students need to learn robs them of the possibilities for exploration and discovery of the lessons that the materials offer. It also tends to make teaching an exercise in indoctrination rather than a process of growth and transformation.

My most powerful classroom learning strategy is open discussion. In their book Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill define discussion as “an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views in mutual and reciprocal critique.” They list four purposes of discussion in the classroom: “(1) to help participants  reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, (2) to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, (3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and (4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.” I would add gaining confidence and learning from each other, two elements that students consistently mention in evaluations of my courses.

Discussion is hard work for the teacher, much harder than preparing a lecture. The best discussions have clear learning goals, adequate student preparation for them to make meaningful contributions to the conversation, and a safe environment where all participants feel included and encouraged. Most challenging  for many professors is the unpredictability of the discussion. Many teachers are uncomfortable relinquishing control of the learning process and letting the students take the discussion wherever it may lead. But letting go and allowing students to learn on their own terms makes possible the transformative experiences that I want for all of my students.

Students in class at Rhodes College
Students in class at Rhodes College, 2010 (Photo courtesy Rhodes College Office of Communications)

[Daily post 019 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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