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Fostering Conversations that Count: Only Discussion?

April 17th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Sometimes when I advocate using discussion as a means of education, people hear me saying that I think they should only use discussion. I’m not.

Discussion should be part of your overall educational strategy. An essential part, yes, but only a part. Here I want to address three other means of educating students and their relation to discussion.

The Lecture: For many high school students, it seems (at least from my experience!) the lecture is the preferred means of education. While I am no expert on public schools (one such expert can be found here), it seems there are numerous information requirements that educators have to meet. Consider, for example, California state guidelines for what sixth graders should be able to regurgitate about ancient civilizations.

There is a fine line that educators must walk between information acquisition and skill development. Unfortunately, many educators err toward the former, while the latter seems more important to a student’s long term success. (I refer the reader to Dorothy Sayers’ excellent “Lost Tools of Learning” for a defense of this idea). But some information is still necessary, and lectures (that are done well) are still a fine format to use to impart that information.

But discussion can be used well to gauge retention and measure understanding of the information. My wife, who has a three hour lecture class at Biola, will have students break into small groups periodically to talk through the ideas she has presented. It’s simple and easy, but highly effective, as their questions after the discussions are generally superior to those they ask beforehand.

Here’s the danger of lecture-only education: it puts a premium on being right, rather than being interesting. While the two aren’t necessarily in tension, wrong answers are anathema in a lecture based education. In discussion, though, wrong answers or comments may lead to better clarity, to new thoughts that are more correct than before, or simply better wrong answers. The heresies in the early church, after all, forced it to clarify its own doctrinal positions. To its credit, discussion works in similar fashion. Lecture based education runs the risk of making the teacher’s lecture the standard that is to be regurgitated, rather than another opinion that is to be considered and adopted if true.

The Sermon: What distinguishes the lecture from the sermon? I’d suggest two things: 1) the sermon maximizes the use of rhetoric to stir up the hearts of listeners to pursue a greater end, and 2) the sermone contains some moral or ethical imperative. I include the sermon as a means of education because I think “education” should be allied with virtue. It’s a tendentious claim, to be sure, and one that I can’t take up here. Regardless, the proclomation of the Word of God–the sermon–is to make its listeners better, and the Spirit convicts and admonishes through that context. This is a loftier vision for the sermon than simple “information transmission,” and a much harder goal to attain, but essential all the same for a student’s education.

But sermons alone are not enough. While they may stir up a student’s heart or bring a sense of conviction, student’s will not integrate the ideas into their own minds as deeply as they will when they reflect upon them in discussion. As they ask questions about the sermon, challenge it, and have their own reflections challenged, the power of the sermon’s truth can be reinforced, or its falsity’s exposed. Such questioning process is essential for ensuring that we are not deceived by the rhetoric we hear, even as it stirs us to (seeming) goodness.

The danger with both sermons and lectures, though, is that they place students in the position of the consumer, not the creator. While students obviously must consume some content in order to be excellent creators–the traditionless talent is usually less effective than the one who operates within, or rebels against traditions–they must also practice creating arguments, creating critiques, and creating responses. While passivity in discussions is a problem (that I hope to address later), as a model, discussion transfers the mode of education away from a consumption based system.

The Model: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Paul said it, and meant it. He admonished his disciples to imitate those who walked according to the pattern Christ had left, as he knew that such repetitive behavior would eventually become “second nature” within the disciples.

Aristotle said people couldn’t deliberate about ethics unless they already had good characters. The point is that wisdom and understanding of the truth require well-formed souls to be apprehended, and as we educate young people it is imperative that we provide them with models of good character that they can imitate (these sorts of models, I’m afraid, just won’t do).

How does this fit in with discussion? As a discussion leader, I had to acknowledge that I was also acting as a model for my students. It is a heavy burden, no doubt, but one that educators must assume if they are to help their students become better people. Modeling excellent character is crucial in a discussion, as students will tend to imitate their leaders. Setting the appropriate tone is the leader’s job, and so it is crucial to realize this dimension of education.

Conclusion: Only discussion, then? Not at all. While I’ve slipped in a lot about the goals of education (really, I should have started with a post about educational goals in general!), it is my hope that I have pointed out some of the strengths and weaknesses of the various means educators take to forming students.

As Ken Robinson points out in this brilliant lecture, the world is changing at a very fast rate. While the fundamental issues and questions facing human nature are not, the rapid development of technology and other realms demand that we educate students in such a way that they have the skills to apply old truths to new situations. Literacy is not enough: creativity is essential. Discussion leads students not only to the truth, but to an understanding of the truth that allows them to apply it in new and unique enivornments.

As the philosophers say, discussion is necessary, but not sufficient for accomplishing this task.

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

Other posts in the series:

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.