While it might seem trivial to start with, understanding exactly what discussion is can make a significant difference between great discussions and chaos. I have watched numerous beginning discussion leaders (especially those coming out of lecture environments) hand the reins over to students, only to have the “discussion” quickly degenerate.

To the matter, then: discussion is not a free-for-all. It is not a chance for everyone to offer their opinions without regard to what was said prior, or what will be said after. In this sense, discussion is different than a typical “brainstorming” session.

Nor is discussion a lecture. For many educators, there is a strong tendency to dump information into student’s heads. Discussion has a different set of goals (forthcoming) than lectures, and it is crucial to keep the two formats separate as much as possible.

What’s more, discussion is not a debate. While debate may be used effectively, debates tend to be combative in nature. One side “wins” and the other side “loses.” Discussion, on the other hand, does not have a winner. It is collaborative, not contrarian in its tone and emphasis.

One more negation: discussion is not a dialogue. While two people will obviously talk with each other in a discussion, the dynamic changes significantly as more people are present. Knowing how to manage the differences in dynamic when two, or four, or eight, or sixteen people are present is crucial for being an effective discussion leader.

So what, then, is discussion? I would posit that discussion is a structured, organized conversation among multiple members that intentionally moves in a specified direction (whether participants are aware of such a direction or not). Easy to define, hard to pull off. As trivial as the distinctions are, clarifying exactly what discussion is can go a long way toward fostering the sort of converations in the classroom and elsewhere that are effective and powerful.

Previous Posts:

Becoming an Excellent Discussion Leader (Series Intro) 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Well defined. Especially the “what discussion is not” section. “Hard to pull off” is an understatement. But what I like about discussions is that when a group is lucky enough to pull it off, all participants are the better for it and know it regardless of how their original opinions held up by the end.

    I expect this to be an interesting series. Thanks.

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  2. I’m also looking forward to this series as I can always use tips on improving my tutorials. I’ve come to accept that leading good discussions will be a lifelong learning experience that will always present new challenges as students change (and I change).

    Like live theater, no matter how much one rehearses each discussion is always different and, unlike theater, might arrive at an unexpected destination (a good or bad thing depending). But now I’ve turned into Captain Obvious haven’t I?

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  3. Thanks for the encouragement, guys. I appreciate it much.

    “Nobody,” thanks for exploiting my dominant metaphor for the series. I appreciate that. Really.

    Reply

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