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.