Thursday, November 5, 2009

On leading a (philosophical) discussion

I recently had occasion to reflect on the question of how to lead a good discussion. What happened, in fact, was that I needed to give someone advice on how to do this, and didn't know quite what to say. I've since sat down and thought about it, and here's what I've come up with.

Ideally, the members of a discussion would be able to take care of the conversation themselves. What would this look like?

  1. People would speak clearly, concisely, and to the point.
  2. People would listen to one another, respond to one another, and build on what others have said.
  3. People would move the discussion in productive directions by raising the right questions at the right times, staying on topic, and keeping the conversation from scattering in different directions or going off track.
In most discussions, however, some or all participants can't be counted on to do all these things themselves. That’s okay. Your job as discussion-leader is to do some of this work for them, to supplement their contributions so that all the things that need to get done, get done. Depending on who the participants are, you'll have to do more or less of this work. When I've taught undergraduate classes, I've found that I have to do most of this work for my students. (This usually means speaking after almost every student contribution.) When I'm in reading groups with my peers, we all share this work. But no matter what the situation and the composition of the group, this work has to get done, otherwise the discussion won't go well.

When I lead discussions, I find myself doing three different kinds of work, corresponding to the three points listed above:
  1. Reformulating
  2. Relating
  3. Redirecting
1. Reformulating
It often happens that participants will make contributions that are interesting but not sufficiently clear. In these cases, you need to help them to articulate their point more clearly. One way of doing this is to ask them to reformulate what they’ve said more clearly. If you have no idea what they’re talking about, you may just have to ask them to say it again in a different way. If you have some idea what they’re talking about, you may be able to ask them a more pointed question that will help them to clarify their point. If you think you understand their point, but suspect that other participants may not have sufficiently grasped what it is or why it’s important, then you can reformulate the point yourself. I find myself doing this a lot when I lead student discussions, e.g. “I hear two really good points in what George has said…” or “So if I understand you correctly, Michael, what you’re saying is…”

2. Relating
In the best discussions, participants will make an effort to respond to other people’s remarks, and say explicitly who they’re responding to and how (disagreeing, asking a question about, expanding on, etc.). In many discussions, however, the participants will not do this themselves, and so you have to do it for them by pointing out how the thing they’ve just said is related to what was said before. For example, it often happens in student discussions that someone will say something that contradicts someone else's earlier remark, but without noting this explicitly. It’s important to point out that the two claims are incompatible, since other participants may not necessarily have noticed this. You can then open the disagreement to further discussion, if you think it’s important, or redirect the discussion elsewhere.

3. Redirecting
At any given point in a discussion, there are many different directions in which it could go, and only some of these will support the overall goals of the discussion. Ideally, everyone in the discussion will have these goals in mind, and make their individual contributions with an eye to the big picture. In student discussions, however, this is usually not the case, and so it’s your job to keep the discussion on track. This usually involves setting the stage at the beginning of the discussion so that everyone starts off on the same page. As the conversation goes on, you may need to pose questions or suggest topics of discussion to the group. You may also need to interrupt the movement of the conversation if it’s getting stuck or moving in an unproductive direction, and bring discussion back to the things it’s supposed to be about. And you may need to correct people who are going about the conversation in the wrong way – talking too much, not listening to their colleagues, not being polite and respectful, etc.

In my experience, a good discussion is one in which many people think better together than any of them could on their own. But this means that even in situations where you are responsible for leading the discussion, you can't decide in advance how the conversation is going to go. Of course, if you’ve led a discussion on the same topic with students before, you may have some idea of the sort of things they’re going to say in response to certain questions. And there’s nothing wrong with having a plan for the sort of discussion you want to have, the topics you want to cover or the questions you want to pose. But you also have to be open to the possibility that things will go in a different direction than you planned. It can be difficult to strike a balance between achieving the goals you’ve set for the discussion and allowing it to develop spontaneously and organically. But the best discussions I’ve led are the ones where my students surprised me, and I managed to be flexible enough to keep the discussion productive even as it went in a direction I hadn’t expected.


Neal said...


Thank you. This is very helpful. I'm leading a couple of seminars at Brock right now, and find myself often unimpressed with my own work at leading them. I think you've done a great job of highlighting what needs to happen, and giving ways to help that happen. This will help me a great deal to become a better discussion leader. I (and my students) thank you.

Noah said...

Thanks Neal. You're too kind. I'm glad you found it helpful.

Mlle. Le Renard said...

Excellent. Anytime you want to lead a discussion in my class, just stop in. We're breaking into small groups to talk about Hume's Enquiry on Monday if you're in the Seattle area...

I'm afraid I tend to too much of R#2..reformulating...

Noah said...

K, could you say more about that? How much reformulating is too much?

I've sometimes found, when speaking after every student comment, that I feel like I'm talking too much, and interrupting the flow of the conversation. On the other hand, sometimes when I've tried intervening less, the ocnversation still doesn't flow. I think the best thing is when the students start understanding and responding to one another on their own. But if that's not happening, I think you have to intervene, otherwise you just get a heap of disconnected remarks instead of a conversation that builds on itself.

Mlle. Le Renard said...

I agree with you: When I intervene less, the conversation can veer quickly from philosophy into opinion. But I worry that I'm somehow undermining them / taking their confidence by reformulating. I take "possession" of the speaking student's words and then redeploy them into the conversation. The gain is that we stick to the material and to standard discourse ... the possible loss is that s/he hasn't gained the power to enter into discourse. It's a compromise between lecturing (possessing all the discourse) and sitting by and listening (totally relinquishing control of the discourse). Of course... I suppose I do need to retain some power, as the professor. Or do I? Or is it a different sort of power? Your thoughts ?

Noah said...

The risk K raises is a real one. If we agree though, that reformulating is (at least sometimes) necessary, then the question is how to reformulate in a way that empowers your students rather than disempowering them. (Assuming this is possible.)

Here are some strategies I've used in the past -- maybe you guys can share yours too.

1. Frame it as a compliment. If you want to distinguish two different points in a student's contribution, say "I hear two good points in what you've said."

2. Frame it as a question. "If I'm understanding you right, you're saying... Is that right?"

I try to AVOID saying things like: "I think what you're trying to say is..." or "Maybe a better way of putting that would be..."

In my experience, students sometimes enjoy having their points reformulated more clearly. If it feels to them like you're helping them to say what they're trying to say, or pointing out what was interesting and helpful in what they've said, they may experience it as you helping them to enter the discourse, rather than shutting them out of it.