NTLF Vol. 8 No. 3 1999 - Keeping The Discussion Leader's Voice In Balance
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 Volume 8 Number 3

Keeping The Discussion Leader's Voice In Balance

Stephen Brookfield and
Stephen Preskill

The theme of attending to students' voices has been a frequent one in recent issues of the FORUM. In this article we focus on the teacher's voice as this is expressed in discussion. If students are going to feel that discussion invites them to develop and express their ideas in an unpressured way, then the discussion leader must find a way to teach that is neither too dominant nor too reserved. Of course, achieving a perfect equilibrium where everyone in the group feels that the teacher is speaking for just the right amount of time is unrealistic. However, we do think it is possible to be closer to, or further away from, this ideal position. Our voices can definitely be more or less out of balance.


THREE SCENARIOS OF BALANCE AND IMBALANCE

illustration What follows are three short discussion scenarios which focus on how the discussion leader's role affects what happens. They show a teacher who exerts too much control over the discussion, a teacher who is too aloof, and a teacher who comes close to striking roughly the right balance.

Scenario One-Too Much Teacher Control

Teacher: The assignment for the day was to read the conclusion of Mike Rose's remarkable autobiography of teaching, Lives on the Boundary (1989). Rose not only concludes his story with some very concrete examples of how to cross cultural and class boundaries, he shows us as well the implications of these examples for shaping educational policy. One of the strengths of the book is Rose's ability to move back and forth between the worlds of classroom practice and of national policy making. What do you think of the way Rose handles this?

Student 1: I guess I didn't notice what you're talking about, but I was really impressed with what he says on page 222 about being hopeful and assuming that good teaching can make a big difference for students.

Teacher: Yeah, that's important, but almost the whole chapter that includes the quote you cite shows Rose going back and forth between practice and policy. Let me show you what I mean. (Reads about a page of material.) Isn't that impressive? One of the things that makes this book great is that the implications for reform emerge from the particulars of everyday teaching. Anybody want to comment on that?

Student 2: I think Rose is a great teacher, but does he really think that every student can learn? Where did he get that faith in everybody?

Student 3: I have the same question and I'm also disturbed by the fact that this is a story, that it necessarily has a plot. Doesn't the need to have a plot affect the incidents Rose relates and how they get resolved? How much does this really help us understand the messy world of day in, day out teaching?

Teacher: I think you all are missing the point. This is a great story about one person's successes and failures in teaching. It has a plot, sure, but that plot can still be translated into proposals for reform. I mean what do you think Rose's reform proposals would look like?

Student 4: I don't know about school reform, but could we talk about the episode when Rose helps that student to make sense of the standardized test she took? With just a little help she's able to figure most of it out. How often do you think that happens with our students who regularly do poorly on achievement tests?

Teacher: Let's take a look at that a little later. I still want to know what you think Rose can teach us about school reform? (A very long silence ensues.)


The teacher in this excerpt is much too dominant and controlling. He insists on sticking to his own agenda despite his students' resistance. Moreover, he ignores the excellent questions his students raise, each of which could have led to a productive exchange. The teacher clearly likes the book and wants his students to like it too. He is also intent on exploring the "big" issues of policy and reform. His students are much more interested in discussing and questioning its specifics. The potential for enlightening discussion is enormous here; students are taking a lot of initiative and there is a great deal of participation. Unfortunately the teacher is just too self-absorbed to see it.

Scenario Two-The Teacher as Too Distant

Teacher: What do you think of the last section of Rose's Lives on the Boundary?

Student 1: I liked it, especially what he says on page 222 about remaining hopeful and using good teaching practices to help even the most poorly prepared students.

Student 2: I'm not sure why he's so hopeful. Where does that faith come from? I've been in lots of situations where even the best and most dedicated teachers couldn't help their most difficult students.

Student 3: I have too. Also, even though I liked the way Rose tells his story, I'm not sure there's much to learn from it. Stories are not like day-to-day teaching. There's no plot or climax in real life teaching. Just plugging away and trying to make the best of it.

Student 4: But aren't some of the incidents revealing? What about the example of the student who at first does poorly on the achievement test and then does much better with a little coaching from Rose?

Student 5: I think Rose knows about underachieving students because he was there once himself.

Student 6: But he also became a scholarship student. I don't think he does know what it's like to struggle with poor preparation, limited skills, and especially against racial discrimination.

Student 7: Does he still teach writing to students at UCLA or is he doing something else now?

Teacher: He still teaches writing but he also has an appointment in the School of Education.


This scenario seems, superficially, an improvement. Seven rather than four students have spoken, so the level of participation is higher. However, though there is enormous potential for discussion in the issues students raise, there is almost no continuity, no attempt to build on individual comments. Instead, the teacher responds to only one question--the one that is the least interesting and least likely to go anywhere. If the teacher had intervened just once or twice each of the issues raised by students could have been considered and developed much more fully.

For instance, the teacher could have asked the first two students, who appear to disagree, to talk to each other about the citation from page 222. Questions she could have posed are: "Does page 222 give any clues to the source of Rose's hope and faith?" and "Where else would we look in the text to support either student's view?" The whole issue of plot and story also seems rich. The teacher could ask "In what ways do stories help us to understand everyday experiences and practices?" and "How are stories a flawed source?" The point here is not for the teacher to give her own views, but for her to ask a question or raise an issue that gets students talking to one another. One final comment: Although this discussion is badly flawed, it is still significantly better than the first one in which the teacher dictated the issues to be covered.

Scenario Three-A More Balanced Discussion

Teacher: The assignment for today was to read the conclusion of Mike Rose's autobiography of teaching, Lives on the Boundary (1989). Rose not only concludes his story with some concrete examples of how to cross cultural and class boundaries, he shows us as well some of the implications of these examples for shaping educational policy. Could you comment on some of these examples and their value for promoting educational reform?

Student 1: The quote on page 222 was especially important. We must assume that students have potential and ability and then act accordingly. That should be the basis for all educational change.

Student 2: Maybe, but what makes him so hopeful? Where does that faith come from? I've seen lots of situations where even the best and most dedicated teachers couldn't help their most difficult students.

Student 3: I have too. Although I like the way Rose tells his story, I'm not sure there's much to be learned from it. Stories are not like day-to-day teaching. There's no plot or climax in real life teaching. Just plugging away and trying to make the best of it.

Student 4: But aren't some of the examples revealing? What about the student who at first does poorly on the achievement test and then greatly improves with a little coaching from Rose?

Student 5: I think Rose knows about underachieving students because he was there himself.

Student 6: But he also became a scholarship student at UCLA. He may have lost touch with those roots. I don't think he knows what it's like to struggle with poor preparation, limited skills, and especially against racial discrimination.

Teacher: I wonder if we could pause here for a moment and try to bring these interesting and diverse observations together. A number of you characterize Rose as sensitive to the needs of the poorly prepared students. Others question whether the way he tells his story or his position of privilege puts him in a position to understand the most marginalized students. Is there reason to think that both claims are at least partly true?

Student 7: Is he still teaching writing to students at UCLA or is he doing something else now?

illustration Teacher: He's still teaching writing but now he has an appointment in the School of Ed. But I want to get back to the other point. Can Rose teach us some valuable things about educational reform, or is his stance too idealistic, too removed from the realities of real classrooms?

Student 5: I still think his background as a student who was mistakenly put in the vocational track gives him an invaluable perspective on injustice and on the failure to realize the promise of educational opportunity.

Student 6: You know I forgot about that incident. It probably still has an important impact on his thinking and practice.

Student 3: I just don't trust the story format. He makes it all come out so neatly in the end.

Student 1: Does he? I think he's quite realistic about how much can be accomplished with students who have been neglected and oppressed. All those years of bad education are a great burden, but progress can be made, especially when we retain hope.

Student 3: But the need to emplot frees him of the obligation to recount all the failures, all the partial successes.

Student 2: And why be so hopeful? What's the reason for keeping the faith?

Teacher: I think there may be at least two reasons for doing so, both of which are in Rose.

Student 5: May I?

Teacher: Please, go ahead.

Student 5: Rose is hopeful because there is no other choice. Despair is not a good basis for change.

Student 2: What about revolution?

Student 5: Perhaps, but while we wait for the revolution Rose shows that if you're patient and try hard to cross boundaries, if you keep looking for ability where others have only seen deficiency, great strides can be made.

Teacher: Rose is like Dewey in a way. He can't imagine being anything but faithful but it is not a blind faith. It emerges from experience.

Student 2: Well, could we talk about some of those experiences specifically? What are the concrete bases for his educational faith?

Teacher: Let's do that.


Perhaps the thing that most clearly distinguishes this scenario from the others is that here the discussion builds. At first students aren't really conversing, but with a little prompting from the leader they begin talking and responding to each other. There is clear disagreement which is tolerated and even encouraged, but (with assistance from the teacher) there is also some basis for agreement. The teacher makes six brief comments in this dialogue, but except for two of them (the first and second to last) they are all intended to foster increased interaction and continuity. The excerpt ends with the promise of much more discussion based on close attention to the text. This probably wouldn't have happened without the teacher's contributions.

Of course, this scenario may come across as a bit too idealistic; good discussions don't materialize as effortlessly as this one appears to. But it is surprising what a difference a few well placed questions and comments can make. This scenario shows that teachers don't have to intervene constantly or absent themselves entirely to make discussion work.


This article is drawn from chapter 10 of Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, by Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. The book was published in March by Jossey-Bass Publishers of San Francisco (1-800-956-7739).

(For specific suggestions from Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill on how to keep teachers' and students' voices in balance, see the NTLF Web site at www.ntlf.com)

  • Stephen Brookfield is Distinguished Professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota
    E-Mail: sdbrookfield@stthomas.edu

  • Stephen Preskill is Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Organizational Learning at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico
    E-mail: preskill@unm.edu


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