Keeping Discussion Going Though Questioning, Listening, and Responding

from Chapter Five, Keeping Discussion Going Though Questioning, Listening, and Responding, in the book Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Published by Jossey-Bass

We emphasize throughout this book that democratic discussion is open and fluid, building on the diverse experiences and interpretations of its participants. Although teachers have some responsibility for guiding the discussion, no one person controls its direction entirely.
Consequently, good discussions are unpredictable and surprising. They reveal things about the discussants and the topic under examination that are illuminating and eye-opening. At the same time, however, because democratic discussions have a life of their own, they can falter and even expire quite unexpectedly.

Even when discussions gets off to a good start and seem to have momentum, a variety of circumstances can intervene to bring group talk to a grinding halt. Sometime the teacher or one or two students assume too dominant a role. Sometimes the question or issue to be discussed just isn't controversial enough. Often the pace seems too slow, or the process for exploring the question lacks variety. In other cases, the students may not be ready to explore a topic in a large group setting or for some reason have lost their enthusiasm for the subject. Although it is frequently difficult to pinpoint the reasons why attention is wandering or commitment to the subject is waning, action needs to be taken to reinvigorate the conversation when these things happen. Part of the secret of dealing with these situations lies in refusing to panic or to berate oneself for allowing things to get off track. Fortunately, it is often possible to revive discussion and regain the sense of "controlled spontaneity" (Welty, 1989, p.47) characteristic of good conversation.

This is not to say, however, that we regard discussion as a panacea for tuning bored, disinterested, or hostile students into enthusiastic advocates for learning. Neither do we believe that simply talking about problems leads inevitably to students' deciding to take action to address pressing social concerns. As we argued in Chapters One and Two, discussions, in general tend to increase motivation, promote engagement with difficult material, and give people appreciation for what they can learn from one another and for what can be accomplished as a group. But we want to acknowledge that we have both been responsible for classes where discussion failed miserably, inducing boredom, resentment, and confusion. We have no magic formula to guarantee success, just some ideas that have proved useful to rejuvenate conversations that seem to be stuck.

Sometimes a discussion can be considered successful even if the original intentions of the leader go unrealized. When participants learn that a problem is more complex than they had thought or when their appreciation for existing differences is deepened, these can be counted as significant accomplishments, even though they might be different from the teacher's anticipated outcomes. We can say unequivocally, however, that discussion fails when participants avoid similar dialogical encounters in the future or when they lose interest in the topics under consideration.
If part of the point is to keep conversation going, to stimulate people to keep talking in the future, then discussion that inhibit this desire must be regarded as counterproductive and miseducational.

The question remains, what conditions inhibit dialogue and what measures can be taken to overcome them? This chapter and the next will focus on a variety of ways to make discussion a process of continuous discovery and mutual enlightenment. Getting students to view problems more critically and creatively helps keep discussion fresh. How teachers maintain the pace of the discussion, how they use questioning and listening to engage students in probing subject matter, and how they group students for instruction all affect how the discussion proceeds and how motivated the students are to participate in similar discussions in the future.


To reiterate, an important focus of democratic discussion should be on getting as many people as possible deeply engaged in the conversation.
Whatever the teacher says and does should facilitate and promote this level of engagement.
As a number of commentators have pointed out, at the heart of sustaining an emerging discussion are the skills of questioning, listening, and responding (Christensen, 1991a, 1991b, Jacobson, 1984; Welty, 19898). Of the three learning to question takes the most practice and skill (Freire, 1993; Bateman, 1990). Although it is certainly true that the kinds of questions one asks to begin a discussion set an important tone, it is equally true that subsequent questions asked by both the teacher and the students can provide a powerful impetus for sustaining discussion. Indeed, as Palmer (1998) has noted, how we ask questions can make the difference between a discussion that goes nowhere and one that turns into a "complex communal dialogue that bounces all around the room" (p. 134).

Types of Questions

Once the discussion is moving along, several kinds of questions are particularly helpful in maintaining momentum.

Questions That Ask for More Evidence
These questions are asked when participants state an opinion that seems unconnected to what's already been said or that someone else in the group thinks is erroneous, unsupported, or unjustified. The question should be asked as a simple request for more information, not as a challenge to the speaker's intelligence. Here are some examples:

How do you know that?
What data is that claim based on?
What does the author say that supports your argument?
Where did you find that view expressed in text?
What evidence would you give to someone who doubted your interpretation?

Questions That Ask for Clarification
Clarifying questions give speakers the chance to expand on their ideas so that they are understood by others in the group. They should be an invitation to convey one's meaning in the most complete sense possible. Here are some examples:

Can you put that another way?
What's a good example of what you are talking about?
What do you mean by that?
Can you explain the term you just used?
Could you give a different illustration of your point?

Open Questions
Questions that are open-ended, particularly those beginning with how and why, are more likely to provoke the students; thinking and problem-solving abilities and make the fullest use of discussion's potential for expanding intellectual and emotional horizons. Of course, using open questions obliges the teacher to take such responses seriously and to keep the discussion genuinely unrestricted. It is neither fair nor appropriate to ask an open-ended question and then to hold students accountable for failing to furnish one's preferred response.
As Van Ments (1990) says, "The experienced teacher will accept the answer given to an open questions and build on it" (p.78). That is, as we all know, easier said than done.
Here are some examples of open questions:

Sauvage says that when facing moral crises, people who agonize don't act, and people who act don't agonize. What does he mean by this?
(Follow-up question: Can you think of an example that is consistent with Sauvage's maxim and another that conflicts with it?)

Racism pervaded American society throughout the twentieth century. What are some signs that things are as bad as ever? What are other signs that racism has abated significantly?

Why do you think many people devoted their lives to education despite the often low pay and poor working conditions?

Linking or Extension Questions
An effective discussion leader tries to create a dialogical community in which new insights emerge from prior contributions of group members.
Linking or extension questions actively engage students in building on one another's responses to questions. Here are some examples of such

Is there any connection between what you've just said an d what Rajiv was saying a moment ago?
How does your comment fit in with Neng's earlier comment?
How does your observation relate to what the group decided last week?
Does your idea challenge or support what we seem to be saying?
How does that contribution add to what has already been said?

These kinds of questions tend to prompt student-to-student conversation and help students see that discussion is a collaborative enterprise in which th e wisdom and experience of each participant contributes something important to the whole. Too often discussion degenerates into a gathering of isolated heads, each saying things that bear no relationship to other comments. The circular response exercise (see Chapter Four), which requires students to ground their comments in the words of the previous speakers, gives students practice in creating discussions that are developmental and cooperative. Skillfully employing linking questions can also help participants practice discussion as "a connected series of spoken ideas" (Leonard, 1991, p. 145).

Hypothetical Questions
Hypothetical questions ask students to consider how changing the circumstances of a case might alter the outcome. They require students to draw on their knowledge and experience to come up with plausible scenarios. Because such questions encourage highly creative responses, they can sometime cause learners to veer off into unfamiliar and seeming tangential realms. But with a group that is reluctant to take risks or that typically answers in a perfunctory, routinized manner, the hypothetical question can provoke flights of fancy that can take a group to a new level of engagement and understanding, Here are some examples of hypothetical questions:

How might World War II have turned out if Hitler had not decided to attack the Soviet Union in 1941?
What might have happened to the career of Orson Welled, in RKO Studios had not tampered with his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons?
In the video we just saw, how might the discussion have been different if the leader had refrained from lecturing the group?
If Shakespeare had intended Iago to be a tragic or m ore sympathetic figure, how might he have changed the narrative of Othello?

Cause-and-Effect Questions
Questions that provoke students to explore cause-and-effect linkages are fundamental to developing critical thought. Questions that ask students to consider the relationship between class size and academic achievement or to consider why downtown parking fees double on days when there's a game at the stadium encourage them to investigate conventional wisdom. Asking the class-size question might prompt other questions concerning the discussion method itself, for

What is likely to be the effect of raising the average class size from twenty to thirty on the ability of learners to conduct interesting and engaging discussions?
How might halving our class affect our discussion?

Summary and Synthesis Questions
Finally, one of the most valuable types of questions that teachers can ask invites students to summarize or synthesize what has been thought and said. These questions call on participations to identify important ideas and think about them in ways that will aid recall. For instance, the following questions are usually appropriate and illuminating:

What are the one or two most important ideas that emerged from this discussion?
What remains unresolved or contentious about this topic?
What do you understand better as a result of today's discussion?
Based on our discussion today, what do we need to talk about next time if we're to understand this issue better?
What key word or concept best captures out discussion today?

By skillfully mixing all the different kinds of questions outlined in this chapter, teachers can alter the pace and direction of conversation, keeping students alert and engaged. Although good teachers prepare questions beforehand to ensure variety and movement, they also readily change their plans as the actual discussion proceeds, abandoning prepared questions and formulating new ones on the spot.


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Christensen, C. "Every Student Teaches and Every Student Learns: The Reciprocal Gift of Discussion Teaching." In C. Christensen, D. Garvin, and A. Sweet (eds.) Education for
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Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991b.

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Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 1984, p. 20.

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Leonard, H. "With Open Ears: Listening and the Art of Discussion Lead- ing." In C. Christensen, D. Garvin, and A. Sweet (eds.), Education for Judgment: The artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.

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