FW: Keeping Discussion Going Though Questioning, Listening, and Responding
- I thought this was a good piece for almost any level of adult learner,
young to senior.
"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."
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The posting below looks at how to promote effective discussions in class
through questioning. It is 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. A
Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741[
www,josseybass.com]. Copyright (c) 1999, 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: Preparing Future Faculty and Multiple Forms of Scholarship
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
Keeping Discussion Going Though Questioning,
Listening, and Responding
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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 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
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?
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
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
What are the one or two most important ideas that emerged from this
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
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.
Welty, W. "Discussion Method Teaching." Change, 1989, 21(4), 41-49.
Christensen, C. "The Discussion Leader in Action: Questioning, Listen-
ing, and Response." In C. Christensen, D. Garvin, and A.
(eds.), Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership.
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991a.
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
Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership.
Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991b.
Jacobson, R. "Asking Questions Is the Key Skill Needed for Discussion."
Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 1984, p. 20.
Welty, W. "Discussion Method Teaching." Change, 1989, 21(4), 41-49.
Ferrier, B., Marrin, M., and Seidman, J. "Student Autonomy in Learning
Medicine: Some Participants' Experiences." In D. Boud (ed.), Devel-
oping Student Autonomy in Learning. New York: Nichols, 1988.
Baetman, W.L. Open to Question: The Art of Teaching and Learning by
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
Palmer, P.J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the
Inner Landscape of a Teacher's
Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
Van Ments, M. Active Talk: The Effective Use of
Discussion in Learning. New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1990.
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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