THE IMPORTANCE OF DISCUSSION IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Critical thinking and discussion are important parts of the higher education classroom, let alone important skills for a thriving democracy. Adult education theorist John Dewey (2011) describes the necessity for challenging discussion as a democratic imperative. Discussion is a fundamental strategy for developing a critical consciousness and promoting an educated citizenry that is capable of making effective decisions in a democratic society.
Steven Brookfield (2013) details the way discussion should reflect democratic values in the higher education classroom. He defines a democratic classroom in three specific ways: (1) It is a space where multiple voices and perspectives are always included, and participation occurs in ways that do not always privilege euro-centric ideals, such as speech. (2) Learners are directly involved in the decision-making processes, which allows them a certain level of power and control over their own learning process. (3) Unfamiliar perspectives that often challenge dominant perspectives are constantly incorporated into the discussion.
Enacting democratic principles is a rigorous learning process that is always a “partially functioning ideal,” and discussion is a vital way that this process thrives (Brookfield, 2014, p. 123).
COMMON ROADBLOCKS OF EFFECTIVE DISCUSSION
However, for many reasons, discussions can lead to more problems than to enlightenment. For instance, most people may lack skills that allow them to communicate effectively, to resolve conflict, or to view the subtle nuances of social situations in order to address those situations in ways that acknowledge the needs of others who are different from them.
Additionally, given the highly polarized political environment in the country in the last 4-5 years, students, particularly those with privileged identities, are more resistant to discussions that include diverse perspectives (Cabrera et al.). Specifically, this is referring to white students, as the scholarship documents many white students’ assumptions that America is a post-racial society, and success is a result of hard work and merit (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). These assumptions can make an instructor want to avoid challenging topics altogether to avoid uncomfortable situations.
Also, there is the ongoing conundrum of reconciling notions of “freedom” and “democracy.” In other words, as Brookfield describes, living in a society with other citizens requires that we “acknowledge their presence and adjust our lives accordingly” (2014, p. 125). For many, it is a challenge to promote individual rights and “freedom” (however this is freely defined), all within a context that should seek the welfare and benefit of the larger group.
Finally, as instructors, Brookfield details how we often make the following assumptions…
- “Discussions are Free & Open Conversations”
- We often assume that classroom conversation is “open” and “free,” a “safe space” to express one’s feelings and experiences. In contrast, the classroom is the very place where structures of power and privilege manifest. As Tatum et al. (2013) state, the classroom is merely the microcosm of the larger society, and therefore, it is riddled with social hierarchies that allow some voices to dominate, while others are silenced. This silencing is not always explicit, but expressed through subtle methods, for instance, through microaggressions. Additionally, because discussion is often directly connected to one’s participation grade in the class, it can become a highly competitive atmosphere that can focus less on genuine inquiry, and more on a battle for the students to demonstrate how smart they are, or what Brookfield refers to as “intellectual besting.”
- “Discussion Is a Democratic Process in Which Diverse Voices Are Included”
- The field of Adult Education is ever changing, yet higher education still shares a foundation with ideologies rooted in imperialism, colonization, and white supremacy (Cabrera et al., 2016; Museus et al., 2015). With this in mind, it is misinformed to think that hierarchies of privilege and power contextualized within notions of identity, particularly race, do not continue to manifest in the classroom, affecting the ways, for instance, that students of color feel comfortable or encouraged to participate (or do not). For instance, studies have shown that African-American students tend to enter college with the idea that they do not belong in the academic atmosphere and feel like outsiders among other students who are more likely to assimilate (Dancy, 2014; Ford & Moore, 2013).
- “All Students Are Equipped to Participate”
- Not all students are equipped to (or want to) participate in the competitive “one-upmanship” that discussions can represent. Also, not all learners possess the cultural capital to participate in ways that allow them to feel confident or compete with other dominating voices that do. Brookfield defines cultural capital as having abilities, such as a varied vocabulary, confidence and ease in public speaking situations, and an assumption that one’s commentary belongs in that context, is valued, and will be listened to. This cultural capital, or lack thereof, is emphasized as significant for determining the academic success of certain groups of students, such as black males (Brooms, 2018; Brooms et al., 2015).
- “The Instructor is Part of the Respectful, Democratic Process”
- In assuming that an instructor has the best intentions to tease out important concepts and perspectives in a discussion, Brookfield reminds us that the situation is still a panoptical illusion, referring to Foucault’s (1977) point that the “judges of normality are everywhere,” or more specifically, as they are established by the instructor. As the facilitator of the discussion, we set the tone and establish norms within that speaking context, and students are often looking for verbal or non-verbal cues that their participation is in alignment with those expectations. Seeking to “please” the instructor in this way can encourage a more competitive atmosphere of who has the most cultural capital to compete, and it can also distract from genuine and critical inquiry.
- One last point with this assumption is that often as a facilitator, instructors ask questions to ignite good discussion without giving student sufficient time to think about a response. Students who are able may respond quickly so as not to appear stupid, which can prevent deeper thinking and critical reflection. As Brookfield emphasizes, “good questions needs time for a response” (2013, p. 67).
IMPLEMENTING A DEMOCRATIC FRAMEWORK AS A FOUNDATION
So, how can we facilitate discussions that accomplish the following tenets of democracy and appropriately handle classrooms that might normally generate “hot moments” or conflict? Brookfield outlines important aspects of democratic conversations along with specific criteria that might produce more fruitful conversations:
Students must have opportunities:
- For structured silence to reflect and think deeply, aside from typical Eurocentric patterns of communication, such as speech.
- To have power and control over their own learning process, including content and materials
- To be heard – by participating in multiple ways
- To hear the varied voices of others in order to develop empathy for others’ experiences that are different from their own and recognize that they live within systems of power and privilege to which they both contribute and relate.
- To learn about and challenge dominant ideologies that they contribute to and/or are affected by, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, eurocentrism, etc.
- To contribute, consider, and value the voices and experiences of others and take these voices and experiences into account during important decision-making processes.
- What kind of misguided assumptions might you make about discussions in the classroom?
- Considering the list of criteria above these questions, how might you incorporate 1-2 of them in your in-class discussions?
Brookfield, S. D. (2013). Powerful techniques for teaching adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brooms, D. R. (2018). Exploring Black male initiative programs: Potential and possibilities for supporting Black male success in college. Journal of Negro Education, 87(1), 59–72.
Brooms, D. R., Goodman, J., & Clark, J. (2015). “We need more of this”: Engaging Black men on college campuses. College Student Affairs Journal, 33(1), 106–123.
Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(6), 7–125.
Dancy, T. E. (2014). (Un)Doing hegemony in education: Disrupting school-to-prison pipelines for Black males. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 476-493.
Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education, 22(3/4), 15-19.
Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Digireads.com Publishing.
Ford, D. Y., & Moore, J. L. (2013). Understanding and reversing underachievement, low achievement, and achievement gaps among high-ability African American males in urban school contexts. The Urban Review, 45(4), 399-415
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1975).
Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Introduction. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(1), 1–112.