My Summer Reading: Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms 2nd Edition by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill

Jessica L. Fry, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology
Curry College, Milton, MA

Ah Summer – the three months of the year when my To Do list is an aspirational and idealistic mix of research progress, pedagogical reading, curriculum planning, and getting ahead.  Here we are in July, and between hiring, new building construction, uncooperative experiments and familial obligations, I am predictably behind, but my strategic scheduling of this blog as a book review– meaning I have a deadline for both reading and digesting this book handed out at our annual faculty retreat — means that I am guaranteed to get at least one item crossed off my list!

My acceptance of (and planning for) my tendency to procrastinate is an example of the self-awareness Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill advocate for teachers in their book “Discussion as a Way of Teaching”.  By planning for the major pitfalls of discussion, as well as the reasons behind why both teachers and students manage discussions poorly, they catalog numerous strategies to increase the odds of realizing the major benefits of discussion in the classroom.  At fifteen years old, this book is hardly dated; some of the discussion formats will be familiar to practitioners of active learning such as snowballing and jigsaw, but the real value in this book for me was the frank discussion of the benefits, drawbacks, and misconceptions about discussion in the classroom that are directly relevant to my current teaching practice.  

My lowest moments as a professor seem to come when my students are more focused on “finding the right answer” than on exploring a topic and fitting it into their conceptual understanding.  Paper discussions can fall flat, with students hastily reciting sentences from the discussion or results sections and any reading questions I may have assigned.  This book firmly makes the case that with proper groundwork and incentive, students can and will develop deliberative conversational skills.  Chapter 3 describes how the principles for discussion can be modeled during lecture, small group work, and formats designed for students to practice the processes of reflection and analysis before engaging in discussions themselves. Chapters 4 and 5 present the nuts and bolts of keeping a discussion going by describing active listening techniques, teacher responses, and group formats that promote rather than suppress discourse, and chapters 9 and 10 illustrate the ways students and teachers talk too much… and too little.  One of the most emphasized concepts in these chapters and threaded throughout the book is allowing silence.  Silence allows for reflection and should not be feared – 26 pages in this book cover silence and importantly, how and why professors and students are compelled to fill it, which can act as a barrier to all students participating in the discussion.   

Preskill and Brookfield emphasize the need for all students to be active listeners and participants in a discussion, even if they never speak a word, because discussion develops the capacity for the clear communication of ideas and meaning.  “Through conversation, students can learn to think and speak metaphorically and to use analogical reasoning…. They can get better at knowing when using specialized terminology is justified and when it is just intellectual posturing” (pg. 32).  What follows is an incredibly powerful discussion on not only honoring and respecting diversity, but a concise well-written explanation of how perceptions of social class and race affect both non-white and non-middle-class students in American college classrooms.  Their explanation of how academia privileges certain patterns of discourse and speech that are not common to all students leading to feelings of impostership should be read by everyone who has ever tone-policed a student or a colleague.  The authors advocate for a democratic approach to speech, allowing students to anonymously report if, for example, another student banging their hand on their desk to emphasize a point seemed too violent, which then allows the group to discuss and if necessary, change the group rules in response to that incident.  The authors note that “A discussion of what constitutes appropriate academic speech is not lightweight or idle.  It cuts to several core issues: how we privilege certain ways of speaking and conveying knowledge and ideas, who has the power to define appropriate forms and patterns of communication, and whose interests these forms and patterns serve” (pg 146).  The idea that academic language can be gatekeeping and alienating to many students is especially important in discussions surrounding retention and persistence in the sciences, where students seeing themselves as scientists is critical (Perez et al. 2014).  Brookfield and Preskill argue that through consistent participation in discussion, students will see themselves as co-creators of knowledge and bring their authentic selves to the community.   

All in all, this book left me inspired and I recommend it for those who imagine the kinds of invigorating discussions we have with colleagues taking place with our students and want to increase the chances it will happen in the classroom.  I want to cut out quotes from my favorite paper’s discussion section and have my students justify or refute the statements made using information from the rest of the paper (pg. 72-73 Getting Discussion Started).  I want my students to reflect on their journey to science and use social media to see themselves reflected in the scientific community (pg. 159-160 Discussing Across Gender Differences), and I want to lay the groundwork for the first discussion I have planned for the class of 2023; Is Water Wet?  All this and the rest of that pesky To Do list with my remaining month of summer. Wish me luck!  

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perez, T., Cromley, J. G., & Kaplan, A. (2014). The role of identity development, values, and costs in college STEM retention. Journal of Educational Psychology. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0034027

Jessica L. Fry Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biology at Curry College, a liberal-arts based primarily undergraduate institution in Milton, Massachusetts.  She currently teaches Advanced Physiology, Cell Biology, and Introduction to Molecules and Cells for majors, and How to Get Away with Murder which is a Junior Year Interdisciplinary Course in the General Education Program.  She procrastinates by training her dog, having great discussions with her colleagues, and reading copious amounts of science fiction. 

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