Principles of Discussion
A Collaborative, Guided Discussion
Begin “with a question, participants must have the assigned text in their minds and on the table in front of them, address is polite and responsive, all should participate and support their opinions with argument. The rest develops as living conversations.” paraphrase by Michael Strong of a seminar description by Eva Brann, renowned tutor from St. John’s College.
The goal of the discussion is to reason together about the material, in order to arrive at your own, independent judgment. Think clearly together to think independently. The instructor is a guide/moderator of the discussion, not the teacher with the answers. You will determine your own answers by yourself and with the other discussants.
- Read the text before the seminar and search for questions you have about its meaning; bring these questions with you to the discussion.
- During the discussion, ask your questions of the text, seeking to engage the other discussants’ reasoning about your questions, and ask questions of each other.
- Cite the text to give evidence for your ideas and interpretations.
- Try to make connections between the ideas in the text and what other participants say, and your life.
- In our discussion, reason is the only authority. This means no person is the authority on the text, but each must use logic and facts to support his or her opinion.
- No one need raise hands to talk; instead, pay attention to whether others wish to talk, and encourage quiet participants to hear their thoughts; Treat the other participants respectfully.
- References to material outside of the text must be cogently linked to the text and discussion at hand, and explained in general principle, comprehensible to general reasoning. References dependent on knowledge not available to every participant are not considered cogent to the discussion because the other people can’t verify it.
- Be concise; we have limited time and difficult material.
- Each person takes responsibility for his or her own learning and for the quality of the conversation; if you would like to change the direction of a discussion, please feel free to ask the other participants if they are okay with that; then if they are, proceed.
- At the end of the discussion, we will have a short self-reflective feedback conversation i.e. discuss whether we followed the above principles, how we interacted with each other, and how we can improve our discussion next session.
Read the text.
Cite the text.
Connect to the discussion
Only authority is reason.
Not too many outside references.
Do take responsibility.
(Yes, we know there’s an extra C!)
On Socratic Seminars
This kind of discussion is often called a “Socratic Seminar.” However, that term is used in several ways. People often think it means a discussion in which the teacher asks a difficult question and then waits to pounce on the person who dares to answer. You can see this kind of behaviour on the old TV series “The Paper Chase” about law school.
I hope you can see from our principles that our meaning is far from that. Rather, we aim to create an environment of conversation in which all feel comfortable participating, in which careful, thoughtful reasoning is encouraged, and the sovereignty of each mind is respected. The teacher, in such a setting, is a moderator of the discussion, and an expert learner who models how to understand the material and interact with the other participants.
Essential questions to ask yourself when reading a text or evaluating work:
- What are the issues and the conclusions?
- What are the reasons the author gives for his/her questions or conclusions?
- What words or phrases are ambiguous?
- What does the author assume you know by his descriptions?
- What values does the author assume are true/right?
- Are there any fallacies in the reasoning?
- What is the evidence and how good is it?
- Does the author present, or can you think of other causes than the ones are claimed?
- Are the statistics deceptive; how do we determine that?
- What significant information is omitted?
- What reasonable conclusions are possible?”
Adapted from Asking the Right Questions, M. Neil Browne & Stuart M. Keeley