Rules for Discussion

While researching for my recent post about politics in the classroom, I came across this excellent quotation:

“If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” — Ted Huddleston, “Teaching about controversial issues: guidance for schools,” for the Citizenship Foundation, 2003 (PDF)

I connected this statement to two things: (1) during group or class discussions (here, here, and here) or station rotations, there are often a few students who speak a lot, most speak very little, and a few not at all, (2) the Harkness Method provides good guidelines for how discussions should work and how to balance the discussion. I realized that perhaps my class discussions were less successful because I had not been laying the groundwork for good dialogue. Therefore, I’ve decided to create, introduce, and implement guidelines for group and class discussions. This is my first draft of them and I’d love to hear what you think and suggestions for improving them:


  • Listen carefully. You may want to write down good ideas, evidence, etc.
  • Collaborate and discuss; do not compete or debate. We are learning and exploring ideas together. In a discussion, multiple sides and perspectives come together towards a better, shared understanding. A debate is a confrontation of people trying to prove each other wrong.
  • You are responsible for the success of the discussion. Prepare and participate thoughtfully.
  • Stay focused on the text or question at hand. Have the text or source open in front of you. Check and refer to specific chapters, paragraphs, sentences, or words that clarify, support, challenge, or question the ideas we are discussing.
  • Take turns speaking. You do not need to raise your hand, but you should not interrupt or talk over another person. If multiple people talk at once, happily defer to someone else.
  • Address comments to your classmates, not just to the instructor. The instructor is not the only one who can teach you or help you examine new ideas—your classmates can too. Include your classmates and draw them into the conversation: look around the group, make eye contact with each other, and use names.
  • If you are confused, ask for clarification. We are not always clear the first time we explain something, so if ideas are a little foggy, please ask for more information, for another or further explanation, or for the evidence supporting the idea. This act of re-explaining an idea will help everyone, including the speaker, understand it better. (You could say: “I’m a little confused. What do you mean by X?” or “I am a little confused. Do you mean to say X?”)
  • If you agree, affirm comments and ideas. Approval of other people’s ideas develops confidence and a sense of community. Thank people for good contributions. Provide additional evidence to support these ideas. Summarize discussions.
  • If you disagree, politely challenge the ideas. Let the other person finish their thought or question before you speak. Clarify that you disagree and why you disagree.
  • Be sure that everyone is content with the exploration of one topic, sentence, etc. before moving onto another topic, sentence, digression, etc. If the group is silent, determine if people are wrestling with ideas or the text, of if the group is ready to move on. Ask each other: Do we understand it? Are we content with the discussion? Can we clarify or develop the ideas further? Can we summarize the discussion so far?
  • Avoid preemptively labelling your opinions (for example, as “Democratic” or “Republican”). We all tend to act based on the ways that we label ourselves and then are very stubborn about changing our opinions. In order to have productive, fact-based conversations, please do not label your opinions as “Democratic” or “Republican,” “conservative” or “liberal,” etc. until you have carefully considered your own opinions.
  • Occasionally, you can ‘pass.’ If you are shy or more introverted, it would be great if you would contribute your ideas but you can pass if you need to. Additionally, life can get busy, so you can pass if you happen to be unprepared.
  • Police your own involvement in the discussion. If you speak often, don’t answer every question and ask other people’s opinions (especially if they seem ready but reluctant to talk). If you reluctantly or rarely speak, remember that you have good ideas that are worth sharing, so please share them now and then. Asking for clarification or summarizing ideas are important contributions as well.
  • If you are uncomfortable with the discussion, say something. The process of learning and some aspects of the ancient and modern worlds can be uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable because your ideas are being challenged, that may be the good discomfort of learning. If you are uncomfortable because of a particular topic or comment, that is a bad discomfort so please raise the issue in a polite, straightforward way (e.g. talk with the instructor before class, explain why you are uncomfortable with a comment, or meet with a counselor).

What do you think?

Sources and More about the Harkness Method


3 thoughts on “Rules for Discussion

  1. Perhaps such discussions are not appropriate for the early school years. Today, what we call education is more akin to indoctrination. The true purpose of education, which we gotten away from in the Western world, is to develop the student’s critical thinking skills so that society can have independent thinkers among its adult population.


    1. Thank you very much for your comment. I agree that education should not be about indoctrination–we should encourage students to think for themselves, develop their critical thinking skills, and form their own opinions. I think it’s reasonable to encourage their opinions to be well reasoned and based on some specific evidence, emotion, or principle instead of knee-jerk reactions. As I see it, some of the procedures that I present here are designed to encourage students to think for themselves and develop those critical thinking skills (e.g. have the evidence in front of you, refer to the evidence, and talk about why you agree or disagree with people’s comments or interpretations). Since I am also concerned that education not become about indoctrination, can you please point out specific guidelines that you think could lead towards indoctrination rather than critical thinking?


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