Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999. 248 pp. Cloth: $35.00. ISBN 0-7879-4458-0.
The use of class discussion as a teaching technique is much favored in academe today. Less recognized is that skills and strategies are needed to use discussion effectively. Good discussion is not fostered just by asking students, "Are there any questions or comments?" Class discussion, as with other teaching techniques, depends on a clear rationale, appropriate preparation and planning, and smooth execution.
A welcome source of assistance in exploring discussion as a way of teaching is this recent volume by Brookfield and Preskill. The authors write from their experiences in varied settings, including technical and adult learning, colleges and universities, and public schools. Brookfield, currently Distinguished Professor at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), has also taught at Teachers College, Columbia University, has three times received the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education, and serves on [End Page 272] editorial boards of several international journals on adult education. Preskill, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of New Mexico, has also taught at Carleton College, the University of St. Thomas, and in public schools. He has published more than 20 articles in educational journals and is currently writing a book about narratives of teaching.
The book is especially valuable for its realistic perspective. The authors readily alert readers to the problems that arise when using discussion and caution that developing effective discussion techniques can be difficult. Many college instructors will nod in recognition as they review the five main reasons why instructors try but give up on discussion methods (pp. 37-42). The authors also are realistic in their characterization of the most likely audience for this book: first, faculty who "are interested in introducing more discussion activities in their classrooms but who aren't sure how to do this" and second, faculty who "are trying to use the method but are having difficulties doing so" (p. ix). For such faculty, it is immediately encouraging to see chapters offering advice on getting discussion going and keeping it going, and other chapters on how to deal with students who talk too much and students who talk too little. Tactfully, toward the end, the authors also include a chapter on the problem of the instructor talking too much.
Throughout, they suggest multiple solutions to the problems they identify. The chapter on starting discussion follows a typical pattern, in which they begin with concrete advice ("don't be vague;" "don't play favorites"), offer general perspective on desirable objectives, and offer several categories of suggestions, each with detailed explanation and examples of actual classroom exercises. Although the authors acknowledge that no single exercise will automatically work, their suggestions are both sound and sensible. The multiple examples should help readers consider how to apply the book's advice to their own settings. This and other chapters reflect a considerable "wisdom of experience."
Often, points drawn from relevant research and theory add perspective on a problem. On the problem of students who do not participate in discussions, they summarize research on individual personality factors along with research on classroom dynamics that, among other things, reminds us that students are often given too little time to think about what they might say (pp. 180-183).
A distinctive part of the book's approach, suggested by its subtitle, is its commitment to classroom discussion as training for democratic participation in society. The authors argue that helping students learn how to talk to each other and engage in critical discussion is "inseparable" from training them to engage in democratic processes in many settings. This view forms their own rationale for classroom discussion, the philosophical perspective they bring to it, and much of the approach they take. In particular, good discussion must rely on working with students to achieve the necessary dispositions (e.g., mutuality, appreciation, mindfulness) for open-minded participation. Readers who accept this perspective will find the book's advice and techniques to be very useful; readers who are less sure of this argument can still benefit from the many good suggestions but should be warned that some of their points are arguable. The authors oppose the concept of "guided discussion," for example, and explain their basis for this opposition. Disagreeing with the authors on this point does not detract from the value of the book's many suggestions.
The book is rich with insight, grounded mainly in the personal experience of the authors rather than in research studies on learning in discussion-based classrooms. Their varied experience justifies the volume, as they convey extensive knowledge, thoughtful reflection on purposes and performance, and a wide and deep knowledge of the pertinent research and theory related to the issues of learning through discussion. While I wished that they had also offered a resource section, it is possible to identify such resources in the citations and illustrations in the text.
College and university administrators in many types of institutions
would undoubtedly find this book a useful, faculty-friendly resource
on the effective use of discussion. Individual faculty may find it
a good resource. The book probably works best in a workshop context,
where issues can be explored separately and where individual stories of
failed attempts can be dissected constructively.
Professor of Education Policy at George Washington University and Director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education