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Types of discussions

(From Joanne G. Kurfiss Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice and Possibilities, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, no.2, Washington, D.C. 1988, p. 67)

There are many types of discussions, each having its own dynamics and serving its own purposes. Classroom instructors need to be aware of what type of discussion is required for their particular teaching goal.

Quiz show: In this, students answer information questions posed by the teacher. Such discussions reinforce dualism and received knowledge.

Rambling bull sessions: These are opinion-sharing conversations, where students share their own views without necessarily engaging with the views of others.

Wrangling bull sessions: If the discussion takes a controversial turn, the discussion can become an argument in which each person takes a position and defends it.

oth types of bull sessions reinforce multiplicity/subjective knowledge and no true exchange or thoughtful evaluation of ideas take place.

True discussions are the ideal but here too one can have different types: informational, problematical, dialectical, and reflexive.

In informational discussions, the teacher encourages students to speak, defers controversy, and lets students know their ideas will not be evaluated.

In problematical discussions a problem-posing query has the participants consider the information and/or values needed to address the issue intelligently.

In dialectical discussions, the request is made for participants to state opponents’ views accurately and sympathetically (i.e., take a ‘devil’s advocate’ view). This encourages students to “synthesize diverse opinions into a new formulation of the issue or to agree to disagree but with a better understanding of the nature of their differences.”

In reflexive discussions, participants discuss their own discussion in order to learn from the process.

The professor can guide students through these four types by the judicious use of appropriate questions and responses. Effective responses include praise and building on responses, directing comments and questions to other students, and remaining silent. Asking for opinions without evaluation enables students to become comfortable with talking, a request for elaboration of a comment steps up the challenge for students, using a devil’s advocate strategy can cool down a heated discussion and avoid making people feel they are ‘wrong,’ and so on.