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minotaur and bad discussion

Six Things Worse Than A Bad Discussion

A host of naysayers claim that discussion-based education is bad for students. I’m happy to admit that it’s dangerous—dangerous like climbing a tree, or loving someone with no expectation of reciprocity, or traveling to a foreign country. That is to say, it’s a risk we must take if we are going to grow as people and live abundantly.

At its best, discussion-based coursework can enliven and grow students like nothing else. But even when a discussion class is bad, I can still think of plenty of things that are a lot worse. Here are a few.

1. Students who treat class like an exam, not a training ground.

Athletes spend scores of hours practicing for every hour they spend competing. This allows them to try out new techniques, strengthen weaknesses, and develop strategies in a space where there are little to no consequences if they fail. The experimentation of practice is the true function of the majority of class time—but if we treat every instant like an exam, students grow fearful and reticent to push themselves into new territories of thought.

Exams are where knowledge and ability are tested, and students know that—but they don’t assume that the classroom is a place for developing and experimenting. Students aren’t robots, and we do them a disservice if we deprive them of the training ground where skills are developed through trial and error.

How do you know when this error has taken over a class? When students constantly ask, “will this be on the test?” and aren’t willing to answer open-ended questions for fear of being wrong.

2. A teacher who treats class like a performance.

Ideally, a teacher loves their subject. Love inspires knowledge, so they probably know a lot about it, too. But students are not a captive audience. Guru-ism turns teachers into performers who encourage students to remain passive rather than to participate.

It can be perfectly appropriate for a teacher to turn on all the burners occasionally, and for the students to just sit back and enjoy. If you can dramatically recite the opening passage of Beowulf in Old English, by all means, knock the students’ socks off. But if class is always conducted like a show, students quickly learn that the extent of their involvement in the actual work of the classroom is minimal, and they will disengage and simply expect to be entertained.

3. A teacher who only believes in their own ability to interpret a text for their students.

Again, a knowledgeable teacher has probably developed nuanced opinions about their subject through years of sitting with the material. This is one of the things that makes them an invaluable asset to their students. But no one has all the answers, and there is a necessary humility in a teacher that says, “I could learn something new from a student’s observation, because there are unplumbed depths of knowledge everywhere I look.

If a teacher lacks this humility, they are impatient when students express their opinions. They ask leading questions, because they would rather a student parrot back the approved stance than hear what a student may actually think. And when students talk, this teacher doesn’t listen. They just wait for the student to finish so they can tell them what to really think.

4. A classroom with no tolerance for new ideas.

This happens to many veteran teachers who have successfully taught many classes of students. You know how the class should go; you know what material you want to cover. Your lesson plans are set, and you are ready to impart your knowledge on malleable minds. The tricky thing about bright, young students is that they are full of energy and ideas of their own. They raise difficult questions; they use evidence in the text to point in a different direction than you’d like.

A hostile environment can be inadvertently created, even by a teacher who loves and cares for students, if that teacher clings too tightly to their own agenda in the classroom. Again, none of us have all the answers, which means that students and their pesky new ideas have the potential to teach us something new at any given moment. If students see each other get shot down enough times by a defensive teacher, this exciting potentiality gets snuffed out.

5. A bad lecture.

Not all lectures are created equal, and not all teachers are as expert in their subjects as they should be. Even if an educator is passionate and knowledgeable, this alone does not a good lecture make. If you have an hour with your students and you are not prepared to lecture well, you should not subject them to an hour of your meandering musings.

The bad lecturer makes a bad case for the truth—even when they are correct—through their ineptitude. Students aren’t stupid, but your poor lecture might turn them off to what you’re trying to convey, or even to the subject in its entirety. How many students say they dislike a certain discipline because of a bad or boring teacher?

6. A lecture pretending to be a discussion.

This might be the worst of them all. Especially in Christian education, parents and teachers are often paralyzed by the fear that students will leave a discussion completely unmoored. If we let the students talk, if we let them toss around ideas freely, if we let them rail against what they’ve always been told is true and struggle with difficult books written by people way smarter than them, surely they will decide truth is impossible to find. Surely they will become relativists and nihilists and universalists or one of a host of other “-ists,” and we will never be able to bring them back.

This fear can create a sort of monstrous hybrid discussion, where students are allowed to talk for a while, but the class always concludes with the teacher telling them the real truth. 

I’m reminded of the Minotaur: he’s half-man, half-beast, but he’s the wrong half of each. With the body of a man and the head of a bull, he lacks both the raw power of a beast of burden and the reasoning ability of humankind. Left with the brain of a dumb animal and the body of a weak human, he is a true monstrosity.

A class that conducts itself as a free exchange of ideas on the surface renders itself impotent if the students know that no matter what they say, no matter how hard they work together to seek truth, their hard work will be nullified in the last five minutes by a teacher who has just been letting them run around blindly for a while before showing them the way. You end up with teachers who only care about the end of class, and students who find the end of class an intolerable insult to their hard work. That’s your Minotaur— it’s half-discussion and half-lecture, but it’s the weak half of each.

Giving Discussion Its Due

If we truly believe that students should be free to make mistakes while practicing new skills, that they have important things to contribute despite their youth, and that their work in the classroom should be both challenging and rewarding, then we ought to be allowing them to have real discussions in class. It’s not only because through discussion we avoid a host of other educational ills—discussion models the type of careful thought and cultivation of expression that prepares students for adult life.

In a world where they will soon make their own path without parents and teachers telling them what to do and think, discussion gives students the tools they need to observe, criticize, and discern independently. That’s the goal of any good education, and that’s the overwhelming advantage of the classical, Socratic tradition of dialectic discussion.

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