December 7th, 2010

Discussion: Light-Weight and Loose-Jointed


Here’s Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s great description of feelings associated with discussion. “Discussion … can feel light-weight, loose jointed, like holding hands in zero gravity. The sense of weightlessness can overcome you—even if you’re good enough at leading discussion so that your students are uninhibited and exploratory; even if you guide it subtly by the weight of a question or an inquiring gesture; even if you’re sure that at each session they’ve learned three new ideas in the most unforgettable way, by discovering them and stating them themselves.” (p.32)

My mentor and friend Gene Melander was over for lunch yesterday. His always active mind is currently exploring how metaphors, imagination, and education intersect. Our conversation makes me mindful of the metaphors in this quotation. Do you replay discussions that have occurred in your class? I like to retrace discussion exchanges I’ve had in my workshops, although I almost always leave these revisits a bit depressed. When I think about a question that was asked and how I responded or I remember a question I asked about a comment offered, I can almost always think of better responses—ways to say it more clearly, stronger evidence to support the point, more openness to a new perspective. Why didn’t I think of that then?

The quote gets at the out-of-control feeling that always a part of discussion. You may know the answer you hope to get when you ask a question and if it’s a straightforward, closed question (like the numerical answer to a problem), you may get it. But if it’s an open-ended query, one designed to get students thinking, who knows what you’ll hear. You may well get something you’ve never imagined—something you’ve never thought about, something you have no idea how to respond to. That’s the loose-jointed, free-floating feeling the quote so ably describes.

What I don’t feel in the quote is the excitement inherently a part of the metaphor. With weightlessness comes freedom, a profound change that makes movement everywhere a possibility. Discussion offers that to teachers as well. Ideas link in unexpected ways, taking thinking to new levels of insight and understanding. When discussion goes well, the author is correct, students can learn ideas in unforgettable ways—so can teachers. That makes discussion worth the risks it involves.

Reference: Gullette, M. M. (1992). Leading discussion in a lecture course: Some maxims and exhortation. Change, (March/April), 32-39.

  • Larry Spence

    Often classroom discussions not only feel light-weight and loose-jointed, they are. As Gullette expounds, productive discussions need structure. Discussion with lecture is how I like to teach. Over the years I’ve had success and disaster. Sitting in other instructor’s discussion, I’ve witnessed some awful parodies. The worst were: instructor ventriloquism (answering your own questions in a student voice); in-crowd dramas (discussion with the few in the first row); and shouting matches (where “argument” means new insults). Those are the risks.
    The major barrier to good discussion is classroom architecture. No one wants to talk to the back of dozens of heads. Set up like the British House of Commons, classrooms with movable chairs can carry large discussions. Rensaleer Polytechnic Institute’s studio classrooms support lectures and discussions, but they are costly. Since we already have rooms for lectures a simple solution is to add rooms for discussions.
    Weightlessness may bring freedom, but it also makes it hard to keep your feet on the ground. Gullette expresses the intellectual demands of discussion teaching – student/instructor preparation, first writing, planned conflict, stated goals or products, and an atmosphere where mistakes are normal and corrections constant. The surprises produced by students who think, express, argue and challenge do make those demands worth it.