The Contexts of Dialogue: Three Perspectives

Paper presented at the NCDD Annual Conference, Denver, Colorado. Panel
Session titled “The Contexts of Dialogue: Three Perspectives” (October 23).
John G. Bell, Antioch University Seattle; Robin R. Fenske and Patrick J. Hill, The
Evergreen State College; Jolanda Westerhof-Shultz, Grand Valley State University/
College of Education
Kick Socrates Out of the Classroom!
Developing A More Deliberative Classroom Discourse
Jolanda Westerhof-Shultz
A premise of this essay is that there is a need for a new and more consistent
theory of democratic education and for a rethinking of its philosophical foundations.
This need derives in part from the inadequacies of Socratic-based discourse, which
defers the development of deliberative discourse (Fishkin) in the classroom under the
auspices that students are not yet qualified for or the learning process itself does not
require their more autonomous input and reflective participation. However, as
educators in a democratic society we must rethink our tendency to inculcate an
uncritical reverence for or singular focus on expert knowledge vis a vis Socraticbased discourse. After all, as members of a democratic society, college students
should be learning to seriously examine a range of positions for themselves and to
form their own views on issues of concern to them. Time in the classroom should not
teach them to deferentially rely upon the mediated views and beliefs of others -- no
matter how authoritative or expert these others may be.
Unfortunately, rather than prepare students for intellectual autonomy and
democratic participation, a college education based on Socratic-based discourse
works to reinforce the theory of guardianship (Dahl), the popular, albeit elitist,
alternative to democracy. This theory fails to take into account another premise of
this essay -- the fact that democracy is itself a developmental and educational
process, one ideally suited to the purposes and constraints of the college classroom.
The Deliberative Cycle that I have developed taps into the social and intellectual
potential of the classroom by creating the conditions in which students can talk over
issues with others, and in the process, form a sense of group identity that is not
premised on consensus.
Monological and Dialogical Modes of Reasoning
Two concepts, monological and dialogical, as Habermas uses these terms, are
key to understanding the important differences between the two modes of classroom
discourse that are the focus of this essay. Monological discourse is rooted in an
individualistic view of knowledge and reasoning; the focus is on reporting what has
already been determined to be true, right, or worth knowing about the world. A
monological mode of reasoning presupposes that knowledge is objectively true, and
that one either has access to it or one does not. Thus thinking is perceived to happen
internally and prior to talking, and talking is thought to consist of the presentation
and recitation of knowledge. The "right" idea already exists in someone's head and
the point of any discussion is for this someone to persuasively present this right idea
to others. It is unnecessary, even a waste of time, for these others to share their
own thoughts or ideas. Applied to the classroom, monological discourse corresponds
to Freire's banking concept of education in which knowledge is fixed and usually
separate from students.
A dialogical mode of reasoning, on the other hand, reflects a constructivist
epistemology that presupposes knowledge to be subjective and in process. When
reasoning dialogically, one does not begin with the assumption that words are
definitive, or that anyone's position has to be settled in order to be worthy of serious
attention. One expects one’s thoughts to solidify through discourse; knowing is a
shared or social, rather than a personal or private, endeavor. While dialogical
reasoners may still argue vigorously for their own ideas, the point is they do not
spend all their energy promoting, defending, or campaigning exclusively for them.
They know they cannot get the whole story by internal reflection alone, and so they
expect to change their views and refine their ideas as a result of talking with others.
Dialogical discourse allows participants to self-consciously regard their own
comments, and those of others, as useful starting points to be inspected, revised or
refined; no one's ideas are accepted or rejected out of hand. The value and
truthfulness of any idea will emerge as they talk with one another. Of course,
monological thinkers may revise their respective positions upon reflective
engagement with others, but the point to be made here is that their discourse starts
from the premise that thinking is what happens internally and prior to talking, and
talking is the consequent reporting of these previously and independently
constructed thoughts. From a monological perspective, one speaks up when one’s
thoughts seem almost completely "worked out." Otherwise one learns to keep any
half-formed ideas to oneself, waiting until one can independently solidify and validate
There is an obvious and inherent anti-authoritarian quality to dialogical
discourse. But this does not mean there is no authority, per se. There are, in fact,
several authorities that shift with the dynamics of the discussion. When there are no
prescribed conclusions, it is not necessary for one person to single handedly direct or
monitor the discussion. Participants share responsibility for its content and course,
working together to find and explore ideas or arguments that best take account of
their differing needs, interests and beliefs. And this makes it easier for teachers and
students to regard one another as co-contributors to a larger educational project
that, to the degree it receives the input of everyone in the group, is intellectually
richer and more socially useful than one that defers open ended examination and
analysis to experts and elites.
This kind of shared responsibility and collaboration contrasts sharply with
monological discourse, since by the time its participants are ready to offer their
views, they are usually so invested in them that defense of what they consider to be
their intellectual property becomes a more primal (if subconscious) goal than figuring
out if an idea is, in fact, useful for the purposes of the group (i.e., if it can help build
the discussion) (Grayson). And the problem, from a more collaborative point of view,
is if only a limited number of "right" ideas exist, those who believe they possess
them feel compelled to defend and persuade others of this fact—at the expense of
hearing what these others have to say or exploring a wider range of ideas or options.
The Socratic Method: The Root of Monological Classroom Discourse
In this section, I describe five discourse strategies frequently utilized by
teachers and explain how each reflects a monological view of knowledge that in turn
supports the theory of guardianship (applied to the classroom, this theory purports
that students, as “non-experts” are incapable of independent and serious reason).
While each strategy presents certain advantages when used as a strategy (and I
identify some of these), the overwhelming effect of their exclusive use is to instill an
unnecessarily competitive and/or deferential view of knowledge that does not
prepare students to examine a full range of positions thoughtfully for themselves, let
alone respectfully or comfortably engage those who hold them.
The first strategy is the Socratic method and the four others that stem from
this first method are: radial discussion, presentation/ lecture, debate and
unstructured conversation. After providing a brief description and more thorough
critique of the Socratic method, I will describe each additional strategy, highlight the
monological premises it shares with this basic method and then identify some of the
democratic implications of its continued widespread use in the classroom.
A. Socratic discussion. Socratic discussion is actually one strategy with many
variations or methods. As noted above, the following four strategies are direct
interpretations of this method. Socratic discussion begins when a teacher asks a
student a question, the student then responds to the teacher, who then asks this
student a follow-up question. In this kind of verbal interaction, the teacher is
intentionally steering student responses or thinking in a direction that usually only
the teacher knows about ahead of time. The student is not, typically, encouraged to
ask divergent questions, since this would redirect the "line" along which the teacher
is traveling. In practice, the student is led to draw specific, predetermined
conclusions with this strategy.
Advantages. Of course, one risk associated with Socratic discussion is that it
encourages teachers to equate a student's ability to predict with understanding. Still,
this method can encourage the development of students' understandings of logic, in
terms of teaching them one form of linear or sequential reasoning. Although
misunderstandings can remain hidden, if a teacher's questions miss the issue at
hand, the chances of identifying and correcting student misperceptions are still
greater using this strategy than, say, the presentation/lecture format I will discuss
Monological premises that support the theory of guardianship. Socrates' aim
was to teach students how to think or reason. However, the two main premises of
Socratic discourse suggest he did not intend for students to do so independently of a
teacher. The first premise underlying this method is that direct guidance from an
expert is needed if what the novice learns is to be right or valuable. The second
premise is that students, as novices, are not naturally reflective and are not,
therefore, inclined or capable of "self-correction." In other words, as novices,
students will not yet know enough to understand when and why they may be
mistaken or misled. Any misconceptions will remain hidden until an expert points
them out. Because each discursive episode must end with "correct" knowledge in this
strategy, this is most likely to be uncovered by following an expert's line of
reasoning. Its emphasis on predetermined answers would seem to disqualify Socratic
discussion as inquiry or exploration.
The problem, of course, lies with the power dimension in Socratic discourse.
Teacher-directed discourse leaves most students with the impression that teachers
do or should know the answers to the questions they pose. Especially after they have
already voiced an error or mistake, most students are reluctant to offer tentative
answers. This kind of controlled discourse may work for the few who are extremely
confident in their understandings of the material and who are less fearful of possibly
losing face. But most students visibly withdraw from such restrictive interchange. In
practice these discussions feel more like a test of one's abilities to predict the right
ideas than an open-ended exploration. When students are treated as more or less
incapable or unreflective, teachers can come across as patronizing and manipulative
in terms of "leading" or directing students’ reasoning or thinking toward particular
ends. Teachers who use this strategy tend to focus more on whatever it is they want
students to say, to the exclusion of helping students articulate their own ideas and
thus understand them better.
Kenneth Seeskin, a proponent of the Socratic method, may have provided
unintentional support for critics of this popular method by describing 'the perfect
respondent" as "one who speaks freely, without putting on airs, and remains
courteous to Socrates throughout the examination" (981, emphasis mine). Whether
or not Socrates would have approved of Seeskin's use of the word examination in
this instance, one aspect (at least) of this monological approach to reasoning that
seems to work at cross purposes with the development of more collaborative and
autonomous inquiry is its tendency to set up the teacher as the examiner and the
student as the one to be examined. It is difficult to imagine how, given this top-down
relationship, students could feel their interactions with a teacher are truly openended exchanges for which there is no predetermined agenda or conclusion. By
treating students as categorically unaware or mistaken respondents, the Socratic
method as an instructional strategy, expects them to answer or defer to the
knowledge of an authoritative other.1
In Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method, Seeskin notes that, in
Socratic inquiry, if a student "is not willing to admit that she does not know, or is not
willing to admit that she has been refuted, elenchus [or inquiry] cannot work" (112).
Seeskin explains that the goals of Socratic inquiry are twofold: "to arrive at truth and
relieve the false conceit of ignorance" (112). It is important to point out that it is the
student's ignorance that is assumed here. In the end, Socratic discussions tend to
amount to a set of controlled responses to specific, leading questions. Someone in
the process must always "know" the answer. Even so, Seeskin dismisses the criticism
that this assumed ignorance sets up the teacher as one in the discussion who is
inevitably right and knowledgeable. For Seeskin, the Socratic method is still an openended process, since it is more likely the case that "[the teacher] may not know the
answer but strongly believe he has found it" (102). As further proof that Socratic
discourse is in fact a mutual process, Seeskin points to the fact that Socrates himself
claimed to leave the final judgment to the student or respondent. He quotes
Socrates as explaining that: "Every respondent carries with him the knowledge of all
things... [thus he is able] to certify the truth of what is said" (103). Evidently,
although the teacher must direct these discussions as though he already knew the
answers to the questions he poses, this does not mean he must be absolutely sure
In Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method, Seeskin notes
that, in Socratic inquiry, if a student "is not willing to admit that she does not know,
or is not willing to admit that she has been refuted, elenchus [or inquiry] cannot
work" (112). Seeskin explains that the goals of Socratic inquiry are twofold: "to
arrive at truth and relieve the false conceit of ignorance" (112). It is important to
point out that it is the student's ignorance that is assumed here. In the end, Socratic
discussions tend to amount to a set of controlled responses to specific, leading
questions. Someone in the process must always "know" the answer. Even so,
Seeskin dismisses the criticism that this assumed ignorance sets up the teacher as
one in the discussion who is inevitably right and knowledgeable. For Seeskin, the
Socratic method is still an open ended process, since it is more likely the case that
"[the teacher] may not know the answer but strongly believe he has found it" (102).
As further proof that Socratic discourse is in fact a mutual process, Seeskin points to
the fact that Socrates himself claimed to leave the final judgment to the student or
respondent. He quotes Socrates as explaining that: "Every respondent carries with
him the knowledge of all things... [thus he is able] to certify the truth of what is
said" (103). Evidently, although the teacher must direct these discussions as though
he already knew the answers to the questions he poses, this does not mean he must
be absolutely sure as to their veracity.
as to their veracity.
I think Nel Noddings is right to characterize the Socratic method as " A
sneaky way of telling." Socratic discussion assumes all knowledge is reducible to
predetermined, right answers and that only a few can know what these right answers
are or will be. It persuades students to adopt a cautious "hunt-and-peck" approach
to knowledge by promoting the idea that the act of knowing is a step-by-step
process in which they as student-subordinates, must match or predict what they
think to what a teacher expects them to say. Any time "getting it right" becomes the
point of an interchange, the risk level rises for all participants. There is too much at
stake in this approach to knowledge -- for both teacher and student -- in the
student's giving the expected answer. If the student is incorrect, the onus is on the
teacher to quickly "fix" the mistake, in a way that is likely to keep the focus on the
next step to be taken. The Socratic method thus socializes students to regard
mistakes as unnatural, avoidable, embarrassing and negative. It teaches them to
depend on authority figures or experts to clear up confusions or solve problems. It
does not teach them to address these thoughtfully and confidently for themselves
and with each other. Socratic discussion leaves them in submissive and often
comfortably passive positions from which they bear little or no responsibility for the
overall direction or quality of a discussion.
B. Radial discussion. A radial discussion is really a larger-scale Socratic
discussion. It may be helpful to picture these teacher-directed conversations in terms
of a bicycle wheel, with the teacher at the wheel's "hub" and the students as its
many "spokes." The teacher first poses a question to an entire group of students and
then proceeds by calling on specific students to answer it. As the discussion's
designated facilitator, or "center," the teacher might ask this same student a followup question, summarize what he or she has said, or invite another's perspective
before moving on to the next question and a different student. Rarely, if ever,
however, do students bypass the teacher in order to comment directly on or question
what another student said, at least not without the express permission of the
Advantages. Radial discussion can serve to awaken student awareness of the
possibilities of a more inclusive discourse. Students often understand a concept
better when they hear their peers explain it. Furthermore, a teacher with a more
experienced ear knows how to utilize input from various students to get them all
from one point to another. In this way, radial discussion can serve as a type of
stepping stone to good student-directed dialogue by allowing the skilled teacher to
model articulate and respectful responses to students' ideas. And it can make
students feel valued by a teacher, to have their ideas validated or praised by
Monological premises that support the theory of guardianship. Since radial
discussions are larger Socratic discussions, the focus is still not on what students
actually think, but on where they are presently located in an overall planned
sequence of knowledge attainment. It may be unacceptable, therefore, for a teacher
to simply talk at students (vis a vis prepared lectures and presentations) since this
would prevent her from determining what "step" her students are on, and keep her
from knowing where to go next. But the danger of false premises is still present as
well as the need for their immediate correction. For a teacher to leave mistakes
undetected or uncorrected implies their acceptability and invites other students to
adopt these inferior ideas as their own. The teacher, as the only one who knows the
right answers, must immediately know where a student is confused so that she may
address this confusion before moving on to the next student and idea.
Because the Socratic process is embedded throughout every aspect of this
method, radial discussion gives little, if any, opportunity for students to reason
directly with one another. Those who want to speak must first get the permission of
the teacher and they must compete for the teacher's attention. Of course, what
usually happens is the more outgoing and confident students are rewarded with "air
space," while their quieter, more reticent peers are often ignored or left to hide out.
Because radial discussion is, at heart, just a larger version of the one-on-one
Socratic exchange, it seems out of line or precocious when one student
spontaneously probes or paraphrases another student's comments (to make sure
they clearly understand what was said, for instance). Few, if any, are so bold or
comfortable as to offer a synthesis of the various ideas shared without being asked
to do so by the teacher. Most will wait for the teacher, as the designated authority
figure and facilitator, to practice this useful skill for them.
This strategy, like the basic Socratic method, encourages students to perceive
knowledge in dichotomous terms such as "I know what the answer is" or "1 do not
know what the answer is." It also teaches them to regard discussion in dichotomous
terms such as, "I state what I think" or "I do not state what I think." In other words,
in this large group teacher-directed discussion, students either know the right
answer or they do not and they are either responding directly to a teacher's lead or
they are silently waiting their turn. They are still not expected to ask divergent
follow-up questions of the teacher or each other. Even though this strategy expects
their input, as "spokes" it still tells students they cannot think seriously or
independently of an expert.
Like Socratic discourse, radial discussion takes on what appears to be a
natural, sequential order in which first one question is raised and responded to, and
then another. Students are left with the impression that "good" discussions should:
1) Require expert direction and guidance.
2) Proceed in a predictably organized manner and, therefore.
3) “Bad” discussions are characterized by confusion and ambiguity, which are signs
of poor management (leadership) or lack of ability (intelligence).
Students who buy into these monological perceptions are less prepared for
the rough and tumble of public discourse that is not predetermined or controlled by
an expert few or political elite. This strategy, like all Socratic-based strategies, does
not help them practice articulating an agenda, dealing with a range of conflicting
views and beliefs, let alone develop a sense of shared responsibility for the quality of
their exchanges. An expert is still needed if for no other reason than to maintain
"quality control" over what they will learn and come to know. As a larger version of
the Socratic method, radial discussion is also premised on the monological notion
that someone can always know the right answers ahead of time. Once again, the
teacher plays the lone facilitative and interpretive role. Teachers do not share
responsibility for the discussion with students in this format, since this would
undermine the teacher's knowledge and expertise and increase the likelihood of
error. Needless to say, this kind of singular epistemological control is the antithesis
of open dialogue among individuals who share responsibility for the quality of the
discussion and who do not expect or need anyone to know all the answers ahead of
C. Presentation/lecture. In a presentation/lecture, one or more individuals
share information or relate experiences to a group of designated listeners. This
common style of information dissemination is usually based on some kind of
prewritten script. The speakers first decide what the most basic facts are, and then
present these to the group in their proper order. Although listeners are almost
always given a chance to ask questions, they are not expected to critique the
presentation or receive input on their own related ideas. Student-listeners are
usually expected to complete some type of follow-up, stylized worksheet,
demonstratively regurgitating what was said. Standard instructional use of media,
such as video, usually takes the form of presentation. Students, as viewers, are
expected to absorb the information in much the same way as from a live speaker.
The video itself is not critiqued in terms of its premises, etc. The program, in this
case, is just another expert to be listened to, another expert from which to
assimilate information.
Advantages. Presentations and lectures offer an efficient means of delivering
important or timely information. And they can be particularly useful when they serve
as a type of response to listeners' contexts and questions.
Monological premises that support the theory of guardianship. The two main
premises underlying the widespread use of the presentation/lecture strategy are
related to expertise and efficiency. The first is that only that individual should speak
who possesses the most knowledge or experience on a given topic is the first
premise. The second is that when there is much material to cover, and time is
limited, information must be quickly and thoroughly distributed. There are no overt
connections between listeners in this format. More than is the case with radial
discussion, student "spokes" direct their attention to one person, the lecturer. For
the most part, this person does not expect his or her comments to be a response to
listeners' questions, but rather a streamlined means of sharing his knowledge and
expertise with them.
When used as a single mode of instruction, students recognize that the
implication of this format is that they, as novices, are not sufficiently knowledgeable
or experienced to literally warrant much independent air space. And in terms of
discourse, this format teaches them to approach discussion as either speaker or
listener – not both. While a well prepared lecture may be easy and entertaining to
listen to, because ideas are not challenged and a "natural" lack of a variety of
viewpoints can seem to exist, this strategy can also fortify false notions about an
ordered and/ or order-able world in which everyone does or should agree. Its
exclusive use tends to reinforce one or all of five of the following myths:
1) Efficiency should be the ultimate academic objective.
2) All students come knowing about the same amount, and therefore.
3) All students will find the same presentation useful and meaningful.
4) None of what any student now knows justifies his or her active participation, and
5) Although there is often a follow-up question-and-answer period, this is no need
for the presenter to take the questions students have into consideration before
Of course, when teaching amounts to telling, and learning to listening,
students will tend to simply re-tell what they have heard, as opposed to offer proof
that they comprehended it. Furthermore, silence does not equal consent. Still, the
lecture/presentation format creates the false impression that a speaker's ideas are
right and that they should not be questioned, at least not in front of the full group.
The ideas presented in this format are thus less likely to be examined seriously by
listeners. They are less likely to be placed in a greater context or have their merit
gauged in light of alternate and competing possibilities. The speaker in a very real
sense serves as the knower for the group in this format; he or she does all of the
reasoning for the group and presents the results of this reasoning to it. Only the
speaker’s line of reasoning is formally available to listeners.
While the presentation/lecture strategy can be made more dialogical when the
contexts and questions of listeners are taken into account, it is not effective if relied
on as an exclusive mode of instruction. Like the two strategies before this, the
presentation/ lecture format also reinforces the notion that learning is about
accumulating informational tidbits. While it may stimulate listeners to ask questions,
this strategy can also fortify the notion that viable answers to these questions are
really only accessible to "experts."
D. Debate. A debate is a rhetorical contest that focuses on arguments
organized into key points that are presented to a public by representatives of what
are typically two sides of an issue or question. The aim of a debate is to win converts
to one's chosen side, usually through persuasive argument and/ or emotional,
moving testimony. The three key premises that typically underlie the popularity of
the debate format in the classroom are:
1) It is not realistic or possible to expose students to the wide range of viewpoints
likely to exist on any given issue. Narrowing these down to two opposing positions
can still be an effective way of exploring an issue.
2) In the "real world," issues are seldom decided solely on the basis of the so-called
facts. The ways in which facts are presented often determines their ultimate
acceptability/unacceptability. Therefore, that position with the best presentation is
entitled to win.
3) Debates reflect "real life." They put students in an educational situation in which
they must learn to choose a single position (for example, to vote for one option over
another) and persuade others as to the relative right-ness of their respective side
(justify their choice and help others so to choose). After all, if it is a good choice for
them to take, it must be a good position for others to adopt.
Advantages. In debates, it is not necessary to argue for a position that one
holds personally. This can be a very good exercise for those students who have
difficulty imagining why others might believe differently than they. Like life itself,
debates expose students to the possibility that decisions often have to be made
between multiple and often equally compelling viewpoints.
Monological premises that support the theory of guardianship. Debate
consists of monological reasoners using their own previously constructed arguments
to convince the other of their point of view. The focus is not on deliberation but on
defense. That individual who most convincingly sways the opinions of others and
stubbornly resists altering her or his own is the most powerful. Debates, as a form of
discourse, are useful to trial lawyers who are not really interested in seeking the
truth about a situation, but in winning a case for their clients. The rule of the game is
that the most rhetorically persuasive argument should carry the day. And this is no
guarantee that the side that "won" was the most ethically compelling, just that it was
argued in a more persuasive way.
Debates reward an individual's powers of persuasion over his or her ability to
listen openly and respectfully to the ideas of others and talk collaboratively with
them. Since the ultimate goal is not for participants to find common ground or an
acceptable alternative position, it can be very hard in this context for participants to
conceive of workable and satisfactory compromises. The fact that this format leads
participants to believe that there are always only two sides to an issue is probably its
most dangerous feature. This false dichotomy tends to make instant adversaries of
those who are set up from the start to oppose one another. The truth, of course, is
that there are almost always more than just two sides to any issue and it is not
enough for proponents of this strategy to acknowledge this fact without helping
students to seriously explore a wider range of viewpoints. Thus debates implicitly
send the dual message that:
1) All knowledge is already known and,
2) Disagreement, while it may be natural, will ultimately result in some kind of
struggle between those who are "right" and those who are not -- the so-called
winners and losers.
Admittedly, the ability to clearly articulate and compellingly defend an
established position is a useful skill. But the problem, as far as democratic society is
concerned, is that the inherently contestual nature of debate promotes a view of
knowledge as inevitably oppositional and predetermined, and as something which
only "experts" are entitled to claim. Debate precludes deliberation in two key ways:
1) It encourages participants to adopt combative and/ or passive postures, not only
in relation to knowledge, but to each other, and
2) It explicitly communicates to participants that there is nothing of importance left
to discuss.
Debate cannot tap into the intellectual and social potential of dialogue. The
monological underpinnings of this strategy discourage knowledge from being shared
through a collaborative process of " give and take." This would make knowledge too
tenuous and flexible. In debates, participants communicate only "finished"
propositions. Each idea is quickly inspected and either accepted completely (without
any chance of revision or refinement) or rejected out of hand; "half-baked" ideas are
considered inefficient or trivial. Of course, participants may privately and silently
revise their positions afterwards, but only solidified, independently validated,
"finished" propositions are publicly presented.
E. Unstructured conversation. In unstructured conversation, sub-groups of
students are free to talk among themselves, usually in the absence of an expert.
Sometimes groups are given a specific topic and other times their interactions
revolve around open ended, free-flowing talk. However, by definition, unstructured
conversation is fluid, random and capable of frequent shifts in focus -- the opposite
of the four previous strategies.
The popcorn-like nature of unstructured conversation is due largely to the
absence of the teacher (who usually does not listen in on the discussions and who
makes no direct contributions to them). There is no perceived way to evaluate what
students say or hold them accountable for the quality of their contributions.
Consequently unstructured conversation is less valued as an instructional strategy or
rejected outright. Like the four strategies that I have already discussed, it, too, is
premised on the Socratic notion that for meaningful learning to occur, a teacher
must be present. Someone still has to know the right answers in this format.
Advantages. Especially when contrasted with discourse stemming from the
four previous strategies, unstructured conversation tends to be experienced as
informal and non-threatening. Participants do not expect to be evaluated on their
contributions and thus do not feel bound to say certain things or even to speak at all.
There is no predetermined right or wrong answer. Participants are free to share a
range of views or conclusions. There is probably more of an opportunity for
unexpected knowledge to be raised when using this strategy.
Unstructured conversation -- an essentially social interaction -- can also make
for greater intellectual efficiency. Even monological teachers understand that the
learning process is influenced by the social dynamics of the group and many will,
therefore, set aside some time for students to chat safely with one another about the
topic of study. The informality of this talk can encourage shy and hesitant students
to be less apprehensive about responding to teacher questions in the larger group,
for example. And the more comfortable a group of students is with one another, the
more ground these teachers can cover.
Monological premises that support the theory of guardianship. It is important
to distinguish between the terms conversation and dialogue. A conversation tends to
lack any explicit framework, is characteristically missing any overt purpose and is
voluntarily entered into. Ideas are accepted or rejected out of hand by the next
person to speak, or, as is often the case, skipped over entirely. Dialogue, on the
other hand, involves deliberation within a commonly understood framework and
locus wherein questions and issues are collectively considered and examined by
people who have made some sort of commitment to each other. This is not to say
that dialogue lacks spontaneity, just that it is much more intentionally entered into
and consciously engaged in than conversation.
One of the main axioms underlying the limited use of unstructured
conversation, however, is that students can help each other make sense of what an
expert (i.e., in the form of a teacher or text) has said. Unstructured conversation
allows them to rehearse new knowledge in a non-stressful situation by telling it to
others. The idea is that unstructured conversation prepares students for additional
information. However, because the underlying monological premise of speaker-asexpert has not yet been dismantled in this format, students tend to avoid putting
their peers " on the spot" by asking them follow-up questions, for instance. Some are
anxious about giving the impression that they see themselves as the group's resident
expert. And the informality of this type of discourse makes it all too easy for others
to deliver a string of monologues. Unstructured conversation gives these students
the chance to "play teacher" -- by modeling what the other monological strategies
have taught them are the key components to discussion. It is hard for their peers to
monitor the speech of domineering students and so the absence of shared authority
makes it is easier for the entire group to get off-track.
Because it is not monitored by a designated authority/expert (who may feel
that no new knowledge will be gained by "listening in"), unstructured conversation
can be a way of letting the "dummies" participate. As a monological strategy,
unstructured conversation is still premised on Socratic notions of expert/ amateur. It
tells students that their words and ideas are not worthy of a more serious forum and
that their ideas are not serious or valuable in their in own right. Reasoning still takes
place under the direction of a teacher. In this way, unstructured conversation is
"democratic" in a very elitist way; it patronizes students by "giving" them the
opportunity to voice their views and hear from one another in a forum that is not
taken seriously by them or the teacher. It assumes learning is not an innately
pleasant experience for most students, and less pleasant for the "less able." And it is
seen as a way to make the process more palatable. This strategy encourages
students to think of open-ended discourse as "play," and to divorce open ended
discourse from serious learning. This view is reflected in such teacher comments to
students as: " Are you supposed to be talking right now, or are you supposed to be
doing your work?"
Unstructured conversation, like the four other strategies discussed above,
tends to dichotomize thought and talk. There is no explicit, obvious connection
between thinking and talking. Only finished propositions are valued or taken
seriously. For students, as far as the knowledge that counts, there will seem to be
little or no need to share unfinished thoughts with the teacher or their peers, let
alone wonder what these peers may be thinking. It makes little sense for them to
squander away minutes in "chit chat," since it is already crystal clear what
knowledge they are supposed to come away with. This kind of student-directed
discourse is experienced as either an annoyance or an extravagance -- something
"nice" teachers might allow, but usually at the end of a lesson, after all of the really
important information has been presented. Not surprisingly, many teachers skip this
"interpersonal nicety" in order to stay focused on important knowledge and make the
best use of everyone's time.
Monological Discourse Underestimates Student Ability
And Leaves Them Ill-Prepared for Democratic Life
Of course, discourse need not always be dialogical in order to be meaningful
or useful. But in a democratic society such as the United States, when the
educational balance is skewed so heavily in favor of monological (presentational)
over dialogical (deliberative) reasoning processes, students are more likely to leave
classrooms unprepared and unwilling to engage in serious and collective dialogue on
matters of concern to them as adult citizens. Their education will have taught them
to leave serious discussion, particularly on complex, public matters, to experts or
political elites. When used as a model therefore, presentational speech undermines
By disconnecting thinking from talking Socratic-based methods treat both as
objective and exclusive. This disconnect is largely due to a widespread and historic
commitment to presumptions embedded in the theory of guardianship, which
establishes an epistemological hierarchy in the classroom, with teachers and texts
positioned at the top, and students on the lower rungs of the ladder (Bennett;
Hirsch). As applied to the learning process, guardianship, vis a vis Socratic-based
methods, discourages students from taking a more active and independent part in
the official discourse. And the implication of this lack of serious participation, to their
futures as adult members of a democratic society, is that it teaches them to let
others examines public issues, and make decisions on these, for them. When used
exclusively, these instructional strategies pose serious ramifications for democratic
James S. Fishkin, Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at
Stanford University, has not yet made the school-society connection in his published
research on the deliberative poll, but his concern that "we are a nation of atomized,
individual voters ...[who] have no effective motivation to think through the issues or
discuss them with other citizens" (21) is, in part, a product of an educational
experience that is still overwhelmingly monological. Of course, as noted above, just
because college students engage in small group discussions, is no guarantee they
are not thinking like atomized individuals. Small group discussion may simply
represent an additional venue for student-experts to hold court. Although his
research focuses on the behavior of young adolescents, what Pat Jones found would
seem to apply to the approach taken to small group discussion by college students:
... many thirteen-year-old students approach discussion tasks in
lessons with the assumption that what they are looking for are
authoritative 'right answers.' Such students miss the opportunity to
deepen their understanding of a topic by exploring cause and effect,
by testing examples and exploring those that do not fit, by considering
alternative explanations and evaluating them, and in general by
relating new information to what they already know and understand
(quoted in Barnes, 29).
And yet, the research on small group discussion conducted by Douglas Barnes
hints at what a democratic society could expect if its young were regularly taught to
reason aloud more effectively together. Barnes (29) found that:
Children who have learned to value talk in their learning are more
likely to explore beyond facts, into situations, causes, and
consequences. [They) know more about the language in which
knowledge is expressed; ... have a greater repertoire of learning
strategies; ... have a greater insight into the relationships among bits
of information; ...have a greater understanding of how they acquire
knowledge; ...have a better understanding of the possibility of multiple
solutions to problems or questions; [and) ... have a greater
understanding of why they are working within a particular area of
Unfortunately, the widespread use of monological discourse strategies in
college classrooms suggests that, for the most part, students in these classrooms are
not learning the kinds of cognitive skills that Barnes found middle schoolers capable
of developing. Monological reasoning still under girds most of what is generally taken
as given or natural about learning processes at both the K-12 and college levels.
Until its hold on classroom culture is unseated, efforts at involving any group of
students in collective deliberation or inquiry (such as through small group discussion)
will continue to be unsuccessful. Students will continue to approach even small group
discussion as yet another time to either passively absorb what others have to say or
"act" like the professor or expert by dominating the discourse. And when they limit
discussions to these two dichotomous options, they will signal their successful—albeit
The Deliberative Cycle and Some Pedagogical Illustrations
The Deliberative Cycle, as an example of dialogical classroom discourse,
creates an alternate social and political vision in the classroom (see Figure 1). For
example, what is immediately striking about this Cycle is the fact that everyone
directly involved in its reasoning processes -- students as well as teachers -contributes to and helps shape the discourse right from the start. This Cycle is
premised on the democratic notion that when people, including college students, are
able to meet face-to-face to explore issues of mutual concern, and when they are
routinely presented with a range of positions on these issues, they are more likely to
form respective positions they not only understand but feel more accountable for.
And they are more likely to understand and respect the differing positions of others.
My inquiry into deliberative classroom discourse began in the early 1980s as a
middle and high school social studies/history and language arts teacher. Since then,
the components of the Deliberative Cycle, as I call it, have continued to evolve and
be tested on an informal basis on a multiplicity of teaching levels and in a variety of
educational contexts, including courses I and others taught as part of a teacher
education/ certification program rooted in Freiriean philosophy and general liberal
arts university curriculum, such as Creating and Managing Classroom Environments,
Small Group Communications, Philosophy of Education, Methods of Teaching Social
Studies, Adolescent Development, as well as supervision of K-12 teaching assistants
and student teachers.
The components of this Cycle were further developed and expanded upon
through my work as director of educational programs and co-producer of media
materials for a non-profit global education organization. The workshops I developed
and facilitated, and the curriculum materials (including videos) I helped produce,
were intended to encourage serious and collective discussion on pressing social and
environmental issues -- in short, to promote deliberation. Participants in test groups
ranged in age from the fourth grade through undergraduate and graduate level
students, middle and high school teachers (as part of their professional
development), as well as members of public and private youth and adult community
Although this cumulative evidence is obviously anecdotal, more than twenty
years of experience as an educator helped me refine the Deliberative Cycle. I was
delighted to read about the deliberative poll developed and conducted by James S.
Fishkin. The Deliberative Cycle shares many of the same characteristics with this
poll, but I must point out that I had been developing and implementing all the
aspects of this Cycle long before I first read Fishkin's 1995 book, The Voice of the
People: Public Opinion and Democracy. Participation in the various components of
this Cycle also reflects John Dewey's conception of democracy as a means of
collective problem-solving and Paulo Freire's view of learning as a dialogical process.
Lastly, John Gastil's research on small group democracy in the workplace
confirmed that my understanding and experience with small group democracy in the
college classroom were useful to the development of democratic theory in general,
and worthy of presentation and further exploration. 2 In Democracy in Small
Groups: Participation, Decision-Making and Communication, Gastil (24) defines
deliberation as "discussion that involves judicious argument, critical listening, and
earnest decision making." It has been my professional experience that this kind of
discussion must be learned and practiced, and like Fishkin's deliberative poll, it is the
aim of the Deliberative Cycle to promote it; students must be given regular
opportunities to learn to seriously weigh competing positions for themselves through
thoughtful discussion with peers.
Because its basis is dialogical, the Deliberative Cycle is a social model of
education, one that aims to create a particular type of classroom community: a
deliberative one. It does more than present a set of strategies; it provides a
"framework for creating and organizing" (Short and Burke, 47) a more shared
classroom experience. This Cycle is intended to make it possible for teachers and
students, as members of a classroom community to:
1. Collaboratively generate an agenda for collective inquiry in which a full range of
positions is respectfully and seriously examined, and therefore;
2. Thoughtfully formulate and understand the implications of their respective
Components and Illustrations
There are five components to the Deliberative Cycle; these can be entered or
exited from any point. I will provide a brief description of each of these
components; explain how its dialogical premises promote deliberation in the
classroom and how I have applied it in my undergraduate teacher education course
on classroom management. I have selected examples on the topic of character
education it is a timely and contentious subject in the fields of teacher education and
educational policy (Lickona; Kohn). Character education elicits a wide range of views
In his ethnographic study of a food co-op, Gastil conceptualizes
democracy and democratic citizenship mainly in terms of a decision-making process.
He examines how members of a food co-op use democratic decision-making
processes in order to run and manage a business. He explains that (17-18):
... everyone in the small democratic group must have some
form of influence or control, and all members must ultimately lave
equal power with regard to group policies. Some members may be
more influential than others, and they may make decisions by
themselves or in committees. But final group authority must be
divided evenly among group members, through a procedure like
consensus or majority rule.
While he does, from time to time, mention the classroom, Gastil’s discussion
is largely focused on the way a group of adults working for a common purpose (such
as a business) can govern itself more democratically. The reality is, that the legal
and professional obligations of the teacher, as an educator and in some college cases
as the only adult, necessitate that she have more authority and responsibility in the
classroom. Teachers and students will never be "equal," and my Deliberative Cycle
does not attempt to equalize them. It does, however, give them a way of sharing
authority responsibly and more usefully.
Short and Burke use the term, "components," to refer to the seven
elements of their Authoring Cycle. Components, unlike stages or phases, can be
entered or exited from any point in a learning process. For this reason, I use the
term "components" to refer to the five parts of my Deliberative Cycle.
as to the nature and causes of human behavior and motivation, for instance. Note
how immediately and consistently students are invited to articulate their respective
viewpoints and the basis for these, while at the same time examine a range of
positions that are different from or at odds their own.
The five components of this Cycle, and the questions each asks students to
consider, are:
A. Self inventory. What do I presently think and believe?
B. Group inventory. What do others in this group think and believe? And where are
we in relation to one another?
C. Agenda formulation. What will the focus of our inquiry be? What are our current
D. Expansion, exploration, and finding evidence. What does a range of those more
familiar with the topic or with a vested interest in it have to say?
E. Synthesis, reflection and evaluation. What do I/we think and believe now? And
what new lines of inquiry have we generated?
Self inventory: What do I presently think and believe? The point of this component
is for students to articulate their current understandings and beliefs as these relate
to a given topic or issue. When they respond individually to key issues and
established positions surrounding a topic or issue, students become more conscious
of what it is they personally know and believe about it. Self inventory is thus
intended to (1) make students both more aware of their respective positions, and the
implications of these positions, and (2) to acquaint them with alternate and
competing possibilities.
Dialogical premises that support deliberation: Since dialogical discourse
begins with what participants already know and believe, it is important for students,
as members of a group, to articulate their current understandings and beliefs as
these relate to a specific topic. They need to know what it is they are bringing to the
group and how their current knowledge reflects their specific interests and
circumstances. As Gastil (29) explains:
Articulation involves expressing one's perspective with regard to an
issue on the agenda, without clear persuasive purpose and before a
decision has been reached on the issue. When articulating, speakers
are presenting their opinions, interest, and ideas. In general,
articulation serves democracy by bringing forward the minority and
majority views of the group and filling the well of ideas from which the
demos draws. However, articulation can amount to more than the
expression of one's opinion. Mansbridge explains that democratic
deliberation includes a form of articulation analogous to 'thinking out
loud.' This articulation presents a speaker's point of view, but it can
also plays vital role in the formation of a viewpoint.
Articulation, as Gastil describes it, is at the heart of this first component of the
Deliberative Cycle. However it is not a practice that is typically valued in the
classroom, since it involves the identification of views and opinions that are not
usually informed by formal research or study. From a dialogical point of view, if
students are to reason aloud or deliberate with one another on a given topic or issue,
they must become aware of and state their basic presumptions about it.
In the case of character education, I often begin by asking each student to
respond to a set of written statements that reflect various stakeholder views (i.e.,
administrators, teachers, parents, members of the business community and general
public) on the topic and introduce them to some of its issues (i.e., nature of human
motivation and character, parent responsibilities and expectations versus those of
the school, absence of correlative research) and key terms (like “core values”). Using
the sample self-inventory form I have included in the appendix, students check those
statements with which they agree and write a new statement of their own at the
bottom of this form. This kind of initial reflective process introduces students to key
issues and stakeholder positions on the topic of character education and helps
students articulate their own views and beliefs (by giving them language to express
these, for instance).
B. Group inventory: What do others in this group presently think and believe?
And where are we in relation to one another? The point of this second component is
to build or re-build a sense of community in the classroom, by publicly
acknowledging the various and differing positions existing within it. In group
inventory, students present their current beliefs and positions to one another, usually
in small sub-groups since these tend to be easier and safer venues for disclosure
than, say, the group as a whole. Because the emphasis is on what students currently
know or believe, there are no "right" or “wrong" positions; all views are acceptable.
There are no non-working contributions, none to be categorically dismissed or
rejected as inaccurate or nonessential.
Dialogical premises that support deliberation: The point of group inventory is
to bring the range of views that exist in the group out in the open, to allow students
to take conscious note of these and to assess where they personally stand in relation
to them. Students inevitably make social connections with each other, in terms of
how they behave towards, interact with and think about one another. The difference
between monological and dialogical models is that the latter makes these
connections overt and capitalizes on them to promote thoughtful and useful inquiry.
In this way the Deliberative Cycle prepares students for the fact that not everyone in
the group will agree or needs to agree on a particular position or viewpoint. And it
implies that rather than hinder their discourse, a range of views and experiences can
actually help stimulate and deepen it. Thus, from the start of their interactions with
one another, students are more likely to be aware that they do not and likely will not
all think the same way, and that they will need to make sure to include a variety of
viewpoints because of this real possibility. Group inventory allows the teacher, as a
facilitator, to assess the range of positions and experiences in the group and thus
more effectively provide it with the variety of resources it will need to explore the
topic or issue collectively.
Group inventory is one way of communicating to students that intellectual
diversity in the classroom is taken not only as a social given, but valued as a
discursive advantage, since it can compel them to consider a wider range of
possibilities than they would otherwise. Gastil (21) notes that "...appeals to
commonality can disguise real conflicts of interests." Perhaps this is why, in the
context of the Deliberative Cycle, it is not considered useful "to ask whether a group
can always reach understanding: but "whether group members are able to listen and
willing to try to appreciate one another's point of view" (GastiI, 95).
A premise here is that when individuals are made aware of alternate and
differing positions, they are more likely to seek out information from a wider range of
sources, and they are less likely to think in reactionary or predetermined ways. They
are less likely to ask which position is right, and more likely to wonder which are
useful, or which help them better understand a topic and each other. A second
premise of this component is that when dissension is explicitly expected and openly
accepted, students (and teachers) are less inclined to feel the need to create or
demand consensus. This makes it easier for everyone in the classroom to explore a
range of positions more respectfully and comfortably. In the case of my students
examining the topic of character education, I ask them first to share their respective
responses to the initial self inventory statements (see appendix) in the relative
safety of small groups (no larger than four) and then share their group’s two to three
points of agreement and disagreement with the rest of us. I make it a point to
highlight the range of views and beliefs present in the class (especially the points of
disagreement) and usually ask somebody to list these the board.
C. Agenda formulation: What are our questions and how do we currently
answer them? The point of this component is for students to establish an agenda for
discussion. They can use the various views and experiences they have already
articulated in the first two components to generate questions they want to explore
together. The significance of this component is that it helps students take
responsibility for their discourse. Not only are they expected to represent their own
personal needs and interests in determining the agenda of their inquiry, but they are
also expected to try to understand those of others.
Agenda formulation takes place in a variety of formats and groupings, from
pairs to smaller groups and eventually as an entire group. The teacher plays a key
facilitative role in this part of the Cycle, by using her professional knowledge and
experience to help the group strategize and articulate what it wants to talk about
and explore together.
Dialogical premises that support deliberation: It is a basic premise of the
Deliberative Cycle that greater student input allows for greater student responsibility.
Unfamiliarity with a topic does not, therefore, automatically disqualify anyone from
taking part in shaping the agenda of this Cycle. In the case of my own class, I might
ask students to review their points of agreement and disagreement and list reasons
for these. Then I might ask them to turn these reasons into questions that will
constitute the agenda for our subsequent inquiry and discussions. For example,
elementary educators in particular often feel that regularly rewarding students for
good behavior encourages them to continue this good behavior. And many popular
elementary character education programs are premised on this notion of extrinsic
reward and praise (Likona). In contrast, there are those educators who argue that
rewarding students, simply because they do what is expected, unfairly manipulates
or patronizes them. From this perspective, rewards undermine students’ interest in
learning and might even encourage their poor or inappropriate behavior in the long
run (Kohn). Thus, depending on one’s definition of character and understanding of
human motivation, rewards either instill or stifle a child’s desire to learn and behave
in positive ways. And in order to help them generate an agenda on this topic, I have
asked my students to work in small groups to list eight to ten concerns regarding
these differences and these student-generated concerns or questions constitute the
agenda for their subsequent reading, writing and dialogue.
As the teacher, I facilitate. I do not unilaterally direct discussion or force it to
move in predetermined directions. Because I want my students to generate their
own agenda, I help them sort through the range of positions that exist in their group
and I pose strategic questions about these and any they have not yet thought about
or publicly acknowledged. In order to include as many voices and positions as
possible, I engaged them in a process of self inventory that helped them identify
what they personally bring to the discussion (i.e., their religious beliefs, personal
experiences. And I used group inventory to highlight similarities and differences
between them. Now I am helping them use these to formulate the focus of their
inquiry. The first two components were critical to the success of this third
component, since "if the full membership is not involved in setting the agenda, the
concerns of some members will be ignored in any subsequent ...discussion" (Gastil,
It is very important to point out, however, that at no point does the group
have wait until it achieves a consensus in order to move forward. To the contrary,
after they decide an agenda, students are still free to disagree with its contents.
However, because they "participated in the talk and deliberation leading to the
decision," they are committed to move ahead with the discussion (Gastil, 31). While
they often let their disagreement with the focus of a discussion be known, this" does
not change the decision" (Gastil, 30). What it does do is remind others in the class of
alternate or contrary points of view and thus these are kept, "at least informally, on
the agenda" (Gastil, 31). No one, not even the teacher-facilitator, can unilaterally
formulate or obstruct the agenda and no one's view is permanently left out or
neglected. The agenda is constantly revised and re-articulated. For example, if
additional or different stakeholder positions are identified or if someone’s experience
as a teacher assistant (my students are placed in K-12 classrooms when they take
my course) uncovers some new aspect of the topic, these can always be
accommodated and the focus revised. Barber (182) explains why this flexibility is so
Strong democratic talk places its agenda at the center rather than at
the beginning of its politics. It subjects every pressing issue to
continuous examination and possible reformulation. Its agenda is,
before anything else, its agenda. It thus scrutinizes what remains
unspoken, looking into the crevices of silence for signs of an
unarticulated problem, a speechless victim, or a mute protestor....
Agenda-setting is fundamental to establishing in the minds of students that
this is their experience as much as their teacher's (maybe more) and, as such, they
need to take some responsibility for what they will do with it. When they help set the
agenda, students discover firsthand that the success of a discussion depends in large
part on their ability, as co-deliberators, to take the needs and views of all group
members into account. Likewise, if any student wants his views and experiences to
be taken seriously by the group, he must help shape its agenda. He must be willing
to share responsibility. He must be willing to connect the various views and concerns
of peers and help organize and prioritize these in ways that make sense, not just to
him, but everyone else in the group. Perhaps it goes without saying that he would
not learn these important democratic skills if a select few of his peers, or the teacher
alone, were to do this for him.
Fishkin rightly contends: "people have to learn to think, interpret, and
deliberate face-to-face (150). In his deliberative poll, participants "meld into groups
first, identifying their key concerns first, setting the agenda of the questions and
concerns they wish to raise first -- and only then [does it] put them with the
competing experts and competing politicians" (172, insertion mine). What is striking
about this sequence is not that it actually helps citizens, in Fishkin’s words (xx),
“create a public voice worth listening to,” but that it is seldom, if ever, applied to
even the college classroom. College students seldom encounter expert knowledge
after they have established a sense of group identity or community in the classroom,
after they have identified their key concerns and helped set an agenda of inquiry.
The prevalence of the monological model indicates that most students are not
developing voices “worth listening to” (Fishkin, xx). Instead, most are still absorbing
or adopting the agendas of others (namely, teachers and texts).
D. Expansion, exploration and finding evidence: What does a range of those
familiar with the topic or with a vested interest in it have to say? The point of this
component is to invite students (individually, in small groups or as an entire class) to
expand their circle of intellectual cohorts. Students explore and examine important
or extant knowledge in order to alter or further develop and defend their own
positions on the basis of reason and evidence and to better understand those of their
peers. They examine the positions of those more familiar with a given topic or with a
vested interest in it -- not simply to absorb or reject these positions, but to critically
reason with those who hold them. Reflective, exploratory talk characterizes discourse
at all phases in this Cycle, including this one. In this way, students learn to treat
even so-called expert views as they do those of their peers and teacher: as a means
of expanding their inquiry and deepening their personal understandings of a topic.
Dialogical premises that support deliberation: Gastil (29) notes "Cohen insists
that in a deliberative democracy, members of the demos are 'required to state their
reasons' when presenting their views on proposals. [And...] Dahl insists that
arguments should be backed up by systematic research and self-reflection."
However, while monological discourse front-loads its learning process with expert
knowledge, dialogical discourse, vis a vis this Cycle, positions it in the context of
student experience. Evidence is not, therefore disregarded by a dialogical process. To
the contrary, it is very consciously re-sequenced in order to “activate” serious and
thoughtful inquiry (as opposed to the "absorption" model). The Deliberative Cycle,
like Fishkin's deliberative poll, socializes participants to treat expert knowledge as an
important and valuable resource with which to deepen and further their own
deliberations. In Fishkin's words: the activation model, "instead of absorbing its
agenda from the experts, energizes a public voice coming from the citizens so that it
can speak to the elites" (172).
Thus, evidence is not disregarded in dialogical discourse. If students fail to
explore a range of positions and perspectives, this could distort their respective
positions "and result in uninformed deliberation and judgment" (Gastil, 27). It is the
chief responsibility of the teacher, as a facilitator, to make sure they neither reject
valuable or relevant information out of hand, nor leave key areas unexplored. Texts
and other resources can play an especially important role at this point in their
deliberations, since these resources can direct them to those aspects of the agenda
they have yet to consider before they draw any serious conclusions.
However, it is interesting to note that for Fishkin as for me, the question of
how to best promote deliberation comes down to "the seemingly simple issue of
where in the schedule to place the small-group discussions" (171). He describes how
he and his colleagues "struggled with two different models of ... discussions" (171).
First, in the absorption model, participants "spend a great deal of time listening to
competing presentations of relevant factual materials and then they ...process those
materials in small group discussions" (171). And second, in the activation model,
"the small group discussions come first, before participants have any contact with
experts or politicians" (171, emphasis mine). Fishkin and his colleagues opted for the
latter sequence. And although he does not mention dialogical reasoning in his
published writings, in many ways Fishkin's activation sequence parallels certain
components of the Deliberative Cycle. In this Cycle participants also to talk with one
another before exploring the professional and public discourse surrounding a topic or
In the case of my college students studying the topic of character education,
this is the point at which I use videos, invite guest speakers and ask students to read
literature that speaks to their questions and issues from a variety of viewpoints. I
intentionally seek out resources that reflect contending viewpoints or information
that will help keep the topic complicated in the minds of my students. I want my
students to understand that, if they are to be prepared for and effective with their
own students some day, they need to be open to exploring and discussing as full a
range as possible.
It is extremely important, if the agenda is truly to remain focused on student
questions and concerns, to introduce these instructional resources after students
have collectively crafted an agenda and developed a sense of group awareness. To
start the process with expert knowledge or the well-crafted argument or compelling
testimony of others outside the group will remove the real need students feel to
continue to ask questions about and explore any topic together. After all, if the
“right” answers already seem to exist and if an expert or someone more familiar with
the topic can argue a case so persuasively, why should they bother with inquiry?
Although I disagree with his capsulization of a wide range of opinions into a
single voice, Fishkin's more basic point is well taken: his deliberative poll process is
not driven by experts. Instead of dictating the terms of the discourse, experts
respond to the agenda as set by his poll participants. Like Fishkin's deliberative poll
process, the Deliberative Cycle helps me get students in the habit of critically
examining expert knowledge, rather than simply deferring to or absorbing it.
E. Synthesis, reflection and evaluation: What do I/we think now, and what
new lines of inquiry have we generated? The aim of this last component is for
students to put the various pieces of the inquiry together for themselves and to draw
"working" conclusions based on what they, as a group, have talked about and
explored together. This is the time to articulate new-found understandings and
identify additional or fresh questions for further inquiry. Students need not agree on
what constitutes a new insight or even what makes it significant. However, as a
result of their collaborative discourse and research, students should feel they have
learned something more about themselves and each other. As a dialogical process,
the Cycle makes it explicit that group members need not and probably will not
always think similarly, and so students and teachers learn to accept the persistence
of alternate viewpoints as a sign of a group's strength and success.
Dialogical premises that support deliberation: Deliberative discussion can help
students develop intellectual autonomy, by for example, helping them formulate
informed, personal positions that do not have to be in agreement with others. The
Deliberative Cycle is never driven by consensus. In fact, participation in this Cycle
shows students how difficult it often is to find a single truth that will fit everyone's
needs or situations. Thus students expect to be able to draw their own conclusions in
this component, to identify their own additional questions. Unlike their counterparts
in monological contexts, they do not expect every question to have an answer. This
Cycle has shown them how to proceed even when all the questions have not been or
cannot be answered.
My students “tie the strings” together on the topic of character education by
revising prior beliefs or perceptions about it, identifying with particular stakeholder
positions and articulating any new insights for their own classroom practice based on
readings and discussion with peers. Sometimes I put students in small groups to
critique a video presentation of a particular model of character education. In this
way, and at this point, students can work in small groups to identify new and/or
persistent points of agreement and disagreement. In addition, I have asked students
to generate and critique one another’s mock interview questions on the topic of
character education and to practice verbally responding to these before including
written statements in their final project.
Over and over again, I have seen how this component develops student
confidence. One reason for this may be because it explicitly teaches them how to
make sense of and evaluate the evidence on an issue for themselves. It also
communicates the persistent acceptability (and unavoidability) of differing and
contending conclusions. In the end, I think it better prepares them for effective
classroom practice as well as dialogue with future colleagues, administrators, parents
and the general public on this and other educational issues.
It is important to point out, however, that I ask my students to reflect on and
evaluate not just the content of their discourse but also its quality. Because this
Cycle is about more than just getting the right information, I am comfortable asking
students to rate and describe their contributions to their small groups and that of
their peers. I have asked students to identify three areas of small and large group
strength and three areas they think it will need to pay more attention to next time.
And I ask them to do the same for their own contributions.
It is also important to note that student discussion can get quite intense
because participants often speak in emotional or personal terms. But Gastil (29)
wisely points out, that persuasive speech is a condition of democratic debate. I
explained in my critique of monological discourse in the first half of this essay why I
am reluctant to characterize democratic discourse as debate, since this implies more
of an oppositional than a collaborative approach to discourse. Nevertheless,
persuasive speech is important, in the sense that participants in the Deliberative
Cycle should be able to share their views and opinions clearly and convincingly or
explain why others should be changed or discarded. The assumption behind
dialogical discourse, as promoted by this Cycle, is that in order to make their
discussion useful and meaningful, students should be talking about what they care
about. They should care enough about the agenda to discuss it with energy and
passion. This does not mean, however, that the most passionate or energetic
speaker "wins.' To the contrary, it means students are always free to talk in ways
that are natural and unaffected.
Still, Gastil points out, and I agree, that: "speaking is only one half of the
deliberative process. Unless group members are listening, there is little point in
talking, because deliberation is not taking place" (31). It is important to understand
"the role of both comprehension and consideration in small group democracy" (31).
Gastil (32) refers to comprehension (e.g., the ability to understand a speaker's
words, ideas and essential message) as a "right" and consideration as a
"responsibility." However, he distinguishes between "active consideration" and
"passive capitulation" (32). This has obvious implications for schooling since most of
the time, when students are silent, this is taken as a sign of their tacit consent or
approval of a speaker's (usually the teacher's) ideas. 4
It goes without saying, but in a dialogical context such as this Cycle, I think
students are better able to develop these group skills and are completely capable of
learning to assess their abilities in this area and determine where they need to focus
or improve. As the collective skill and trust level of the group increases, students
experience this kind of self assessment as a natural extension of a learning process
that begins and ends with what they think and believe. For these and other reasons
discussed above dialogical discourse has the potential to more fully develop the
abilities of college students (and others) to remain flexible and thoughtful. Dialogical
discourse moves them out of the traditional echo-like conditions of the classroom
and helps them become "more sophisticated consumers" and generators of
knowledge (Holmstrom, 13).
The Deliberative Cycle helps my students see that their study of character
education was successful to the degree that their discussions were based on open-
However, "The opposite of the invisible participant is the
'conversational narcissist' " (Gastil, 144). Gastil posits that consideration "must be
reciprocal, and it need not result in agreement with the speaker," and he notes "
sometimes respectful consideration can change the mind of the speaker rather than
that of the listener ... careful listening and probing questions can cause speakers to
reconsider their views on issues " (33). Group members must have equal and
adequate opportunities to speak and be able and willing to listen (6). He notes that
" is the presence of absence of opportunities - not the silence that is at issue.
Inevitably some members will speak more than others, and the members of small
democratic groups have a right to remain silent" (25). However, the opportunities to
speak must be explicit and all members must recognize their existence (25).
However, if these opportunities are "to be meaningful, members must also have at
least minimal communication skills" (25).
ended and participatory dialogue and that those with differing views felt welcome to
express these view, and also if participants shared responsibility for carrying the
discussion forward -- that is, if they jointly developed ideas and explored them as a
group, without expecting or needing everyone in the group to agree or reach the
same conclusions. Hopefully, their experiences in my classroom will encourage them
to create a more democratic social and political vision in their own some day. By way
of contrast, monological discourse is considered successful if there has been an
efficient transmission of predetermined facts or sanctioned beliefs from the
designated knowers/ teacher-experts to novice/ coming-to-know students. Because
it is treats knowledge as a fixed fact, monological discourse confidently expects
everyone coming away from a learning experience to reach the same conclusions,
and this as a result of their having listened to experts report these to them.
If students are to become more than a mere echo, their teachers will need to
create the conditions in which they can better develop their own informed, thoughtful
voices. Key (2) did not have classroom discourse in mind when he wrote "The output
of an echo chamber bears an inevitable and invariable relation to the input,"
however, his description of mid-twentieth century political discourse in the United
States aptly describes how students' speech is still, generally speaking, expected to
reflect and reinforce the views of teachers and texts, rather than their own
respective positions. And the problem, as far as democracy is concerned, is that if
students, as citizens, explore little of the world directly for themselves -- that is, if
they simply echo the opinions of others -- their own views, like those held by the
denizens of Plato's cave, will not likely be worthy of serious consideration. The cavelike conditions of most classrooms mean students are probably leaving school less
willing and prepared "to think through the issues or discuss them with other citizens"
and more likely to defer to what experts and political elites have to say (Fishkin, 21).
The Deliberative Cycle engages students in face-to-face democracy. It
creates the conditions in which they can talk over issues with others, and in the
process, form a group or collective identity. The purpose of talk in this Cycle is not
just to better inform students, but enable them to reason aloud with others so that
they can better understand what they personally know and believe about the world,
and explore the thoughts and experiences of others. The kind of purposeful,
unscripted, collaborative talk that characterizes this Cycle allows them to bring their
own unique expectations, interests and needs to the learning process.
These pedagogical aspects are not new in principle, of course. Over sixty
years ago, John Dewey observed " all human experience is ultimately social: it
involves contact and communication" (1938, 38). Rather than lead students to
believe they can reason it all out in their own heads, so to speak, the Deliberative
Cycle develops their social skills and dispositions by shifting the focus from the
defense of these ideas to their development with others. If democracy is to be more
fully implemented in the classroom, the classroom itself must be regarded as a
democratic site. This means going against the grain of guardianship's view of it a
place in which the young or the novice, like the dwellers of Plato's cave, must be told
what to think and how to act. In order to accomplish such a democratic shift we can
start by imagining what would happen if knowledge were no longer regarded as
personal or objectively true, but as subjective and something everyone in the
classroom creates together. We can admit that no one, not even the youngest or
least knowledgeable, comes empty-handed (or headed). In short, we could begin to
treat learning more like the social, shared experience it is.
Contrary to whatever doubts and fears proponents of monological discourse
may have as to the wisdom or necessity of teachers sharing epistemological
responsibility with students, it is they and not dialogical educators, who are
irresponsible and naive. Rather than rely on some future magical moment for
students to acquire enough knowledge and maturity before allowing them to reason
seriously and collaboratively with others (presumably before they enter a voting
booth), dialogical educators pro-actively create the discursive conditions that make it
possible for students to learn about and practice this vital democratic ability in the
Unfortunately, the continued dominance of monological discourse in the
college classroom suggests that these possibilities still go largely untapped. This
neglect is rather curious, especially when rhetoric related to civic education typically
claims that the voices of the people are central to democracy (e.g., the Center for
Civic Education and the Council for the Advancement of Citizenship). The
Deliberative Cycle is rooted in a view of experience as innately social and this is why
thinking or reasoning in it does not occur in isolation, but always in relation to and
with others. Rather than shelve deliberative discourse until students reach a certain
age or meet a set of prescribed criteria, dialogical reasoning uses it to restructure
the learning process and classroom experience.
Dewey observed that when individuals are able to participate directly and
deliberately in an experience, they are more likely to gain a deeper, more complex
understanding of both it and themselves. The Deliberative Cycle reflects his view,
that democracy must be experienced in order to be understood. Its instructional
strategies enable both teachers and students to participate in and share ownership
for the quality and dynamics of the learning process. Teachers need to create similar
conditions in which students can seriously and thoughtfully participate in the
discourse. When schools in a democratic society develop the skills associated with
citizenship, the young people in them will learn how to engage in collective and
serious deliberation. When this is the case, they will take increasing responsibility
for, among other things, the nature and quality of classroom discourse. However,
most students will not learn or practice this important social skill if teacher-centered
discourse remains the norm.
Educators at all levels in this democratic society must rethink our tendency to
inculcate an uncritical reverence for and singular focus on expert knowledge. The
deliberative poll, wherein sample groups of citizens engage in face-to-face
democracy in order to discuss serious issues is Fishkin's contribution to democratic
reform. Reform in schools and universities must also center on providing students
with the same kind of deliberative experience that Fishkin's poll offers citizens. After
all, as citizens, students should learn to seriously examine a range of positions for
themselves and to form their own views on issues of concern to them. Their time in
the classroom should not socialize them to rely upon the mediated views and beliefs
of others -- no matter how authoritative or expert these others may be. Even the
novice has the right to develop the intellectual and social skills that will make her a
more effective self-governing member of an increasingly diverse society.
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Noddings, Nel. 2000. “Are Contemporary Constructivists Deweyan Progressivists? A
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