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Christensen, C. R., D. A. Garvin, and A. Sweet. (Eds.) 1991. Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Harvard Business School Press.

Summaries by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

Education Issues Main Page | Case Study Main Page

Lecturing is the easy and most enjoyable way to teach (for the teacher), the know-all, tell-all approach. Leading a discussion class is much more difficult, but much more beneficial to the students when it works. The trick is to figure out how to get it to work. I am not saying I ever figured it out, but this book was very helpful in my attempts to do so, and I recommend it to those who want to try.

The essays in this book and summaries of these essays can be helpful in several ways. First I believe they show that every teacher should be using some form of active learning in their classes, perhaps mixed with lectures in some cases, but some active learning should be part of every course. The second benefit of examining this material is to find out how other faculty have solved problems related to active learning, and there are many, e.g., how to negotiate a teacher-student contract, how to lead a discussion without stalling it, how to create a safe environment for students, how to promote creative thinking, how to get students to talk to each other, and how to grade participation. A third benefit can be derived from assigning some of this material as reading assignments for students at the beginning of the semester. Then it becomes a marketing tool to support the professor's attempts to convert their teaching style to a more student-centered approach. Teachers need to sell student-centered learning to some students, particularly those who view active learning as a way for the professor to make the students do the teacher’s job. Of course, if you do it right, everybody teaches, and everybody learns.

Foreword by Elmore, R. F.  pp. ix-xix

Teaching is a neglected subject for serious intellectual discourse in universities for a variety of reasons. Teachers construct defenses to protect themselves from the messy, indeterminate, inscrutable, intimidating, and uncertain task of teaching. Some examples include: The view that professors are hired to profess, and students really want to hear what the professor knows. At the higher level of education, students should be motivated by the mastery of the subject matter, so their learning should not depend on teaching. Other defenses are that teaching is a gift and we do not need to analyze and understand how it is done, or that teaching is a matter of taste and style and meddling in the classroom of a professor is to be avoided. Although one is expected to know how to teach as a condition of employment in a university, learning how to teach is seldom part of the progression into the academic world.

This book includes 17 essays that provide guidance for new teachers and many useful perspectives for experienced teachers. The essays are about how individual faculty have solved problems related to classroom practice, how to think about the task of teaching, how to organize subject matter and get a discussion started, how to guide the discussion without stalling it, and how to close and create a sense of accomplishment. The perspective of this book is that teaching is an activity designed to get students to take charge of their learning, and to make informed judgments about the subject matter and the world.

Preface by Garvin, D. A. pp. xxi-xxiv

This book is about the practice of teaching, by practitioners, for practitioners. The authors believe that discussion methods provide a more effective way to stimulate student learning and the development of critical thinking skills than other methods that do not include active learning. Part I includes two essays that introduce the principles and premises of discussion teaching. Part II provides four essays that describe each author's personal odyssey into discussion teaching. Part III is about the building blocks of discussion teaching including the development of group norms, an effective learning environment, and the necessary instructional skills related to questioning, listening, and response. Part IV considers the challenges of discussion teaching such as evaluating student participation, teaching technical material, learning from classroom observation, and how to encourage independent thinking. Part V explores more philosophical questions such as "Can the instructor know too much to be effective?"

Acknowledgments pp. xxv

Part I: Learning and Teaching

Chapter 1: Garvin, D. A. - Barriers and Gateways to Learning p. 3

There have been two models of education for many decades: The traditional teacher-centered model and the student-centered active learning model. The traditional model is based on the idea of telling, where the goal is to transfer knowledge from the teacher (expert) to the students (novices). Question and answer sessions are limited and there is little, if any interaction between students.

There have been three types of objections to this dominant traditional model:

Cognitive objections: The assumption that students can assimilate and retain information independent of its use is not supported by the evidence. Studies have indicated that much of what students presumably learn from lectures is loss within a few months.

Philosophic objections: An underlying assumption of the traditional model is that the primary goal of education is information transfer. However, the transfer of information does little to help students develop judgment and critical thinking skills.

Pragmatic objections: Many students don't like the traditional approach and feel that class time is more of a chore than a learning experience.

The alternative model goes by many names including active learning, student-centered education, humanistic education, and progressive education. The focus is on the idea that students must be actively involved in the learning process. The underlying core concept changes from teaching to learning. The student's ability to use knowledge, to think creatively, and to continue learning on their own will only be achieved when teachers and students work as partners. Students take more responsibility and the teacher's role is to facilitate and guide their progress. Mastery of content is not enough. New skills are needed related to the classroom climate, group process, and the needs, interest, and backgrounds of students.

Points of Resistance or Barriers to Change

Political and Institutional barriers: Administrators view active learning as expensive requiring small classes. However, active learning is possible in large groups. A second barrier is the university incentive system that elevates research over teaching, i.e., the publish or perish mentality. An additional problem is that learning how to apply active learning methods takes time and involves risks, particularly for untenured faculty.

Epistemological barriers: Students tend to be more familiar with the traditional approach and may dislike the idea of active learning. They may feel that they will not learn as much because the teacher is speaking less. This feeling that less learning will take place is rooted in the underlying assumptions of the models.

Practical barriers: First, it is very difficult to measure and document the success of active learning. Objectives such as creative thinking, life-long learning, and self-direction emerge over time and cannot be easily detected with standardized tests. A second barrier is that the student-centered approach is difficult to apply and requires a shift in the role, preparation, knowledge, and skills of the teacher. In addition, the education system lacks the methods needed for training discussion leaders and there are many misconceptions related to active learning. For example, that active learning is the same as the Socratic method, that discussion sessions are essentially bull sessions, that the discussion approach eliminates the teacher's need to master course content, and that facts cannot be communicated with student-centered discussion.

Cornerstones and Building Blocks

The move to successful discussion teaching requires three shifts:

1. A shift in teaching style from the autocratic classroom to a more democratic environment where students share in decision making. A shift from telling to facilitating.

2. A shift from emphasis on the material alone to an equal focus on the classroom process and the learning climate.

3. A shift in instructional skills from declarative explanations to skills related to questioning, listening, responding, and sensitivity to the students' development.

The instructors job becomes much more complex. There must be high levels of empathy and trust to insure a supportive classroom environment. Knowledge of the subject matter must be coupled with social and communication skills that include probing questions, sensitive listening, and encouraging responses that move the class forward in the process of discovery.

Chapter 2: Christensen C. R. - Premises and Practices of Discussion Teaching p. 15

Christensen begins by saying that the process of discussion teaching may appear elusive, mysterious, and complex, but teachers can master the principles and techniques of discussion leadership. However, to do so takes simultaneous attention to process and content that requires both emotional and intellectual engagement.

The discussion teacher has many roles: planner, host, moderator, devil's advocate, fellow student, and judge. Christensen outlines and then discusses four fundamental premises underlying discussion teaching.

1. A discussion class is a partnership between the teacher and the students who share the responsibility of learning together. Teachers and students must modify their traditional roles and responsibilities to share power, accountability, and tasks. The process requires that students become much more actively involved in their own learning. The instructor must promote the partnership, e.g., by asking students to set the agenda for the day's discussion. Where should we begin our discussion of today's case study?

2. The discussion class must evolve into a learning community with shared values and goals. A learning community is where individuals with diverse backgrounds blend and bond into an association dedicated to collective as well as individual learning. What turns a collection of students into a learning community. The instructor must take steps to promote collaboration and comradeship. The basic values include: civility, a willingness to take risks, and an appreciation of diversity in terms of backgrounds, personalities, questions posed, learning styles, and methods of interpretation. The community is strengthened by the teacher-student contract or rules that guide the protocols, rituals, mutual obligations and standards of behavior in a class. Part of the contract is set explicitly by statements, while other parts are set implicitly through behavior using the skills of listening to students comments and responding to build them constructively into the discussion.

3. The discussion leader can help students grasp the course material by forging an alliance with students. This involves learning about the students as individuals, i.e., where they are intellectually and emotionality. Christensen asks students a series of questions to get to know them. What is their  preparation for the course? Which topics in the syllabus are they the most and the least interested in? What are their backgrounds? What are their academic plans for the future? This knowledge of the students helps the discussion leader manage the process of discussion.

4. Discussion teaching requires a dual competency including the ability to manage content and process, the what, the who, and the how. The what (concepts and facts) of teaching is as important as in any form of teaching, but the who (knowledge of students) and the how (managing the flow) become equally important.

In this section Christensen includes seven steps he uses to prepare for a discussion class involving a case study in a business policy course. Evaluate the academic progress of the class. Assess the class as a learning group. Estimate each student's current circumstances. Consider his own feeling about the material. Consider his mood. Think about the mode, pace, and flow of the upcoming class. Work out a rough process plan for the discussion. Think about possible openings and endings for the class.

Part II: Personal Odysseys

Chapter 3: Burke, C. - Tulips, Tinfoil, and Teaching: Journal of a Freshman Teacher p. 37

I found this essay to be entertaining, enlightening, and thought provoking. Perhaps this is because I could identify with most of what the author described from both the student's perspective and the teacher's perspective.

In this essay, Colleen Burke describes her first experiences as a discussion teacher. She begins by comparing discussion leadership in a case study class to her neighbor's painting class. An artist must be able to see, really see what he or she is attempting to paint. Burke attempts to see the tulips in her garden, the colors, shapes, subtleties and rich complexity of the flowers. Could this ability to see more clearly be helpful in a discussion class? How does an art professor teach students to visualize, analyze, measure, interpret and present what they see. To learn more about how painting is taught she enrolled in an introductory painting class. In her first assignment she attempted to paint crumpled tinfoil. No matter how hard she tried, she could not do it and wondered if her feelings of inadequacy were similar to her students' when they attempted to deal with ambiguity in the cases they were assigned to analyze. Although a painting class may seem to have little in common with a case discussion class, it became clear to Burke that everything in the painting course reinforced the student's responsibility for learning. The teacher and students wandered around exchanging insights and the room was filled with learning.

Burke's first semester as a teacher involved three classes all taught using the case discussion format. Two of the classes were  sections of an introductory course for college freshmen that introduced the key functional disciplines of business through cases. The other class was titled Management Theory. She asked the students to fill out name cards (with phonetic pronunciation) and data cards including hometown, work experience, college phone number, expectations for the course, intended major, other courses they were taking during the semester, and other information. She took photos of the students and placed them on the cards. She describes how she taught the two introductory sections in the same way, and one worked and one didn't. The sections seemed to have very different personalities. The morning class appeared to enjoy the discussion formant. The afternoon class found it scary and intimidating. She discovered that the discussion format is risky for teachers as well as students. She resolved some of the issues with the afternoon class by getting to know the students better.

Grading the students' case analyses presented another problem. She asked the students not to sign their papers and instead assigned them an identifying number. Then all the papers were placed on reserve in the library so that every student could learn from what the other students had written and see how their work compared with the group. Grading class participation remained a puzzle.

Burke discusses how she used office hours as an opportunity to focus on individual students. Getting to know the students helped resolve the issues related to the process and classroom environment. She also includes a short section on searching for a teaching style. She was open and involved with her students. They came to her home. She shared an awareness of and tolerance for ambiguity. She weaved references to art, literature, and philosophy into the courses she taught. She even brought in ideas gathered from her young son.

You might be wondering how Colleen Burke could begin her academic career by teaching case study courses. She had the advantage of an undergraduate degree from Vassar where active learning was emphasized. She "remembered college as an  experience of being touched, changed, and educated through involvement." Even with that background, she discovered that her education had taught her how to do things, but not how to delegate authority to others. But discussion teaching is transferring power, or delegating the responsibility to learn. Learning to delegate requires lots of trust. It is the teacher-student contract. To be effective as a discussion leader, you must share power.

Chapter 4: Mead, M. - Great Beginnings p. 69

This short essay is about Melissa Mead's introduction to case teaching, her excitement, fear, mastery, and humility. She refers to her journey into case teaching as developing a skill and learning a craft. Learning how to deal with what to teach (content), how to teach (process and style), how to plan (preparation), and how to realize those plans (control). She includes considerable detail about what she worried about, e.g., what to wear, where to stand, what sort of facial expression she should have, how to begin, how to end, and how to develop a style and a portfolio of teaching tools. Finally, she adds what she might have done differently: Spend more time developing reasonable expectations, share more responsibility with students, ask for help from colleagues, commit to good health, and strive to listen to colleagues, to students outside the limits of the cases, and to herself.

Chapter 5: Goodenough, D. A. - Changing Ground: A Medical School Lecturer Turns to Discussion Teaching p. 83

Chapter 6: Christensen, C. R. - Every Student Teaches and Every Teacher Learns: The Reciprocal Gift of Discussion Teaching p. 99

Part III: Building Blocks

Chapter 7: Hansen, A. J. - Establishing a Teaching/Learning Contract p . 123

Chapter 8: With Open Ears: Listening and the Art of Discussion Leading p. 137

Chapter 9: Christensen, C. R. - The Discussion Teacher in Action: Questioning, Listening, and Response p. 153

Part IV: Critical Challenges

Chapter 10: Hertenstein, J. H. - Patterns of Participation p. 175

Chapter 11: Grennwald, B. - Teaching Technical  Material p. 193

Chapter 12: Austin, J., A. Sweet and C. Overholt - "To See Ourselves as Others See Us": The Rewards of Classroom Observation p. 215

Chapter 13: Nash, L. - Discovering the Semesterp. 231

Chapter 14: Wilkinson, J. and H. Dubrow - Encouraging Independent Thinking p. 249

Part V: Education for Judgment

Chapter 15: Hildebidle, J. - Having It by Heart: Some Reflections on Knowing Too Much p. 265

Chapter 16: Garvin, J. - Undue Influence: Confessions from an Uneasy Discussion Leader p. 275

Chapter 17: A Delicate Balance: Ethical Dilemmas and the Discussion Process p. 287