Controversial Issues: What
do most people today think of when the term discussion of controversial
issues is used? Many probably think of the kind of exchange that occurs
on such television programs as Crossfire or The McLaughlin Group,
in which participants do not listen to each other, talk over each
other, engage in personal attacks, and rarely add substantively to
anyone’s understanding of the issue.
Others may think of formal debates, whether those seen in the recent
presidential campaign or experienced as part of competitive debate
programs. In debates, the tone may be more civil and the exchanges
more content-rich, but the emphasis is on winning, rather than understanding.
Neither of these visions provides a good model for classroom discussion.
Another view of discussion is common among teachers. Many teachers
believe they are engaging students in discussion when they are actually
asking students questions for which there is an expected “right”
answer. These teacher-centered activities might more accurately be
So what is discussion? Many definitions are possible and examining
a variety of definitions can be a useful exercise (for several definitions,
see Diana Hess, “Discussion in Social Studies: Is It Worth the
Trouble?” Social Education, February 2004, pp. 151-155). However,
we like the simplicity of the following definition based on the writing
of Walter Parker (“The Art of Deliberation,” Educational
Leadership, February 1997, pp. 18-21):
"Discussion is “competent deliberation that
is rooted in knowledge.”
about the three elements of this definition—competence, deliberation,
and knowledge. What are the implications of each of these elements
for teachers who wish to engage their student in discussion? How might
you teach students to distinguish between a conversation that fits
within this definition and one that does not? How might you use video
of classroom discussions or discussions in other settings to help
students understand what discussion is and is not.
Is the Purpose of Discussion?
has as many purposes as definitions. Some are purposes of discussion
per se. Others are pedagogical purposes for classroom use of discussion.
Among the possible purposes of discussion are:
To reach agreement on a resolution to a problem.
• To clarify one’s own and others’ views on
• To gain a deeper understanding of an issue.
• To understand and appreciate multiple perspectives.
• To learn how to take and support a position.
• To learn how to advocate a position.
• To improve listening skills.
Different classroom discussions may have different
purposes, and it is important for students to understand the purpose
of a discussion when they embark on it. Many students will come to
the classroom believing that the purpose of discussion is either to
win or to vent one’s feelings (informed or uninformed). In order
to participate productively in a discussion that is a “competent
deliberation that is rooted in knowledge,” students need to
understand that such discussion has other purposes and achieving them
requires not only a different mindset but also skills, knowledge,