(9.) Cooperative Discussions: Learning to Reason Together

(9.) Cooperative Discussions: Learning to Reason Together

(9.) Cooperative Discussions: Learning To Reason Together

Human discourse, both public and private, is at an all-time low. Has civilized discussion ever reached a lower ebb than right now? Disagreement is somehow seen as unacceptable, and the virtue of discussing conflicting ideas to reach the truth is now viewed with so much suspicion as to render that discussion impossible. So many discussions with opposing views now quickly degenerate into a shouting match in which both sides view the other with disdain and self-righteous judgment. This inability to debate differences of opinion is a failure of education in America. The classroom, from kindergarten through college, is the perfect place to learn how to discuss differences and controversies. Adults and young people alike have seemingly not learned how to resolve verbal conflicts, to respect differences, to disagree with dignity. They have not been taught how to cooperate when in conflict, and we are now reaping the consequences.

One of Judaism’s transforming strengths is that it nurtures people who welcome argument and debate. Jews do not curtail or limit disagreement, because they see conflict as a primary way to arrive at the truth. In fact, rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Torah commentary on the book of Numbers, refers to “the rabbinic ethic of the pursuit of knowledge as an extended argument between differing views within a fellowship of learning.” Is there a better description of what can happen in a classroom when students are taught to learn cooperatively? Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that “understanding comes from the willingness to be challenged.” These are words our whole culture needs to hear. Now.

Another key contribution of Judaism to cooperative discussions is its ethic of love and truth being the bottom line. Rabbi Sacks quotes from a rabbinic source… “Even a teacher and disciple, even a father and son, when they sit to study Torah together become enemies to one another. But they do not move from there until they have become beloved to one another. Therefore, there is love at the end.” Their habit of mind regarding Torah study can be applied to any type of study and discussion. Students can be taught this ethic in the classroom, to show ultimate respect to those with whom one disagrees, even to the point of love for the opponent. Speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian mindset, and certainly can be a central force in the Christ-centered school. This can be done, but students need to learn how to respect differences from kindergarten forward, and could even continue that training through all the grades till it becomes second nature. Perhaps then students can see disagreement not just as conflict, but as “collaborative activity in pursuit of honesty and truth.” (Rabbi Sacks).

Engaging in Cooperative Discussions (CD) in the classroom is vital to a first-rate education. The following are some guidelines for students when learning how to reason together in the classroom, with the teacher being the discussion leader:        “Come, let us    

Respect the thinking of your classmates;

Equally share the stage so all can participate;

Actively listen with an open mind without interrupting;

Support your own views and opinions;

Offer your comments with humility;

Never let your classmates do your thinking for you.

Together.”  (Isaiah 1:8)

What a CD Leader Does:

  1. Ask a series of questions that give direction to the discussion;
  2. Assure that the questions are understood or rephrased until they are;
  3. Raise issues that lead to further questions;
  4. Ask questions which allow for a reasonable range of answers;
  5. Allow for discussion of conflict or differences;
  6. Examine answers and draw out implications or reasons;
  7. Insist that answers/responses are clear or rephrased until they are;
  8. Request that reasons be given for answers/responses;
  9. Not entertain answers for argument’s sake alone;
  10. Be open to questions and issues raised by answers;
  11. Not insist upon common agreement to one answer/response;
  12. Present all sides of an argument;
  13. Be an active listener.

Opening Questions: Opening questions are stimuli for cooperative discussions in the classroom. All other questions will generally follow from discussing the opening questions. Teachers to not go into the CD with a list of questions, but rather use the responses of students to formulate the follow-up questions.

A Good Opening Question:

  1. Arises from a genuine concern of the leader/teacher;
  2. Invites several responses, with no single or “correct” answer;
  3. Is meant to generate discussion leading to greater understanding of the ideas in the text;
  4. Is derived from and well-supported in the text;
  5. Requires understandings apart from the text to be used in the search for answers;
  6. Tends to be provocative/imaginative/humorous.

Checklist for Opening Questions:

  1. Does it avoid a YES/NO response?
  2. Does it take you immediately to the text?
  3. Have you decided the “answer”? If so, don’t use it. The question must honestly engage the leader.
  4. Is it accessible to the participants (direct, clear, stated simply, age-appropriate)?
  5. Is there sufficient evidence in the text to support both or all sides of the question?
  6. Will it stimulate discussion?
  7. Does it lead to other questions? Deeper ideas? Deeper understanding?
  8. Does it interest you, the teacher/leader? Don’t ask a question that isn’t inspiring to the leader personally.
  9. Does it relate to a larger/idea/life question/core question?
  10. Does it allow for flexibility: Is it open-ended, appealing to different personalities, genders, ages?

Techniques for Expanding Discussion:

…  Why do you say that?

…  What do you mean by that word you used?

…  What does that word mean here in the text?

…  How do you support that from the text? (Have them defend their position).

…  Is that what the author meant? Might this word fit better? Why or why not? (If you sense they are wrong          in the use of a word).

…  I don’t quite follow you. Why? In other words…  (If they are rambling, slow them down).

…  What is confusing here… a specific word? An idea?

…  What do you think about…? Do you agree with that? Why/why not? (Involve quiet students).

…  What is the reason this answer is unclear or muddled? (Repeat the same point in different words; Use the        basic idea in a question to invite responses).

[Much of the material above regarding the Duties of a CD leader and Opening Questions are taken from programs that specialize in cooperative discussions, such as Great Books, Touchstones and Paideia].


2 Replies to “(9.) Cooperative Discussions: Learning to Reason Together”

  1. I love the R.E.A.S.O.N acrynom. I might have to make that a poster for my classroom! My students engage in what I like to call “civilized discussions” throughout the school year – R.E.A.S.O.N is a great way to sum the expectations up!

  2. I love the quotes from Rabbi Sacks, such timeless and radical wisdom.
    Thanks. Steve, for using your gift of the pen and creative thinking in the form of a blog. Sending it on to many friends!