Democratizing Classroom Discussion

Democratizing Classroom Discussion

Stephen Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, USA)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4249-2.ch010
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This chapter analyzes the way Jurgen Habermas, the German critical theorist, connects the development of democracy to the educational use of discussion. It proposes an understanding of democracy that regards it as an ever widening, inclusive conversation, in which teachers (as well as students) exercise their power as educators. The authors explore three specific dialogic methods that can be used to democratize classrooms along the lines suggested by Habermas: the circle of voices, circular response, and chalk talk techniques. Each of these is designed to create an inclusive conversation where no one voice dominates, to hold back the reaching of a premature consensus, and to integrate the widest possible number of perspectives.
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Adult and higher education has firmly embraced the democratic ideal. To describe an act of practice as democratic is to confer on it the educational ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval. Of all the ideas espoused as representing an authentic American educational tradition, the idea that its practitioners should work to make their practice, and the world, increasingly democratic is the most powerful. The words ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ are often used to justify and defend whatever practice adult educators subscribe to, serving as a kind of scriptural signaling. They are invoked to signify the progressive credentials of the speaker. This is what in philosophy is called a premature ultimate; a term that, once invoked, has the effect of stopping any further serious discussion of its exact meaning. Describe one’s practice as democratic and there is a chorus of agreement, a massed nodding of heads. If we answer a question about our practice by replying that we did something because it was democratic, then the conversation often comes to a full stop. The word is so uncritically revered in adult education that it has become almost immune to critical scrutiny.

Yet the idea of democracy is malleable and slippery, with as many particular definitions and interpretations as it has utterers. It can be invoked so frequently and ritualistically that it becomes evacuated of any significant meaning. Only by trying to live out the democratic process do the contradictions of this idea become manifest. As a way of beginning this chapter, then, I need to address what I mean by democracy.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cihalk Talk: A protocol for democratic discussion developed by Foxfire's Hilton Smith.

Validity Claims: The conditions of speech that ensure good faith communication.

Communicative Action: The striving for mutual understanding and agreement.

Circular Response: A conversation protocol developed by the adult educator Eduard Lindeman.

Ideal Speech Situation: A set of conditions that represent genuinely participatory decision-making.

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