Dialogue vs. Discussion

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5-MINUTE PD

by  | 02.24.17

5-Minute PD is a series in which educators share some of the revelations that have helped shape their practice – and the stories behind how they arrived at those revelations. This one was written by educator John Meehan, an instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA.

In the summer of 2015, I picked up a copy of David Bohm’s On Dialogue at the suggestion of a teacher friend. As I saw it, at the worst I was in for a slim, quick book that – if nothing else – gave me an excuse to fall asleep on a flight from Kansas City to DC. Failing that, at least I could brag to my students that I’d spent my summer reading something by an honest-to-goodness quantum physicist.

But on the first page, Bohm changed everything I’d thought about education.

As he explains: Too often we confuse “dialogue” and “discussion” – and there’s a critical difference between the two. Unlike a discussion – which shares the same root word as “concussion” (to shake together) and “percussion” (to strike forcibly) – where the goal is literally to break something apart, an authentic “dialogue” is simply the free exchange of ideas, with no agenda other than to deepen one’s own understanding through words. In fact, that’s exactly what the word “dialogue” literally means: It comes to us from the Greek “logos,” meaning “words,” and “dia,” meaning not “two,” but through.

Discussions are about winners and losers, hearing arguments for and against, breaking things down into small bits before ultimately pronouncing almighty judgment of right and wrong. But in a dialogue, there are no teams. We’re playing together, so everybody wins if anybody wins.

This sent my educator brain reeling: How much of traditional education is spent in discussion, where teachers hammer through rote talking points, systematically breaking down a text, smashing apart symbols and characters and themes until our bleary-eyed students come around to what we believe are obvious and self-evident conclusions that neatly align with our own? “Boo Radley is a mockingbird because …” “Gatsby’s green light represents …” “Macbeth’s tragic flaw is …” Clear your desks. Write in complete sentences. Eyes on your own paper. Ten points for each right answer. No, you may not use Google.

So it goes.

But how much time do we devote to cultivating authentic dialogue? As in, give-and-takes with no right or wrong answers, where the teacher is just as surprised by the conversation as the students are, and the only goal is to deepen a shared understanding of the subject? Or, to use some snazzy educational jargon: classes where teachers are no longer “the sage on the stage, but a guide on the side?” What if educators started asking our students questions to which we didn’t necessarily even have a clear answer in mind?

“How do you think Huck Finn would react to Black Lives Matter?”

“If Disney’s Epcot built a Scotland-inspired Macbeth pavilion, what would it look like?”

“What apps might Willy Loman have on his iPhone?”

Use your notes? You bet. Text a friend? Why not. Suddenly, we’re learning together. It’s safe to make mistakes. There’s genuine curiosity. There’s real learning. And there’s joy.

As teachers, we’re used to being the founts of knowledge. But we have to learn how to be comfortable asking questions that are not easily answered – things that are easily answered are easily forgotten.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Laura, a high school music teacher and fellow graduate of The Catholic University of America, and a giant-sized Maine Coon cat named Jack.

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