The class had broken up into their discussion groups as usual. But what wasn’t usual was the vigor of the discussion from one group. In fact, it was vigorous enough that other groups were wondering what was going on. The instructor decided to take a closer look. What she found was that one of the students was challenging his classmates on their comments. When Ben’s classmates made a comment, he asked follow-up questions. He wasn’t doing this to put them down but to have them further explore their own thoughts. Other classmates got into the spirit of the discussion, many doing the same thing that Ben was doing. The instructor had never seen such an effective group discussion.
After class, she called Ben aside to compliment him on his role in the discussion. She would never forget his response:
I’m a chemistry major, and we are studying the role of catalysts in stimulating reactions. What I tried to do today was to be a catalyst. My classmates are afraid of challenging each other’s thoughts because they are too nice. I wanted to show them that you could challenge ideas and be respectful. I’m glad it worked.
From that moment on, the instructor included material on the role of being a discussion catalyst in her course materials.
Students are often too deferential to each other in class discussions. They don’t want to challenge each other because they are afraid of being rude. As a result, the discussions are too often just a series of one-off comments with no theme or direction.
In other cases, students view classroom discussions as just a waste of time. They go through the motions of offering comments, but there is no real engagement with what they are saying.
Discussion catalysts can stimulate more impactful discussions by challenging classmates to explore their ideas more deeply. Catalysts work best when they frame their comments as follow-up questions, not as declaratory statements. They need to reinforce productive responses. They also need to approach their role seriously, not just play at being a contrarian. The other students in the group need to see the catalyst as being serious and not just play acting.
Discussion catalysts are surprisingly rare in discussions, no matter if they are in a classroom or in a boardroom. Being an effective discussion catalyst can be a vital skill for any career. Why might there be so few discussion catalysts? What if the discussion facilitator took on the role of a discussion catalyst? For this to work, the facilitator would need to avoid the impression of steering toward a “fixed” discussion outcome. What possible strategies can you imagine for making the discussion catalyst a positive influence on the discussion rather than a negative influence?
This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.