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Extending the Student-Centered Approach to Public Discussions

IF’s approach to classroom discussion is “student-centered” both in the sense that students do the facilitating and in the sense that students shoulder much of the responsibility for shaping the curriculum, as well.  As a result, IF-styled classroom discussions reflect students’ choices to an unusual degree.

How might IF’s current approach to public discussions change if they mirrored this approach?  It’s not a very radical question.  After all, participants in public discussions are presumed to be autonomous persons, capable of self-direction and choice.

The main difference that would result from extending the student-centered approach to public discussions, as I see it, would be that participants in public discussions would have more say over the choice of questions they discussed and the ensuing direction of the discussion.  The “curriculum” or discussion materials would be more interactive, more fluid.  At the extreme end of the spectrum, participants would invent their own possibilities (something a group of university students using the IF approach has shown can work rather well).  There would be, in short, some degree of convergence between IF’s public discussions and its sanctuary discussions, between discussions in which participants explore reactively and those in which participants explore actively.

My own experience is that convergent hybrids tend to work better in public discussions.  It’s better, in other words, not to give participants too much to react to.  Participants rise to the challenge of refining “flawed” or incomplete reports, both for the inherent rewards of doing so and because they are motivated to add something of value to them.  They learn more when the emphasis is less on study than on talk.

I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend “citizen-centered discussion,” however.  There is one big difference between IF’s class room approach and its approach to public discussions that should remain, and that is the presence of a trained facilitator.  Facilitators who know something about the ends and means of exploratory discussion often make the difference between a discussion that’s really useful and one that’s just so-so, a waste of time—or worse.

So while I think IF can get more creative in streamlining its discussion materials, I doubt there will ever be a substitute for an able facilitator, capable of getting participants to go the extra exploratory mile.