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Practicing What We Teach?

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

How well do we follow the collaborative discussion practices we try to teach to others?

Dr. Gloria Benson taught a course on Discussion Facilitation. Most of the grade in the class was based upon students’ facilitation performance, but she also used a written mid-term and final exam.

For the mid-term exam, Benson gave the students a transcript of a recent online discussion between the administration and the faculty on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. She asked the students to evaluate the quality of the discussion based upon the principles and practices they had learned.

The student exam responses were quite on-target, so she pulled out a number of relevant excerpts to share with colleagues:

  • “There was no obvious facilitator of the discussion. As a result, the discussion was just a series of one-off comments.”
  • “It seemed like the participants were trying to show-off rather than discuss the issues seriously.”
  • “There was too much discussion of the little details and not the real substantial issues.”
  • “There were obvious misstatements that no one made an attempt to correct (like, ‘most students cheat in remote learning classes’).”
  • “I don’t know what was achieved in the discussion other than giving people a chance to emote. What actions will be taken following the discussions?”
  • “I didn’t get a sense that the participants respected the comments of their colleagues or gained anything from them.”
  • “One of the participants was an obvious bully who was dismissive of others. He seemed to be using his position of authority to shut others down. There was no attempt to control his abusive behavior.”

As Benson thought about her students’ observations, she realized that most of the campus discussions she had participated in would have similar traits. These include:

  • Lack of effective facilitation
  • Lack of structure or a discussion plan to foster constructive development of ideas
  • No support for participants to collaboratively develop coherent possibilities by building on the ideas of others
  • Too much focus on superficial topics to the detriment of what’s critical
  • Allowing misstatements to go unchallenged
  • Participants showing off rather than being supportive or constructive
  • Using authority to shut down alternative points of view
  • Lack of respect for diverse points of view

When Benson shared her observations and the student excerpts with a few colleagues, they immediately agreed that they were not practicing the discussion skills they were trying to teach their students. What they realized was that the way meetings were conducted was really a reflection on the culture of the organization. Benson concluded, “The COVID-19 virus is not the only virus that needs a vaccine.”

* * *

“A meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.” – Unknown


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. Share your ideas and responses via Twitter @IFTalks or FaceBook @whatIFdiscussions.