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Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul

reviewed by Maughn Gregory - June 30, 2010

coverTitle: Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul
Author(s): Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300120001, Pages: 240, Year: 2009
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True education is always oral because only the spoken word makes dialogue possible, that is, it makes it possible for the disciple to discover the truth himself amid the interplay of questions and answers and also for the master to adapt his teaching to the needs of the disciple. Pierre Hadot1

Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon’s Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul is an important new addition to the literature on learning by discussion. The book is a case study of two novice fourth-grade teachers Haroutunian-Gordon prepared to engage fourth–graders (one urban classroom and one suburban) in interpretive discussion of stories they read together. The study focuses on the work of interpreting fictional stories, though Haroutunian-Gordon makes a compelling case that interpretive discussion should be employed across academic subjects, in elementary through higher education (p. 178). Her study is also relevant to other practices of dialogical pedagogy, though that determination depends on the meaning of terms like “practice,” “procedure,” “program,” and “pedagogy,” all of which, the book gives us to understand, are problematic. In the preface Haroutunian-Gordon states that this “is a work about pedagogy” (p. x), and indeed, the question of pedagogical method is perhaps the most provocative aspect of the book.

Haroutunian-Gordon characterizes interpretive discussion as a “pedagogical orientation or approach,” as opposed to a “pedagogical method,” and as a “practice,” rather than a “program,”2 signifying that this practice resists formulation and would be undermined by the attempt to routinize it or define it too specifically. The theoretical foundations she lays for the practice, the questions her study pursues, and the findings that result all suggest that prescriptive pedagogical strategies are inimical to interpretive discussion. In fact, what is at stake in this position is not merely the integrity of the discussion practice Haroutunian-Gordon describes, mentors, and advocates so skillfully. Interpretive discussion epitomizes an ideal kind of teaching, referenced in her subtitle from Plato’s Republic: “the art of turning the soul.”  Haroutunian-Gordon’s philosophy of education is also informed by Heidegger, Dewey, Vygotsky, Du Bois, Gadamer, and others, for whom authentic learning is a kind of seeking and discovery, prompted by sincere questioning that is, in turn, prompted by self-realization of one’s ignorance. In order to “turn the soul” toward this kind of seeking and self-understanding, the teacher must not only avoid supplying answers, but must also encourage questioning, scaffold inquiry that is both critical and collaborative, and model her own seeking – an art for which, Haroutunian-Gordon emphatically states, “[t]here is no fixed procedure—no method” (p. 10).  

The ideal of methodless, artful teaching emphasizes creativity, subject expertise, present-moment attention to particular student needs, and above all, a willingness to let students struggle for themselves as much as they are able. It therefore opposes pedagogical strategies that are overly prescriptive, formulaic, or pre-programmed. In the current era of nationalized content and competency standards, lock-step textbooks and educational technology, school reform models with teacher-proof classroom scripts, and pedantic systems of teacher evaluation, Haroutunian-Gordon’s championing of the intelligent, artful teacher is refreshing and instructive. The stakes are high, however, both in terms of teacher professionalism (accountability, punishment and reward) and of student achievement. The more a teacher resists methodological prescription, the more she asks students, parents, administrators, and other stake-holders to trust that she knows what she’s doing. Haroutunian-Gordon meets this challenge by answering research questions about teacher preparation and student achievement. Her study provides evidence about how much students can learn by struggling to figure out what a story means based on their own questioning, thinking, and dialogue with peers – as opposed, e.g., to answering someone else’s questions printed at the end of a story, to be corrected by the teacher – and about how much teachers can learn about a new practice when they are treated as seekers themselves.  

In fact, Haroutunian-Gordon is so insightful and so insistent on the perils of dialogical pedagogy that is too methodical in the sense of being too regimented and narrowly prescriptive that she has little to say about the other connotation of “methodical,” which is to be careful, deliberate, and strategic. In every field of professional practice – consider farming, medicine, law, theater, athletics, educational research as well as classroom teaching – method is only a specification of means and ends, which may fall anywhere on a continuum that runs from a vague sense of what we want to accomplish and how, to a regimen, script or checklist to be followed without deviation. There are good reasons to venture near either end of the continuum for certain purposes, but, generally speaking, both ends are danger zones for professional practice. Toward the free-wheeling end the danger arises of not knowing very well how to accomplish something or even what it is we want to accomplish. (Experimentation is important in all the professions, but only if it has a somewhat definite aim, is methodical enough to result in a better grasp of ends and means, and is not an opportunistic abuse of the subjects’ time, labor, trust, or money.) Toward the prescriptive end of method’s continuum the danger arises that the practitioner will abdicate her expertise, putting so much trust in routine procedures that her own awareness, skill, and concern atrophy, making her incapable of noticing when a routine is and isn’t working – when it needs to be tweaked, reconstructed, or abandoned. Responsible, artful practice lies between these danger zones. It typically involves the application of advanced knowledge and skill to particular, novel cases that call for nuanced judgment. Many professionals in fact use highly-prescriptive procedures, even follow checklists (consider nursing!), but do so in ways that support, organize, and focus, rather than replace their judgment. Good methods properly used strengthen rather than weaken expert practice; and determining which methods are good and how best to use them is one of the most important aspects of professional inquiry.  

Far from obviating the question of method, therefore, Haroutunian-Gordon’s philosophy of education makes it paramount. If we accept that teaching at its best is an art, akin to expert practice in other professions, then we are confronted with the question of how to define and cultivate pedagogical methods that foster and support, rather than preclude the teacher’s expert knowledge, skill, awareness and judgment. Haroutunian-Gordon’s book answers the question of method, with regard to leading interpretive discussion, in three ways. First, it offers a detailed account of the groundwork, structure, and guidelines with which Haroutunian-Gordon prepared the novice teachers to lead a number of sessions of interpretive discussion with fourth graders. Second, it offers Haroutunian-Gordon’s careful examination of pedagogical strategies those teachers came up with in the course of leading those discussions, and of strategies the fourth graders came up with to do the work of interpretation. Third, the theory Haroutunian-Gordon marshals against prescriptive method as well as her description of the teachers’ minimalist pedagogy create a negative space, in which such devices as scripts and checklists are conspicuous by their absence. I will discuss each of these answers in turn.

Haroutunian-Gordon’s opposition to method belies the fact that there are many types and levels of method going on in the practice she documents. To begin with, she provides a clear definition of the practice:  

Interpretive discussion is conversation between people who together seek to understand the meaning of a text. (p. 2)

Interpretive discussion … grows from genuine questions that discussants have when they study the text, questions provoked by the desire to understand it….  [T]he central motive driving interpretive discussions ... is to understand the text as the expression of some idea or ideas that may or may not agree with the discussants' beliefs. (p. 1)

She also provides explicit criteria for a successful episode of interpretive discussion: discussants identify a shared question about the text, they identify possible resolutions to their question and test them against evidence in the text, and they persist until they reach a conclusion that both resolves their question and squares with the textual evidence (pp. 89-90). Such a clear statement of normative, procedural goals for the practice is an important exception to Haroutunian-Gordon’s resistance to procedure.  

The normative aspect of the practice is reinforced by the complex and ambitious set of educational aims Haroutunian-Gordon sets for it, including the development of numerous cognitive and social skills and dispositions. Cognitively, students learn “to question the meaning of a text” (p. 17) as they learn to “explore a text to find points of ambiguity and evidence with which to address the ambiguities” (p. 55). In doing so, they “develop habits of reflection, including those of listening, speaking clearly, and patiently relating what is said, heard, and read about the point of doubt so as to clarify and resolve it” (p. 154). They develop dispositions of intellectual “perseverance” (p. 55), “an open mind: a mind seeking to know the text on its own terms” (p. 1) and the willingness to look for answers one recognizes one doesn’t know (p. 4), all of which characterize the learner-as-seeker (p. 45). Socially, students practicing interpretive discussion learn “how to listen to the ideas of others, work to understand them, [and] relate them to their own ideas and interests” (p. 154).They learn to “build … community, that is, [to] work together to achieve a common goal” (p. 14), to “treat difference as a resource for finding and addressing shared concerns” (p. 179), and to utilize “the ideas of others … to form and evaluate their [own] positions” (p. 151). In terms of citizenship, interpretive discussion can help students develop the disposition to “try to understand the perspective of cultural groups other than their own before or instead of judging it right or wrong, good or bad” (p. 21), and develop “tolerance” sufficient “to navigate the tension between the desire to pursue one's own interests and the fear that others doing likewise will limit one's success” (p. 15). They can even learn to “break down the barriers of class and race” (p. 21), at least in the context of a text-based discussion. The fact that Haroutunian-Gordon found at least some evidence that one or more students achieved many of these aims vindicates her eschewal of formal method, at least in part.

At another level of method, Haroutunian-Gordon provides practical guidelines for setting up an interpretive discussion – about student group size, number of co-leaders, what counts as a “discussable text,” equal access to the text, reading aloud, voting on questions and setting up a queue of speakers.3 At yet another level she offers a three-stage procedural framework for the practice, with goals to be achieved in each stage. In the first stage, Preparation, teachers identify a discussable text and explore its interpretive possibilities by attempting to put it in their own words, writing questions they have about it, categorizing their questions as “factual,” “interpretive,” and “evaluative,” identifying the interpretive question they most wish to resolve, and preparing a “cluster” of interpretive sub-questions to assist in answering that “deepest point of doubt” (p. 5-8). These activities are not shared with the students, but are clearly pedagogical. In taking time to investigate and play with the text before inviting their students to do so, the teachers bring their own intelligence to bear on it, and assure themselves that it’s ripe with ambiguities and with resources for attempting to resolve them.  

The second stage, Leading, is the main event of interpretive discussion, and its goals, which are just the criteria given above, provide yet another level of method, for they constitute a three-step, sequential procedure: finding a shared question, looking back at the story for clues to possible answers and then looking back again for evidence for or against those answers (p. 9). Given the clarity and efficacy of this road map for interpretive discussion it is curious that we do not see the teachers sharing it with their students. Indeed, though Haroutunian-Gordon characterizes interpretive discussion as a language game in Wittgenstein’s and Gadamer’s sense of a rule-governed activity (pp. 3-4, pp. 8-9, p. 13), Haroutunian-Gordon does not suggest what these rules might be, and no rules for the game are shared with the students – though Haroutunian-Gordon reiterates that “in following the rules, one is not following a method or step-by-step procedure that renders an interpretation” (p. 4). Likewise, Haroutunian-Gordon shares only a few discussion-leading techniques with the teachers: “to repeat back the comments and questions that they [hear], to call for textual evidence and to summarize the progress made in forming and addressing questions ….” (p. 158).  

The goal of the post-discussion phase of interpretive discussion, Reflection, is to assess the process of the discussion – how well the group worked together as a learning community – and its content – what progress they made in finding and answering a shared interpretive question. For this stage Haroutunian-Gordon provides a number of formative and summative questions including “What was the shared concern for the group? …  At what idea did the group arrive in answer to the question?” (p. 16), “Were group members tolerant of one another? Did they listen so as to clarify facts or points of agreement about the meaning of [the] text? Did they listen so as to understand the perspectives of one another, even where these differed from their own?” (p. 16), and “How is the group progressing in terms of its ability to question the meaning of a text?” (p. 17).  

The first way Haroutunian-Gordon answers the question of method regarding interpretive discussion, therefore, is to provide a set of definitions, criteria, and educational aims for the practice, to provide a three-stage procedural framework for each discussion with one or more goals to be accomplished in each stage and a three-stage roadmap for the work of interpretation itself, to provide logistical and practical advice for leading a discussion, and to provide guiding questions and a few other discussion-leading techniques for teachers. In addition, for this study, Haroutunian-Gordon provided mentor coaching to the teachers, involving collaborative reflection and expert feedback. Though minimal, these methods proved to be soul-turning for these teachers: inviting them to become seekers of pedagogical know-how and supporting their inquiry, experiment, and exercise of judgment. However, the fact that Haroutunian-Gordon will not call these structures and guidelines “method” is not just a semantic preference: it reinforces her dichotomous, method vs. art view of pedagogy, which has important implications for teacher education.

The second way Haroutunian-Gordon answers the question of method for interpretive discussion is to identify interpretive strategies the fourth graders came up with in the course of the discussions, and pedagogical strategies the teachers came up with, and to link the two:

As the project progressed, [the teachers] developed their own discussion-leading practices, and some were repeated more frequently as they proved effective.  In several cases the co-leaders seemed to happen upon these practices. The[se] particular practices or discussion-leading patterns … helped create the characteristics of the conversations ….” (p. 119)  

One of the strengths of the book is Haroutunian-Gordon’s rich description of the aims and activities of both students and teachers engaged in interpretive discussion. The book contains a number of transcript fragments of classroom discussions that offer glimpses of young students struggling to work out the meaning of a story, and novice teachers struggling to assist them. Haroutunian-Gordon draws rich insights into how these processes work: how close attention to a text can clarify students’ questions and increase their interest in pursuing them (p. 108), how attention to too many questions at once dissipates focus and interest (p. 32), how, over time, students learn to rely on each other’s insights more often (p. 151) – even, significantly, across marked demographic differences (p. 81) – and how the more students understand how to go about interpretive discussion, the more they are willing to persist when it becomes difficult (p. 55). The successful discussion-leading patterns the teachers evolved include limiting the number of interpretive questions posed (p. 158), identifying similarities and differences among students’ ideas (p. 127), asking students directly to clarify their meaning if it seems too vague (p. 127), encouraging students to assert and defend their positions (p. 136), asking students whether they agree or disagree with other students (p. 142), asking if students wish to modify their positions in light of what has been discussed (p. 9, p. 151), and reiterating the interpretive questions under discussion to help the group maintain focus (p. 143, p. 147). That Haroutunian-Gordon expected the students and the novice teachers in her study to hit upon successful strategies without being told in any detail what to do is clear from many of her research questions: “[H]ow [does] one [come] to clear questions that one wishes to resolve[?]” (p. 111). “[H]ow [do] students become committed to resolving a shared question about meaning by using textual evidence?” (p. 55). “How did the groups [of students] move from evaluating the text to interpreting it?” (p. 44). “[H]ow does the group learn to evaluate the strength of proposed resolutions using textual evidence?” (p. 112). “How do the students become committed to evaluating the strength of possible text-based resolutions of the shared question?” (p. 56). “What patterns of discussion leading do the co-leaders follow to bring the groups to a shared point of doubt about the meaning of the text that they work to resolve?” (p. 133). “Would [the teachers’] approach to preparation change over time? Would their leading styles evolve as they led the discussions, and if so, in what ways?” (p. 21).  

It is not clear, however, what Haroutunian-Gordon takes to be the status of the successful discussion and discussion-leading patterns she identifies. She states that one of the benefits of the work of reflection is that it “enables participants to identify changes in the way people participate in discussion because they can compare new patterns with those seen on previous occasions. They can also try to view the changes in terms of the conditions under which they occurred” (p. 14). Presumably this is a suggestion that teachers and students should identify strategies and techniques that have worked, that would be worth trying again, as well as those that have not worked, thus making them more deliberate and self-conscious in their practice. In fact, Haroutunian-Gordon reports that there were “several instances in which reflection contributed to change in subsequent performance,” (p. 154). But she falls short of explicitly recommending that teachers or students pay direct attention to their behaviors with a view to self-correction. She does not, as mentor, bring the teachers’ attention to the practices she deems to be successful, or to other strategies the data indicate would likely enhance the discussions, such as inviting students to ask each other directly about their ideas rather than addressing only the teacher (p. 80), avoiding leading questions and comments (p. 61, p. 127), and intervening to promote “equal air time” (pp. 161-2). Nor does she suggest that successful patterns be worked over, adapted and honed to become finely-tuned tools of practice. This ambivalence is curious, given that these kinds of discussion-leading strategies and techniques are common to other programs of classroom discussion, and have been shown to be associated with “high-level thinking and comprehension” (p. 372) in empirical studies.4

Haroutunian-Gordon maintains (p. 118) that the teachers were able to hit upon successful strategies because of the way they had explored the text themselves in the preparation stage. However, this preparation may also have led to some difficulties, as identifying their own points of interest may have made it difficult for the teachers to help the students find their own question and may have led them to misunderstand student comments (pp. 97-8). In the first discussion the teachers even posed all of their own questions about the text to the students (p. 129). Haroutunian-Gordon points out that in some cases the teachers’ ability to listen closely to the students, to help them question their own ideas, to point to relevant text passages (p. 115), and even to “become more focused on exploring the meaning of the story with the students” (p. 99), may have been the “happy coincidence” of the students’ questions about the meaning of the text overlapping with their own. This coincidence may be happy in the absence of method, but it indicates that some of the successful patterns the teachers used were not deliberate pedagogy. Nor is it always clear from her data when successful interventions the teachers made were made deliberately – self-consciously – or if the teachers shared Haroutunian-Gordon’s understanding of the efficacy of those interventions. This lack of pedagogical self-awareness must be considered a drawback of a methodologically minimalist approach to teaching.  

All expert practice involves a number of strategies and techniques, and most of the professions attempt to teach or coach them. Of course, knowing when to adopt a particular strategy or use a particular technique requires the kind of judgment that can only come with practice. And of course the best practitioners adapt standard techniques to their own uses and situations, and develop variant and new techniques. But there is nothing stultifying about passing on technique – in the garden, the surgery, the courtroom, or the classroom. Indeed, more attention to strategy and technique would benefit, rather than hinder, the practice of interpretive discussion. Articulating – even scripting – helpful interventions and discussing how they can be used to open up, focus, or complicate a dialogue is a useful method of teacher preparation that in no way precludes the teacher’s need to exercise in-the-moment judgment about which kinds of interventions to use at various points in a given episode of classroom discussion. Teachers new to this practice, especially, would benefit from instruction along these lines: “In this phase there are X number of tasks to be accomplished ….  In order to accomplish the first task you will need to pay attention to such-and-such, and you will probably find it useful to use one or more of the following strategies ….  Some common difficulties that arise with this task are ….  And some effective techniques for dealing with those difficulties are ….   The following are good indicators that you have accomplished this task ….”  As Haroutunian-Gordon states, such “suggestions will gain acceptance only as they prove useful” (p. 158), and there is no way for a teacher to predict which techniques will be needed, in which order, in a discussion; but all of the successful strategies she identified in her data are predictable in that teachers can pretty much count on needing to employ most of them in most discussions. Perhaps she would be more open to giving attention to specific kinds of teacher interventions if she thought of pedagogical method as a continuum of formality rather than a dichotomy of fixed procedures vs. no method.  

Haroutunian-Gordon’s minimalist approach to method applies to students as well as teachers. Students are (apparently) not provided an introduction to the “game” of interpretive discussion, even such as “our job is to try to understand this story, before we decide what we think about it, so we're going to try to pay close attention to the actual words in the story.”  They are not provided rules or conventions for playing the game, or even the broad procedural framework the teachers have in mind: first agree on a question about the meaning of the story, then go back over the story in search of clues for possible answers, then, when you have possible answers, go back to the story looking for evidence for and against them, until you narrow down on the most reasonable answers. Students would surely benefit from this kind of direction. They should also learn about the structure of interpretive discussion by having some active coaching in strategy, along the lines of, “Where are we in the game? How many questions have we come up with? Are these questions interpretive – the kind we would need to go back to the story to answer? Can we agree on a shared question? How many possible resolutions have we come up with so far? Which ones should we deal with first? Do you think there are clues to other suggestions in the text? Where can we look for evidence about that? Is there anything in the story that would go against that idea?” Finally, students need coaching in cognitive techniques, i.e. basic reasoning tropes, and social techniques like asking each other for different views, building on each other’s ideas, and challenging each other respectfully – the kind of techniques the teachers in the study eventually found themselves practicing and leading. In this regard it is curious that Haroutunian-Gordon suggests that the self-corrective work of reflection “may occur with or without the discussants” (p. 12) – i.e., the students. All three of these kinds of direction are sufficiently content-neutral to avoid controlling either the questions students bring to a text or the answers they construct to resolve them. Rather, they constitute the discipline of the practice, the value of which students will appreciate for themselves as they find it makes their inquiries more successful, according to external criteria, and more personally satisfying.     

The third way Haroutunian-Gordon answers the question of method for interpretive discussion is a via negativa: the minimalist pedagogy she uses in her role as teacher mentor / coach, and that her teachers in turn use with their students. This unsystematic approach is itself a method, principled and deliberate, and Haroutunian-Gordon marshals three sets of theory to justify it. The first has already been described: a philosophy of the learner as seeker. At the center of her study is “[t]he claim … that life in school can be more engaging and productive for all—teachers included—if thinking, rooted in questioning, is placed at the center of at least some experiences.  What better place than our educational institutions to develop habits of questioning and reflection?” (p. x). Haroutunian-Gordon cites Socrates on the idea “that the goal of the educator is not to put knowledge into a soul but to ‘turn’ the student's gaze to the proper place,” (p. 10) and relates interpretive discussion to W.E.B. Du Bois’ ideal of “Freedom of Spirit,” typified by “taking the initiative to form and answer … questions, try things out, and identify the consequences of the trials” (p. 180). These are important ideas, but Haroutunian-Gordon’s use of them is more suggestive than pragmatic.  She implies that – but does not explain how – pedagogy that is too prescriptive prevents students from becoming seekers. Much less does she consider what types of pedagogy are likely to support rather than frustrate authentic questioning, self-discipline, and open-ended inquiry.

Haroutunian-Gordon also draws on reader-response theory of interpretation and Gadamerian hermeneutics to argue that, since the process of interpretation or translation begins with the interpreter’s “freedom to choose an issue” (p. 111), since it proceeds by utilizing whatever “terms and concepts” they have available to say what the text means (p. 3), and since “[w]hat each person says is unique, [making] the dialogue that transpires in an interpretive discussion … also unique” (p. 11), there can be no “method or step-by-step procedure that renders an interpretation, for there are several activities involved in text interpretation, some of which are not amenable to strict procedure” (p. 4).  

What part of the text receives further scrutiny? That depends on the question. What assumptions in the text are identified? That depends on the question....  With Gadamer and Heidegger, I argue that the questions arise from the particular circumstances of the interpreters. Hence, there can be no method or step-by-step procedure for detecting assumptions in the text, for there can be no method for generating questions. (p. 4)

These are also important points, with implications for both students and teachers. Ambiguity and clarity are not inherent qualities of texts or other sign systems, but are products of someone’s attempt to read and interpret them. It is a merit of the practice of interpretive discussion that it does not dictate to students what they should find ambiguous and want to clarify in a story. To say there can be no method for students to use in generating questions is to say, first, that the perspectives and desires they bring to a text should be respected, and second, that they must learn for themselves – partly by working it out with each other in each discussion and partly over time – what kinds of questions are sufficiently clear, provocative, and grounded in the text to steer a worthwhile discussion. However, one wonders why students are not provided with the same preparation that was provided to the teachers: some practice in retelling the story, in distinguishing factual, interpretive, and evaluative questions, and in preparing clusters of sub-questions – activities that would train and focus, without overriding their intelligence. Likewise, because discussion is spontaneous and unpredictable – reflecting not only the unique set of personalities participating in a given session and their particular assumptions, prior knowledge, and cultural values, but the unique desires, worries, ailments, and preoccupations they experience in the moment of discussion – there can be no pre-determined script for teachers of what questions to ask or what strategic advice to give. Teachers new to this practice will have to grow into it by trial and error, as we see the teachers in this case study doing. But there is nothing in this theory of interpretation against – and in fact there is much to recommend – constructing a repertoire of strategies and techniques that would typically be useful at various parts of the discussion.

Haroutunian-Gordon’s confidence that students and teachers will figure out how to have successful interpretive discussions with minimal direction or attention to method is also based on Gadamer’s idea that the text itself serves authoritative and teleological functions: limiting the scope of reasonable meaning making and attracting the convergence of group members’ opinions toward the “truth” (p. 151) or “facts of the text” (p. 64). Moreover, she suggests that when a group wants to “figure out the meaning of the text … it is clear how to proceed: examine the textual evidence to determine the meaning and hence resolve the question” (p. 40). This view of the practice is also what leads Haroutunian-Gordon to argue against the practice of evaluative discussion, or collaborative inquiry into extra-textual ideas and values, and here her treatment of method takes another provocative turn. Clearly, inquiry into the “truth or worth” of a text’s meaning is different from inquiry into questions about what it means in the first place, and there are good reasons to mark – to understand, to teach and to practice – this distinction in the classroom. First, as this study demonstrates, evaluative discussion can disrupt interpretive discussion, shifting the goal from understanding a text to making a personal value judgment about that meaning (p. 6, p. 20, p. 28, p. 37, p. 39). Second, evaluation is not a proper method of interpretation because the extra-textual ideas, values, and experiences the reader uses to evaluate textual meaning are often irrelevant to the question of what the text means (p. 33, pp. 36-7, p. 39, p. 59). Third, reasonable evaluation of the meaning of a text presupposes reasonable interpretation (p. 41). However, as other proponents of text-based classroom discussion point out, relating the meaning of a text to other readings, to one’s own prior experiences, and to larger social and cultural contexts of meaning is necessary in order to achieve “high-level literacy,” and a “strong understanding” of the text.5 Other programs, in fact, encourage students to work out such multiple layers of meaning, and empirical research has shown that “teachers’ and students’ use of questions that elicited extra-textual connections (affective, intertextual, and shared knowledge) ... [is]  linked to high-level thinking [about,] and comprehension” of a text.6

Haroutunian-Gordon’s fourth argument against evaluative discussion, however, has nothing to do with its interference with interpretation, and suggests that it is ultimately unworkable in any context: that there is no clear way to deal with evaluative questions and that the possible ways of doing so are all likely to break down. She cites several examples (p. 20, p. 37, p. 33, pp. 36-7, pp. 39-40) of discussion breakdown when an evaluative question is introduced into an interpretive discussion, but of course this only demonstrates that it is not clear how to use extra-textual criteria to resolve an interpretive question. Nor, one might argue, if the group’s purpose were to inquire into an evaluative question, would it be clear how to use a text to do so, as, e.g., citing authorities is out of court in philosophical dialogue. But Haroutunian-Gordon argues further that evaluative discussion is unworkable because there is no way to resolve arguments based on personal history or values, and here she is on dangerous ground.  

For example, if the external criteria are based on one person's personal history, discussion may break down altogether if the experience of others differs such that they do not find the criteria acceptable. If the criteria are based on personal values, the discussion may break down if people hold conflicting values and cannot persuade one another to modify any of them. In short, once the evaluative question is posed, there is no clear sense of how to address it and how to resolve disputes. (pp. 39-40)

Unlike evidence found in a text, she argues, the kinds of evidence used for resolving evaluative questions is not public, and potentially not accessible to all (p. 40).  

If Haroutunian-Gordon is right about the indeterminateness of extra-textual meaning, then students have no way of making sense of the factual and interpretive meanings they acquire in school in contexts of broader cultural and personal meaning. Indeed, they have no way to relate the meaning of one text to another, in the absence of a third text that makes reference to both. If she is right about the implausibility of interpersonal understanding and rational persuasion, they – and we – have no way of resolving conflicts of interest and value. If so, practices and programs such as Book Club, Collaborative Reasoning, Paedia Seminars, Philosophy for Children, Nelson’s Socratic dialogue, Philips’ Socrates Café, Habermas’s democratic communicative action, Freire’s problem-posing education, and indeed, all attempts at religious, political, aesthetic, ethical, and other value inquiry are doomed in advance: they may serve to enlighten the discussants about each other’s positions (which Haroutunian-Gordon allows can be a valuable purpose), but cannot lead them to self-correct or to converge on what is reasonable to believe, value, or do.  

Happily, this reading of Haroutunian-Gordon’s meaning is undercut by her promotion of tolerance as an educational aim of interpretive discussion. In her analysis, tolerance is a disposition cultivated in collaborative work (including but not limited to the work of textual interpretation) that ameliorates conflicts of purpose, interest, value, and meaning:  

[T]olerance involves reserving judgment about the ideas or practices of others that strike one as negative long enough to find points people agree on, or the “facts.” It may involve coming to understand the point of view of the other so that ideas and practices are seen in that context rather than from one's own vantage point ….  When one begins to grasp the perspective of another, one is able to think about ideas or practices in a different way than is possible if that perspective remains unknown. One may ask: Are the ideas or practices fair? Are they legitimate? Should they be modified?…  Such questioning permits a moral dialogue, that is, a dialogue about what those concerned believe to be good and bad, desirable and undesirable. (p. 15)

It was not within the scope of Haroutunian-Gordon’s study to find evidence that the kind of tolerance children from the two schools demonstrated in learning from each other’s ideas about the meaning of a story would transfer to discussions about what is good and bad; but clearly, she believes in this possibility. In any case, why not let children have those moral discussions?  

Why not let teachers? In Haroutunian-Gordon’s study it was the novice teachers who raised the issue of tolerance as a research question – who hoped that one of the benefits of interpretive discussion would be the students’ cultivation of inter-personal, and then inter-school (involving inter-class and inter-ethnic) tolerance. Teaching that is morally and professionally responsible involves this kind of inquiry into what the aims of the educational experience should be, what the relevant communities’ educational expectations are, what the particular students now in one’s classroom (and their families) need, want, hope, and fear, and what one’s own strengths and passions are. Our choices of pedagogical method should be informed by, and should inform, all of these factors. That’s a lot to take on, but no more than is taken on by practitioners in the other professions, and making such informed decisions about method is what makes teaching an art as well as a profession. No matter where one comes down on the question of method – in the practice of interpretive discussion, of dialogical pedagogy more broadly, or of teaching itself – Haroutunian-Gordon’s Learning to Teach Through Discussion is a rich and fascinating source of practices worth trying, ideas worth pondering, and questions worth raising.


1. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault; ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1995), 62.

2. Haroutunian-Gordon mentions four programs of text-based discussion: the Great Books, Shared Inquiry program (on which her own practice is based), Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Seminars, Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children, and Isabel Beck’s Questioning the Author (p. 153). For the record, I have directed the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University since Matthew Lipman retired in 2001. A.O. Soter, et al. studied these and five other programs of classroom discussion – Instructional Conversations, Collaborative Reasoning, Grand Conversations, Book Club, and Literature Circles – in a three-year project funded by the US Department of Education. “What the discourse tells us: Talk and indicators of high-level comprehension,” International Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 47, pp. 372-91.

3. P.K. Murphy, et al. refer to such guidelines as “framing variables,” which “denote conditions or contextual factors pertaining to when, with whom, for how long, and in what ways (e.g., the approach) discussions [take] place ….”  “Examining the Effects of Classroom Discussion on Students’ Comprehension of a Text: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Educational Psychology Vol. 101, No. 3 (2009), 752.  

4. Soter, et al. identify five “discourse features” to which they attribute “high-level thinking and comprehension” (p. 372) in classroom discussion: Teachers’ and students’ use of authentic questions, uptake (taking up something that has already been said rather than saying something unrelated) and questions that elicited high-level thinking (generalization, analysis and speculation); teachers’ and students’ use of questions that elicited extra-textual connections (affective, intertextual, and shared knowledge); students’ elaborated explanations; students’ exploratory talk, and the use of “reasoning words” in appropriate contexts (pp. 379-80). These researchers also found that “a certain amount of modeling and scaffolding on the part of the teacher is necessary to prompt elaborated forms of individual reasoning from students” (p. 389).

5. The phrases are cited from the National Assessment Governing Board’s Reading Framework for the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education 2007, p. 24), in Murphy, et al., 740. Similarly, Murphy’s team studied “various form of comprehension,” including “scriptally implicit comprehension … i.e., comprehension requiring considerable use of prior knowledge in combination with information from the text” (p. 744).

6. Soter, et al. cite five empirical studies to support this claim (pp. 379-80). These researchers, in fact, distinguished discussion programs, including Great Books Shared Inquiry, that encourage students to take an “efferent stance” toward texts, focusing on careful interpretation and “deriving information from texts” (p. 374), from programs that encourage a “critical-analytic stance,” in which students “interrogate or query the text in search of underlying assumptions, worldviews, arguments, or beliefs” (p. 378), and from programs that encourage an “expressive stance,” in which students talk about their personal reactions to the text, giving “prominence to the reader’s affective response” (p. 374). This study showed that programs in all three categories utilize the five discourse features (see note 4) linked to high-level thinking about, and comprehension of, a text.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16051, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 12:01:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Maughn Gregory
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    MAUGHN GREGORY, Ph.D., J.D. is Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University, where he also directs the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children. He publishes and teaches in the areas of Pragmatism, Political Philosophy, Philosophy for Children, Philosophy of Education, Gender and Education, and Critical Thinking. Dr. Gregory regularly conducts workshops on these topics throughout the US and around the world. He is the author / editor of Philosophy for Children: A Practitioner Handbook (IAPC, 2008).
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