Couvillion: In Defense of Discussion

True education requires self-direction.

by Zach Couvillion | 4/25/19 2:15am

I like discussion-based classes. They facilitate closer interactions between students and professors. But judging from my classroom experiences and several conversations with students, the student body is not quite as enthusiastic about discussion-based classroom environments.

“It’s so dumb,” one economics student complained to me, bemoaning that a system of free-form dialogue could only work for humanities classes. In his view, discussion had no place in analytical STEM classes in which students should only be concerned with the “facts.” Another student, this time in a math class, explained that while he admires the way that discussion encourages participation, he thought that a lecture environment was still the most efficient place for students to absorb information about topics like math.

I came to Dartmouth with a similar opinion. During my fall term, I admired well-planned lectures. On each course assessment I submitted that term, I denied that there was any room for improvement. It wasn’t until my winter term, when I took WRIT 5, “Thinking About Education” that my view faced a challenge. The class focused on Paulo Freire’s idea of “dialogic” pedagogy, in which hierarchical relationships between students and teachers are leveled to pave the way for student learning via dialogue and creativity. This stands in opposition to the commonly practiced “banking method” of education, which entails passively absorbing information and, according to Freire, less effective learning.

The most idealistic manifestation of this philosophy is an environment of free conversation with zero lecture, which was the intended structure of my Writing 5 class. While we struggled to meet the demands of this ideal some days, I believe that our understanding of the course material reached a point that would have been unachievable through pure lecture. By the time final papers came, we had a wealth of ideas to work — ideas that were all produced by our classmates. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in a classroom.

I grew up attending a rural Mississippi public school. In my school, the prevailing sentiment toward academics was even worse than dismissive: Academia was seen as arcane. Students at my school were brought up with the banking method of rote memorization, and I suspect that ineffective education was the root of the commonly-held attitude of just “getting through” school. I saw some of the most intelligent students I know lose their love of learning. Who wouldn’t after passively taking in information for so many years without ever getting the opportunity to create?

The military is a popular choice for students from my school district. While I look up to my classmates for their bravery and service, I still believe that most of those students never had the privilege of exploring other options that may have been a better fit for them. After all, I do not think it is a coincidence that students forced to learn through the banking method gravitate towards the strict rigors of military training, as pure a manifestation of the banking method as one can find.

Here at Dartmouth, we have many more opportunities open to us — still, we too often gravitate towards banking method classes. We should try to keep our options and our minds as open as possible, both in and out of the classroom. But to stay open to new ideas and the changes they promise, we need spaces that encourage dialogue. We need a dynamic exchange of ideas. We need our discussion-based classes here at Dartmouth.