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HISTORY OR HYSTERIA: Teaching and Evaluating Discussion

Jack Betterly

    Given the opportunity, most teachers of history find an energetic and dynamic student discussion to be among the most glorious and invigorating experiences which can possibly decorate the daily round, flush the cheeks, and bring a new lightness to one's plodding pace. Aside from being fascinating to follow, such a discussion can provide reassurance that one has actually managed to transfer to students, perhaps, some of the excitement and pleasure of the discipline.
    Most history teachers I have known have felt this way at one time or another and have argued that developing the ability to discuss issues is one of the major benefits students can gain from taking history courses. However, to say that one "encourages discussion" is essentially a cliché of the profession. I have even heard it argued by teachers whose classes, I knew by experience, were devoted to lectures. Indeed, it is all too often that teachers forego class discussion in the interests of what many know as "coverage."
    Even when teachers do encourage discussion, it is unfortunately the case that the quality of student performance is rarely quantified, and as a result, just as rarely influences grades in the course. If it does, it is usually as some vague perception in the mind of the teacher as she or he reflects on the performance of the students' achievements, foibles, personalities, appearances, laughs, and other gateways to the comprehension of academic competence.
    I must be honest and make it clear from the beginning that I strongly prefer to avoid giving number or letter grades altogether. Grading is apparently a practice which, according to Neil Postman, originated in 1792:

The first instance of grading students' papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.... To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man's essay on capitalism is an A- and that man's is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson.[1] 

    William Farish probably had no idea what havoc would ultimately be wrought by his innovation. Thus, I write this paper with immense trepidation, lest it prove to begin a similar descent into one of the darker underworlds of Academe.
    You see, between 1972 and 1984 I enjoyed the privilege of teaching all of my courses with a final evaluation of Credit or No Credit, accompanied by extensive check lists and analytical comments. I still favor that kind of system. However, 1972 was quite a while ago, and this article assumes that most schools, including my former school, returned to conservative grading in the mid-1980s and remain firmly stuck there to this day. In fact, it would seem there is now even greater pressure from politicians around this vast nation- - absorbed and obsessed as they are by intellectual and educational concerns and pastimes -- to quantify performance and to standardize the results. Therefore, if one believes that discussion is an important skill for students to master, the degree or nature of this mastery must be, in some fashion, integrated as part of a student's grade.
    Discussion usually assumes small groups of students. My own sections at Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, consisted of anywhere from eight to eighteen students. I suspect that once sections go beyond twenty-five students, discussion as a disciplined activity becomes less feasible. However, some large lecture classes do break down regularly into small discussion sections, and here this technique might be useful. One might divide classes of thirty or forty into half participants and half observers switching the roles the next time around.
    In most of the years following 1984 until my retirement in 2000, I was teaching a two-year required World History course. I loved it. I would argue that the two-year format is essential. The freshman year was called Ancient and Medieval Worlds; the sophomore course was called The Rise of the Modern World which began at 1400 CE. I taught two sections of each course, as well as one section of an elective open to juniors and seniors. This course varied from year to year, but it was usually The Contemporary World, which was taught using student subscriptions to The Christian Science Monitor, as well as with magazines and journals such as Foreign Affairs. I graded discussion in all of these courses. The best way to describe where monitored discussions fit into grading is simply to reproduce what I handed out to students at the beginning of the course:


Your grade will be based on my overall assessment of your abilities as a student of history, as an historian, on your knowledge of history and the crafts and disciplines of history, of historical processes, and your ability to function as a participant in the community of scholars. This grade will be relative not to the students in the section or the course but relative to the totality of students I have taught in the last forty-two years.

I will arrive at that judgment after giving equal and careful attention to:

Full Period Essay Tests - one or two each quarter

Daily Quizzes

Monitored Discussions - three or four each quarter

Class participation.

2 to 3 page Projects - prepared outside, one each quarter. Usually a book review.

Information from Conferences

No grades will be "curved". You have both a right and responsibility to ask me for a reasonably accurate assessment of your ongoing grade at any time. That will ordinarily be given as a range; e.g., "B/B+".

You also have a right and responsibility to see me and contest any grade you feel is incorrect. I may disagree, but sometimes I am persuaded. One way or another, I will respect and applaud you for seeking redress.

    I had obviously designed this system to allow students to compensate for their lesser skills with those which were stronger. As a result, it was fairly difficult to fail; at the same time, it was fairly difficult to get an "A+." I would average together quiz average, test average, project average, and discussion average to come up with a single grade as these were quantified. Class participation and other information were not, which always left me some wiggle room to shade the final grade one way or another. This grade I then converted from a number to a letter designation, which is what went on the transcript and was reported quarterly with a brief comment to the student.
    When I designed the monitored discussions, I wished to try to avoid the most common problems that plague so many classes. By the time I did this, I had been teaching for twenty-five to thirty years, so I had many examples in mind. I wanted to produce a legitimate exercise, honestly presented, which would both interest the students, reveal more of their thinking to them, and train them in discussion.
    There were two chief principles that guided me. The first was to treat discussion as a collaborative rather than competitive experience. In this age of free market theology, that may be pure heresy, but what can I say? I am an old relic of a semi-socialist who believes people accomplish more by working with each other than against each other.
    The second principle was truly daunting. It was that teachers talk too much and should shut up and listen. This would necessitate my depriving the students of my truly incredible expertise in a vast variety of historical areas, not to speak of my wit, my bon mots, my incisive vision, and my analytic precision. I could not make such decisions lightly or plan such sacrifices without weighty thought. After days and weeks of brooding and chewing over the tradeoffs, I decided that the urgent need for experimental innovation transcended even these prices to be paid.

This is the handout I gave to my students:



    Once every week, or once every two weeks, I will supplement your reading assignment with a topic position or question to be discussed by the class as a whole for all of the next class period and, as nearly as possible, to be resolved by that discussion.
    History is not an enterprise for individual competition and achievement. History is a communal discipline in which the entire global body of historians pool their information, insight, and curiosity to attempt to find and refine at least the broadest current perceived truth about the past and to persuade their colleagues of its possible validity. That is why historians place such an emphasis on citations- -giving credit to those who have come before and who have contributed to this ongoing struggle, and to identify the sources of alleged facts.
    When the discussion takes place, I will ask for a volunteer to begin and then I will proceed to take notes. I will speak only twice - once halfway through to give my perceptions of how the discussion is going and to suggest what other routes might be explored, and once at the end to offer my evaluation and my perception of how it went and how you might improve the next one. Except for that, I will listen, watch, and take notes.
    You will then tear out a small piece of paper and give yourself a numerical grade. Grade individually both for quality of listening and for quality of speaking and then average them. I will collect these, revise them as I see fit, add a comment or two, and return them to you the next day. Naturally if you are dissatisfied with the revised grade, you should tell me immediately and I will consider your reasoning.
    Silence is not an option. To draw in shy people, ask them for their specific opinion on a point under discussion. A monitored discussion is the opposite of a debate! It is not competitive! I subtract points if you are dominating the discussion and if you are withdrawing or waiting to be invited.
    The mind of a single human being is a pitifully inadequate instrument. Only by collaboration, sharing, probing, questioning, and cross-checking have we survived as a species- - such as we are. One may rely on passion and rhetorical skill to aid in persuasion, but once this becomes aggressive or domineering it misses the point entirely. Similarly, a dominator often does not sense that she is dominating, and it is the responsibility of others to politely and laughingly point this out. Again, nudging those who are silent is equally in order.
    You will be surprised at the degree to which your collective minds can refine, articulate, and clarify the issues being discussed.
    The students came to love these assignments. At least, they said they did, and they kept nagging for more. It took only three or four monitored discussions for them to understand the process. After that, they focused on the topic quickly and were quite good at probing, reflecting, and maintaining a coherent thread rather than simply throwing out random statements.

    Let me describe a typical discussion. For years before developing these discussions, I used the following format for full period essay tests, handing it out five or six days in advance to allow for preparation. Students then wrote the test in class without notes. In this example, their readings and study during the first half of the quarter had been dealing with the period from roughly 700 CE to roughly 1000 CE: 22

    Defend, attack, or modify the following position with specific information:

In this period of very gradual recovery from Roman imperial decline, West Asia and Europe inevitably reflected the influence of pastoral nomadic cultures from which the new peoples had come -- Arabs, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Franks and Teutons, to name a few. East Asia, on the other hand, developed in a fashion much more reflective of a long history of urban civilization based upon peasant agriculture in extensive riverine basins. This difference would be reflected in both religious and political developments.

    Because the students--at least those who had taken a course from me before-- were used to being asked to take a position on a position, I decided to use the same format for discussion. At the same time, because it was on a single night's assignment, the topic would, in most cases, be briefer. Let us assume that the night's assignment was to be a document--Al-Jahiz's description of the arrival of the Seljuq Turks in Baghdad in 1055 CE and his description of these peoples in general.[2] In that case, I might have them take home the following topic to be used in discussion the next day: 23
    Defend, attack or modify the following position with specific information:

Al-Jahiz maintained that the Seljuq Turks were essentially similar to the original Arab Bedouins; in fact, he referred to them as 'the Bedouins of the non-Arabs.'" This was really romantic, idealized nonsense. In terms of the kind of land from which they came and the cultural contacts that had influenced them, the Arabs and the Turks were radically different.

You are free to utilize and bring to class any reference materials you might wish to use as evidence for your position.


    In the years when I used a college text, most students would refer to it to review the original Arab Bedouins. In later years, I would keep several different college texts in my classroom and on reserve in the library. When the class met the next day, I would not be listening to determine who had used the most resources or how distinguished they might be. Although I never fully approved of it myself, students did spend much of their time outside of class completing, as well, assignments in math, science, languages, and other courses rather than mine alone. Some students were even known merely to read the document and then wing it on what they remembered or could cleverly make up.

    I would read the position out loud and invite the first comment. You can well imagine what I watched for. Was the group listening carefully to each contribution? Was everyone being drawn in? How? Was it deliberate, and who was doing it? Were students able to articulate? Were they able to focus relatively quickly on a thread and to follow it out? Were there individuals with comprehension problems?

    It may be difficult to believe, but for a teacher to keep her/his mouth shut for extended periods is a monumentally difficult discipline. Once I discovered this, I tried doing it more and more because I could use the practice. I began discovering how very intelligent my students were.
    At the midpoint in the discussion my summary and suggestions for the class might run a bit like this:

"OK. You are all moving along well. Mary began with a qualified defense of the topic relying primarily on geographical factors. Did the atlas she brought get around to everyone? Paula moved on to cultural difference, and gradually you all spun off into that weird discussion of pastoralism. Andrea, you were very good to pin Jennie and draw her in, and her skepticism helped a good deal. You, Patty, Kit was good to shut you up!! Yes, I know, you are a very passionate young woman, but enough is enough. My suggestion for the second half is that you might move on to differences that would begin to reveal themselves once the Turks were truly settled and, the leadership, at least, living in large urban centers. Think of Abbasid culture. Would you expect a Turkish urban empire to be similar? Iris, you are obviously the one student yet to speak. Sneaky. Why don't you start the group off?"

    All the time the discussion was going on, I was taking notes on students. This would be vital when it came to checking the students' evaluations of themselves. It was also extremely useful for me to scan before making my midpoint or final summaries. In addition, it made me pay attention. It is very easy, if student discussion is moving off in a direction of no particular interest to you, to find your mind wandering off and your eyes drifting toward the window. It is sometimes humiliating to discover how few truly important and worthy topics if not in your specialty or stock speeches can manage to hold your interest. You begin to wonder if students consider you to be a bit slow. 29
    The second half of the discussion usually proceeded much as the first, and my final evaluation was often very similar to the one at midpoint. Students then graded their own behavior on scrap paper, with a simple numerical grade for speaking skills and one for listening skills, which they averaged along with a few words of clarification.
    When I had a free period, I would flip through these looking at my notes and altering grades if I disagreed. If I did, I usually wrote a clarifying note on the back. I would return these the next day after recording them. The whole point was to keep the grading operation from becoming a major time consumer and yet keep it valid. I had enough stacks of tests and/or projects to be graded, and those required much more in the way of time, concentration, and analytical comments.
    Notice that I deliberately avoided grading historical content. During a grading quarter the students were taking daily quizzes, essay tests, writing two page projects, and thus I had plenty of opportunity to evaluate their historical knowledge. The monitored discussion was intended to teach them a great deal about what the intellectual craft of history is, to sharpen those abilities necessary to participate in a productive discussion, to make it clear that a discussion is something quite different from "all stating their own opinions," and that it should have not only direction but a sense of movement forward. At the end of an historical discussion, all participants should be able to leave feeling that their opinions have been changed and improved, however minutely, from that which it was when they began.
    For purposes of determining the students' course grades at the end of a grading period, I counted quiz average, project average, essay test average, and discussion average equally. This tended to eliminate the extremely high and the extremely low which I felt was quite realistic. As can be imagined, students who had difficulty with writing skills were often the most enthusiastically prepared when they came to discussion.
    I believe I can say, honestly, that by the end of the year, my students were often conducting more enjoyable, focused, and substantial discussions than many of those I had endured within the History Division or, God knows, within the full faculty meetings. Students were not making speeches, nor seeking competitive advantage, and they were sensitive to the need for both direction and resolution.
    In all fairness and with no substantiating documentation whatsoever, I suspect that part of the success was due to the fact that I was teaching young women exclusively. I taught coeducational classes for eight years, and frankly, prefer them to single-sex classes. However, I do suspect that teaching these skills to young men, while it would work perfectly well, would require a good deal more deprogramming.

    I have tried to keep this article light, but do not make the mistake of assuming that the issue is not a crucial one for the discipline. Ask the average person on the street how he or she felt about history courses. Count the number of times you hear, "Oh, I hated history!", or "I was just terrible at history!", or "I don't remember any of it." And they mean it. The late and greatly missed geographer Jim Blaut and I had a running argument. He took the position that geography was the worst taught subject in America. I staunchly argued that it was history. We must do everything we can to overcome the public image that history is a matter of memorization and is vaguely irrelevant to the requirements of daily life in the "real world." It is my experience that carefully monitored discussions have an important role to play. Given the immensely larger and more complex demand for making lucid connections over vast amounts of space and time, it would seem that World History stands to profit from such discussions more than any other course.


Biographical Note: Jack Betterly is recently retired from the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, where he taught world history. He is also a member of the World History Association's Teaching Committee, and is an active member of H-World and several other history listservs.


[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), p. 13.

[2] The Human Record: Sources of Human History, Volume 1: To 1700, Edited by Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998). Document 75, pp. 292-295.



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