Assessing Historical Discussion, pp. 3 of 6

Procedural skills: Whereas substantive skills focus on students’ ability to present claims and evidence in a discussion format, procedural skills focus on their ability to use those skills in a conversational format—the give-and-take of a discussion. These skills focus to large degree on how to acknowledge and respond to the comments of others, so that the conversation becomes a productive engagement rather than a series of disconnected statements. These skills include:

  • Acknowledging the positions of others: Orally recognizing what others have said and noting how one’s own contribution relates to it is one of the most fundamental discussion skills. In a good discussion, students frequently make specific reference to what others have said, and some teachers even require that students restate the contribution of the previous speaker before commenting on their own.
  • Responding to the statements of others: Beyond simply acknowledging others’ positions, a discussion requires that students respond to those statements, usually by providing reasons for agreeing or disagreeing. This might include pointing to gaps in logic, to additional supporting evidence or to weaknesses in the evidence provided, or to further connections or implications.
  • Defending one’s own position: This is one of the most difficult skills for students. Once their claims have been countered, they often are at a loss: They do not know what to do other than move on to a new point. Students must learn how to strengthen their claims, or how to argue against the counter-claims of others. (Think of a courtroom with examination of a witness, cross-examination, and then re-examination and even re-cross examination. Lawyers do not simply give up once their claims have been countered!) Often, counter-claims may be incorporated into one’s own position, in order to reach a more comprehensive synthesis.
  • Asking questions of others: One of the ultimate forms of discussion involves meaningful, thoughtful questions for other participants. In a debate-focused discussion, these might be critical questions designed to uncover flaws in their arguments; in more collaborative, consensus-seeking, or exploratory discussions, questions can be a way of jointly clarifying claims, seeking evidence, or considering implications.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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