Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership (1991) Edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, Ann Sweet Harvard Business School Press.
Over the course of two vacations, I have managed to go through the volume Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership , a collection of seventeen essays edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin, and Ann Sweet. I have found it a very meaningful and fruitful read, and would like to share my views.
Why did I pick this book to read? As a teacher, I strive to do right by students, and as there is no single easily identifiable definition of doing ‘right’, my effort is to enlarge my understanding of the dynamics that shape the space of teaching-learning. Within the pages of this book, eighteen teachers on the faculty of Harvard Business School have put down in detail, with great care and subtlety, the learning that they have harvested over years of employing discussion teaching in their classes. It is exciting for a teacher like me to be in the midst of such experienced mentors, and to listen to their voices as they weave their way reflectively through all that discussion teaching involves.
What kept me reading? No two ways about it—this is a complex text, a slow read, a thought-provoking clutch of articles that go in-depth into their subject. However, these articles are in a league of their own, both in terms of the richness of content and the brilliant style of writing, which makes wading through it all an exceptionally rewarding experience.
First, a taste of the content. The foreword, by Richard Elmore, is a little over ten pages long, and explains how and why this book came to be written. To quote a line that sheds light on the raison d’etre of the book as well as on its title, “It challenges us to take a deeper view of teaching. Teaching, in this view, is essentially a transformational activity, which aims to get students to take charge of their learning and to make deeply informed judgments about the world.” This resonates with Krishnamurti, who says that the main aim of the school is to bring about psychological change, independent thinking and transformation in ourselves and in the child. This book also, “urges a transformation of the conditions of teaching”. Elmore explains that the experience of those who have engaged in discussion teaching bears out the insights offered by current research, for essentially discussion teaching, “is a systematic way of constructing a context for learning from the knowledge and experience of students, rather than exclusively from the canons of disciplinary knowledge”. Students construct their own learning through extending prior knowledge, and discussion teaching effectively enables this. David Garvin has written the preface as well as the bookend articles. The preface is akin to an informative guide that sets you on your way as you enter the book. It tells us that this is “a book by practitioners for practitioners”, that it is “operational rather than theoretical in tone, and that it is based primarily on distilled, articulated experience”. The preface also dwells on the diverse and personal perspectives the articles offer, and the commonalities in the approach of the authors towards teaching, which is not seen simply as a gift or talent, but “an essentially human activity, fraught with uncertainties and unresolved dilemmas”. All these signposts fill the hungry reader with anticipation for fare that is very authentic and enabling, something rare and unique in the abundant literature on education.
The chapters are organized in five parts: ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘Personal Odysseys’, ‘Building Blocks’, ‘Critical Challenges’, and ‘Education for Judgment’. Each section consists of essays that heart-warmingly delineate the author’s journey with discussion teaching, and the lessons learnt along the way. The facets dealt with are too numerous for me to attempt to list here—the material is mind-boggling in its reach and spread. The writing is reminiscent of skilful surgery or careful excavation—of hands reaching into the folds of experience, always returning with weighty nuggets in the form of insights, questions, dilemmas, instrumental tools, and much else. To cull instances from a few essays would be to do injustice to the others, but I shall still proceed to give you a flavour of what’s on offer here. David Garvin in ‘Barriers and Gateways to Learning’ says “In the traditional model, the core concept is teaching; here, it is learning.... Teaching of this sort is exceedingly hard to do. It requires a shift in the role, preparation, knowledge, and skills of instructors.”
C. Roland Christensen in ‘Premises and Practices of Discussion Teaching’, has said, “Forging a primary alliance with students means investing intellect, time, energy, and emotion in discovering who they are, where they are, and how they may best find their way to the material. Such efforts help the instructor become a true teacher.”
Julie Hertenstein in ‘Patterns of Participation’, adds, “Continuous profiling of the patterns of student participation allows the teacher to adjust teaching tactics and tailor opportunities for participation appropriate for the individual student. These profiles also provide the basis for individual coaching.”
James Wilkinson and Heather Dubrow in ‘Encouraging Independent Thinking’ state “The purpose of our questions and assignments should be to encourage, stimulate, and—when necessary—challenge students to articulate and test their beliefs.”
As I pored over the ideas, I found myself underlining, making notes to myself in the margins, and marking out passages that thrilled me and deserve re-reading. These essays are imbued with scholarship of the highest order, as seen also in the manner in which ideas are presented, coherence being a key feature. They are excellent samples of good academic writing, lucid, wellorganized, happily fulfilling the anticipation of the reader at every step.
I shall desist from saying more. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I shall see that my classroom this term benefits from the insights generated by this book. I agree with Parker J. Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach that to teach is to take big risks, but with companions like the books mentioned here, one feels the wind is supportive beneath one’s wings and one may set sail without too much trepidation.