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Ethical Reasoning and the Art of Classroom Dialogue


When we were students, many of us had the following experience: our teacher would start to lead a classroom "discussion," but we had a sinking suspicion that it was just a sham. All she wanted from the class was for us to fill in the blanks of her pre-programmed curriculum. She would fish around from student to student until she got the answer she was looking for. So we kids had to make a choice between sincerely expressing our own thoughts on the subject, at considerable risk to our grade, or simply giving the teacher what she wanted to hear. The "smarter" kids chose to play it safe. Their reward was the teacher's effusive praise for supplying the "right" answer.

About ten years ago, our experience as producers of public television programs brought home to us how these pseudo-discussions were really colossal missed opportunities for learning. This realization came in 1987-88 in the process of preparing The Power of Choice, a PBS series of talk shows for teenagers. We learned what was wrong with these "fill-in-the-blanks" discussions, and we ended up designing a method for dynamic classroom discussions.


We are dialogue fanatics. We believe that the true, open exchange of views is fundamental to a democratic society. Young people need a forum to express their thoughts, but they also need to be trained to become respectful listeners of diverse opinions. We believe that the best place to learn this principal is in school. Good classroom discussions lay the groundwork for democratic participation throughout life, giving students a sense of power within a community, and conveying to them the importance of their future role as participants in society.

A thoughtful classroom discussion helps kids develop critical thinking. Talking in a group helps students learn to organize their thoughts and present them coherently. Students also learn to be active listeners, holding other peoples' ideas up to critical analysis. They come to see that there are always alternative ways of looking at a difficult problem or situation. And later on in life they reap the rewards in the real world from thinking creatively on their feet. So, classroom discussions yield very powerful individual and social benefits.


Twelve years ago we wanted to make a series of videos for teens covering a range of topics pertaining directly and concretely to their lives — something that would teach them that they had the power to make good choices in their lives. We were inspired by a PBS series produced in connection with the Columbia University Media In Society Seminars. The series was called " The Constitution, That Delicate Balance," and was about values in conflict. It featured a skillful moderator who presented hypothetical situations to a panel of distinguished participants representing a range of competing interests. The moderator would begin with a relatively simple situation and ask the panelists how they, in their various professional positions, would handle it. As the story became progressively more complex, the panelists became increasingly divided. Giving different priorities to different values produced wildly different choices. It was a very seductive format. It was almost impossible to watch this conversation without wanting to participate.

We decided to do something like this series for teenagers. But could this format be adapted for high school classroom use? Would teenagers respond to it with the same enthusiasm we did? Speaking realistically, this talk show was pretty cerebral. It flamed our passions, but that's because we cared about the ideas being examined. But what about the high school set?


We figured we needed two essential ingredients - a moderator who would appeal to teens and a line of questioning that would engage them. The first element turned out to be the easiest for us. We enlisted the involvement of Michael Pritchard, a very charismatic local comic, who had made a career out of working with troubled youth. His chemistry with young people was ideal for our show.

The second element, the questions, proved to be more difficult. We knew that our line of questioning would have to accomplish at least three things: 1) It would have to trigger a great discussion for the cameras; 2) It would have to hold the attention of teen viewers; and 3) it must deliver solid content that teachers would want to spend class time on. We approached this task the old fashioned way — by reinventing what others before us had already perfected. When we began work on the first program in our proposed series we were really groping. We had little idea of what was going to work; we just made up some questions and let the cameras roll. We stumbled from discussion to discussion trying out different questioning strategies with only marginal or partial successes. Finally, at the start of the very last discussion we were to tape, we hit on a hypothetical question that took off like a rocket. The ensuing conversation was breathtaking both in its energy and its content. It was as emotionally and intellectually satisfying as two hours with a group of high schoolers could possibly be. And it gave us what we needed to make a pretty terrific show.

In retrospect we now know how fortunate we were to have had only enough money for the first program in the series. The experience of producing this first program was a hugely important learning experience for us. It gave us the opportunity to get it right before we were committed to a long, expensive series of programs. As we sat in the editing room studying our raw footage, we were able to closely analyze the dynamics of classroom discussion and observe how kids responded to different lines of questioning. And, when our funding was approved for eleven more programs in the series, we knew what we had to do.

Our goal was to produce a synthesis between the Socratic Dialogues of Plato, the ethical dilemmas of Lawrence Kohlberg, and the natural, humorous conversational style of Steve Allen.     

We spent months trotting around to high schools throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, conducting an extensive series of rehearsals where we tested and modified and rethought our questions until we had a working recipe. Even as we traveled across America videotaping the actual programs, with children who were neither coached, prompted, nor scripted, we continued to make adjustments as we learned from each new experience. From this we've been able to derive a set of guidelines for designing effective questions and structuring productive discussions. Over the years we have received feedback from many hundreds of teachers who have viewed our programs on PBS and on video. They told us that they have used the same facilitation techniques modeled on the screen with remarkable success in their classrooms. Since these skills can be demonstrated and taught, we thought it would be useful to describe our method in this article for the benefit of all classroom teachers. This article is a summary of these now well-tested techniques.


1.  Kids love to engage in conversation if they feel secure and have the sense  that other kids will respect their views.

2. Virtually anyone can learn to facilitate a successful classroom discussion, but teachers need to learn some techniques and practice them with their students.

3. These techniques work especially well for character education and teaching ethical choices (our area of experience), but they are also marvelous for teaching the humanities, social science, and literature.

In the course of a decade, we filmed almost two hundred student discussions involving ethical dilemmas. In "Acting on Your Values," one of the programs in The Power of Choice series, our host launched the discussion by posing a hypothetical question based roughly on personal experience. He tells how, when he was a teenager, he found a wallet with a lot of money in it. It was right before Christmas during a particularly hard time for his family. This hypothetical triggered the following discussion:

1st Girl: I sympathize with you in that situation, because last year my mother was very ill and our Christmas was shot. We've always had magnificent Christmases and last Christmas it was like dogged, and I was like unappreciative. I know if I came across that money I would take it and give it to my mother, and you know 'you take care of this, you take care of that with it.' I would not give it back.

2nd Girl: I would have to give it back, cause I just, I would not feel right. Because number one, if I even gave it to my mother, she'd go, "where’d you get this? Give it back!" My mother wouldn't even take it. I'd think about it a long time. But I really wouldn't be able to take it.

Boy: What about the person that lost it? They'd have to pay, and they'd be suffering. That's just like, could you reach into someone's wallet and take 260 dollars?

As you see, the students spoke openly and voiced honest opinions. They felt free to disagree, never holding back out of fear that their views would not be appreciated. After the "teentalks," many students told us that they had never been asked to think about a situation so in depth, and that their ideas had never been taken so seriously before. One caveat, however: in an issue involving right and wrong, it is important to guide the students to the right conclusion rather than allowing them to think that whatever they conclude is okay. The art is in asking questions that help them arrive at the right conclusions on their own.



We spend at least as much time planning the discussion as we do in conducting the discussion itself. The launch is the most important part of the entire process. If a teacher launches a discussion properly, students will jump on-board immediately. Almost any topic can be made exciting to the students if the teacher chooses a hot button starting point. 1 The best launch is a thought-provoking question, such as a hypothetical, or a question that asks "do you agree or disagree with the following statement."

A provocative opening question can trigger a spirited and highly productive interchange. A dry, uninspiring question can reduce the whole thing to a boring, academic exercise. You can tell a good question by the results it produces. A good question makes the kids really, really want to answer it. It grabs them emotionally as well as intellectually. It is challenging and often even fun. It stimulates critical thinking while promoting cross-talk, or debate between the students. Above all, it hits the nail on the head with regard to content. In the end the line of questioning may be disarmingly simple, but it prods the kids into thinking very deeply and critically about the topic.

We have discovered some questions that almost always produce dividends. If the student takes a personal stand, a good thing to do is ask, "How does that choice make you feel about yourself?" or "What would you think of a character in a movie who made the same choice?" Other golden questions include "What would be the right thing to do?" and "Why or why not?"

In our videos we ask "why" or "why not" questions because we think they often produce the best results. Anybody can give a simple, unsupported answer to anything. Asking a student to justify an answer forces reflection, analysis, and critical thinking; while it often results in the student modifying her initial position. This is the part of the questioning process where learning most actively takes place. It also stimulates the interchange between the students, because, when a student is required to voice the reasoning behind her answer, she reveals her underlying assumptions and beliefs. That gives the discussion leader and the other participants a lot more to talk about, and the students so much more of an opportunity to learn about the topic and themselves.


Armed with our line of questioning, we are ready to face the students. Before introducing the main topic, we always warm up the students with what we call "party game" questions. These are fun situations in which kids can express themselves without having to think really hard. The party game is usually on a topic somewhat related to the central issue. For example, if the main topic is teen pregnancy, we might start by asking "Girls, what do boys do on a date that really annoys you?" Then we pose the same question to the boys. The light, bantering conversation builds trust within the group, so that even shy kids become more willingly to participate. We have discovered that almost any subject can be introduced successfully with a party game.

At this stage it is often very helpful if the discussion leader shares a personal experience with the students. Being honest with the students encourages them to express themselves honestly in return. It also makes the students feel that they are in a safe place and that the situations being discussed are real and carry personal weight. While producing our character education videos we asked our host to share with the kids some of his own fears and insecurities. That helped the teenagers to understand that they are not alone and that they are not the only ones who may be unsure, doubtful, and perplexed.

Over the years we have discovered some things that help to set a comfortable conversational tone for the discussion. We frequently use humor, surprisingly even when we are discussing serious issues. As our moderator Michael Pritchard says, "the shortest distance between two people is a good laugh." Humor can break down communication barriers while making everyone feel at ease. Also, we recognize and respect children's opinions and their concerns and fears. It is important to be non-judgmental of the students themselves while at the same time holding their choices up to critical analysis by the group. That way students begin to take responsibility for their choices and their actions. And because the learning experience is so personal, it will be most memorable.


In converting the techniques we learned in the production of our videos to classroom use, we want to mention one additional thing that we see as necessary for the completion of the learning process. When we distribute our videos, we always include a facilitation guide for the teachers. This guide includes classroom projects and activities. To insure that the students derive the most from the classroom discussion, the teacher will need to have some challenging follow-up projects, including writing assignments and organized group activities. These will reinforce the key learning objectives while making the discussion memorable for a long time to come.


Spirited classroom discussions are valuable for encouraging critical thinking. They promote articulate speech and respectful, active listening. They also can be a lot of fun, even for kids who are not usually at ease speaking in a group. When students participate in a real discussion, in which they formulate their thoughts on a topic, express their personal judgments, and are respected for their opinions by the other participants, then real learning takes place. In these kinds of discussions people have a more memorable experience. Moreover, group discussions serve as a learning lab for democratic principals that really pay off later in life when, as adults, the students participate in the society at large. Therefore, the entire process is good for the students and for the society as a whole.




David H. Elkind, a television/video producer and educator, and Freddy Sweet, Ph.D. a television/film producer and a former Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, are co-Presidents of Live Wire Media and Elkind+Sweet Communications, Inc. (e-mail: and


David H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet, Ph.D.,"The Socratic Approach to Character Education" Educational Leadership 54 (May 1997): 56-59.