Book by Michael S. Hale and Elizabeth A. City
Review by Jennifer E. Lerner
Northern Virginia Community College

“Class discussion” is one of the most common teaching techniques used in college classrooms today.  More often than not, faculty use discussion in their classes because they believe it allows for meaningful student participation and active learning.  Michael Hale and Elizabeth City are here to tell us that most of the activities we call discussion are actually teacher-focused and only scratch the surface of the deep learning we could provide our students.

The Teacher’s Guide to Leading Student-Centered Discussions: Talking about Texts in the Classroom describes a student-centered approach Hale and City call “seminar,” meaning a mostly student-guided, text-based discussion.  In this type of discussion, students have meaningful exchanges with each other about large issues raised by intriguing texts. These discussions are guided by periodic but minimal facilitation by the instructor who helps them probe more deeply, reminds them to find textual evidence for their assertions, and maintains appropriate group process.  The text might focus on anything from a poem to a painting to a math problem, as long as the selection is open to multiple interpretations, provides students with an appropriate level of challenge, and engages big issues worthy of deep discussion.

Hale and City provide readers with a detailed and highly practical account of how instructors can facilitate a seminar.  The book provides basics for beginners (how to plan a seminar; how to create pre- and post-seminar activities to extend student learning) and a wealth of material for more experienced practitioners.  The text describes four dimensions (safety, authentic participation, challenge, and ownership) seminar facilitators must balance, provides rubrics for evaluating successes and problems along each dimension, and suggests interventions instructors can use to address common seminar problems.

As a classroom teacher, I found Hale and City’s text simultaneously exciting and overwhelming.  The text provoked me to think in new ways about class discussions and how I might incorporate seminars into my teaching.  I appreciated the practicality of the text, and I can imagine myself returning to it again and again to use its worksheets and rubrics.  At the same time, the seminar idea, as Hale and City define it, is far from what I normally consider a discussion in my classroom. Thinking about reshaping my teaching to try this approach is a bit daunting.

Although the book is generally practical and accessible, it is short on concrete examples.  The vignettes and examples provided are interesting but too brief to provide new practitioners with a deep understanding of what a seminar looks like.  Further, although the authors emphasize that seminars can be used in any discipline and with a wide range of texts, many of the examples are similar, and I was left wondering whether I could find comparable texts in my field.  The book would have been more useful, especially to beginners, if it provided more concrete examples across a range of disciplines.  Relatedly, Hale and City offer only K-12 examples and do not address how seminars might work differently in college classrooms.

Despite these few weaknesses, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to teach students to improve their listening, critical thinking, social, or college success skills.  Any advisor who teaches student development courses will learn some valuable techniques from the book.

The Teacher’s Guide to Leading Student-Centered Discussions: Talking about Texts in the Classroom. (2006).  Book by Michael S. Hale and Elizabeth A. City. Review by Jennifer E. Lerner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 136 pp. $27.95. ISBN # 1412906350
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