Medieval dialogue

Whatever happened to the medieval tradition of teaching through dialogue?  Conversation?

When I have a room full of kids who are in no mood to work, I let them talk.  Not because I’m too lazy to argue with them about working (okay, maybe a little), but because they are inspired by discussion.  The other night, we had Sex Discussion Part II, which began with an inquiry as to the pronunciation and meaning of the word “mated”, took a left turn at “Oh, I think I have three boy fish and one girl fish in the same tank”, led to how sex is used by the media (because someone thought the group of fish reminded him of an ad where both sexes were lying around like dead fish), and ended (when he finished giggling and blushing) with Endymion understanding how sexual attraction and sexual roles affect the characters’ relationships in Hamlet.

I like the light-bulbs over their heads.  Light-bulbs mean they do the reading and writing I want them to do.  Just as it does at my family’s dinner table, discussion inevitably requires someone going to get a book to prove their point, or to look up something to prove someone else wrong.  Someone writes something down because they don’t want to forget it.

I’d like to have the kids choose a subject, or maybe several subjects.  We’d go to the library and get a big pile of good books on the subject (some with pictures, some with nice fonts, some with packing tape on the spine because they were so good they’d been read to death).  We’d put that pile in the middle of the room, and bring out the tea and cookies.  We’d sit around reading for a while.  Then, we’d discuss the subjects, connect them, re-shape them, make some decisions, change those decisions, and finally come to a fair understanding of what we had learned.

Everyone would have read the same books, and would be discussing the same subjects, but they’d all have something different to offer.  A different perspective.  A different point which interested them.  A connection someone else hadn’t noticed.  The discussion would be much more educational than a lecture (which only offers one perspective), or a research project (which also only offers one person’s perspective).  If we had two or three people taking notes, we’d have a reasonable record of all the things we covered.

I don’t think anyone refutes the effectiveness of dialogue, or else we wouldn’t teach Plato and Aristotle.  I think maybe it’s just gone by the wayside in favour of “more efficient teaching”.  We’re trying so hard to shove x amount of information into the students’ little heads in x number of years, and we’ve lost the best ways of doing so.

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