Watch this Harvard Professor Lead Discussion Like a Pro

Chris Christensen teaching at Harvard (The Art of Discussion, 2007)

Chris Christensen teaching at Harvard (The Art of Discussion, 2007)

We could learn so much about teaching if we could observe the best teachers actually teach. When scholars write about good teaching, we get glimpses, descriptions, principles, lots of principles. But how much of good teaching cannot be put into words? How much do we miss by not being there and seeing it for ourselves? At least something. Possibly quite a lot.

So it’s with joy that I’ve watched and re-watched the 30-minute video of Chris Christensen teaching embedded at the end of this post. Produced by Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, The Art of Discussion Leading (2007) was initially for sale as a DVD but is now available online for free. With some narration, the video presents clips of his classroom interspersed with interviews with some of his students and with Christensen himself.

In the video, we see Christensen in action. He sits on the edge of his seat. Looks away. Nods his head. Seems on the verge of saying something. Gathers his hands. Says, “Yeah.” Settles somewhat to listen intently. Scans the room, making eye contact, searching.

Discussion teaching is inherently experimental. No matter how many conversations you’ve had, you’ve not had this one, with these students. Perhaps this is what Christensen means when he says, “your classroom can be a laboratory. Every good teaching plan has an experiment in it.”

One of his students comments to the camera, “He could have lectured us, I’m sure . . . he knew it all, but he didn’t need to do that, what’s the point of his telling us when we’ll learn so much better by our telling ourselves. He role as the leader was to share what he knew but to encourage us to make the discoveries ourselves.”

A student also explains part of Christensen’s method for facilitating discussions: “There are a series of questions he’ll ask. And when you come into the room, he’ll pick two people. Would you mind being the lead off? And he’ll pick someone else to go second. . . . I think the reason he picks two people in the beginning is that there might be a difference in point of view, and that, from his perspective, is a good thing. He can then contrast what the first student said with what the second student said. And Chris likes to try to work toward contrasts.”

I wish we had more videos like this as well as more opportunities to watch our own best colleagues in action live. Perhaps we have the opportunities and merely need to create the time or the habit to go watch them. In either case, encourage you to watch the video yourself. Meanwhile, here are the key things I am taking away. Chris Christensen . . .

  1. prepares in advance;
  2. is welcoming to everyone (from his first words, “Welcome everybody!”);
  3. keeps in mind the many things happening at the same time during a discussion, paying attention to cues and clues from students;
  4. uses body language that is open, active, and expectant;
  5. asks different kinds of questions in an intentional progression (information, analysis, operational);
  6. makes connections between the different things different people say;
  7. pushes people along, sometimes by simply asking them go further with their comment (saying, for instance, “Alright, would you be willing to push your idea, because we’ve got a good start, push your idea a little bit farther”);
  8. mixes discussion of subject with meta-reflection on the discussion (in his metaphor, we move between a dance floor and a balcony overlooking the dance floor);
  9. waits in silence sometimes (“I look for the little time, it can be three or four or five seconds, of reflection”);
  10. reframes students comments as needed to connect them to something said previously or to push the conversation along;
  11. wraps up the discussion with a mini-lecture of his own; and
  12. has an overall attitude and philosophy of teaching and life that says that teaching involves making something happen in students and connecting the momentary with the eternal.

What he says regarding that last point gets the last word of this post, a final enticement for you to watch the video for yourself: “Teaching to me is the greatest of all vocations because it allows you to combine the momentary and the infinite. That is when you ask a question, it’s the simplest and humblest task, but if you ask the question of the right student at the right moment, you may help her or him to new insights, new visions. It is the great vocation.”



Also of interest may be the book Chris Christensen co-authored, with David A. Garvin and Ann Sweet, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.



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