Assistant Professor Paula McAvoy on Facilitating Classroom Discussions

Court of North Carolina
Paula McAvoy
Dr. Paula McAvoy

Dr. Paula McAvoy, an assistant professor of social studies education in the NC State College of Education, wants young people to be engaged and informed citizens. And she thinks teachers can help prepare them. Starting her career as a high school social studies teacher, she left the classroom after 10 years to find out how to make classroom discussions better and more productive for all.

In the years since, she has conducted research on what students learn from the classroom discussion; she has studied the ethical dimensions of teaching; she co-authored The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education; and she created professional development programs to improve classroom discussion.

Later this month, Dr. McAvoy will share her talk “The Ethics of Steering Classroom Discussions” as part of the Ethics Across the Disciplines Lecture Series hosted by the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In the Q&A below, she gives a preview of her talk and shares what practitioners can do to set their classrooms up for productive conversations.

What drew you to study philosophy of education and the relationship between schools and society and the ethical dimensions of teaching?

When I left my career as a high school social studies teacher after 10 years, I was motivated by the question, “Why are we doing this to them?” Put differently, I wanted to know what we, as a society, should be trying to accomplish when we compel students to attend schools. This is a central question for philosophy of education because it directs our focus toward ideas about what it means to be an educated person and what role society ought to play in educating young people. It is also a question about teaching and the ethical dimensions of working within an institution that plays such a large role in the lives of children.

In the upcoming lecture, you will reconsider the practice of steering discussions, especially political ones, in the classroom. What do you mean by steering?

By steering, I mean when a teacher invites students to discuss what appears to them to be an open question but is one in which the instructor believes there is a right answer. When steering, the teacher subtly tries to direct the discussion toward that answer. The standard view of steering is that it is unethical because it undermines the students’ ability to make up their own minds. In the talk, I will argue that this view of steering is too simplistic and that there may be times in which practices that look like steering could be helpful for developing students’ judgments.

What are your tips for good facilitation?

Good discussions happen when there is a compelling question, clear norms, structure, and common materials.

How can practitioners improve their facilitation skills?

The reality is that political discussion is still a fairly rare activity in classrooms, and this is partially caused by teachers not getting explicit training in how to design and facilitate discussions. Teachers who are interested in improving discussion should seek out professional development opportunities that are specifically focused on the skill of discussion.