Discussion 101

Ground Rules for Following the Logos

(pdf version)

Keith Buhler
Humanities Trinity Classical Academy


This class is discussion oriented. Even lectures and reading are aimed at discussion by giving us content to discuss. Lecture/reading is serving up and biting off content, but discussion is the chewing and digesting of that content.

Discussions will get better. They may start off slow, boring, or dull. They will eventually become more and more well-paced, interesting, and exciting. Discussion is where we will learn the most. Discussion is where we will “unlearn” what we thought we knew. Discussion is where we enjoy ourselves the most and make lasting changes in ourselves.

This document gives you justification and set some expectations to help our discussions go well.

I. Why discussion?

“All humans by nature desire knowledge.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics I). How do we satisfy our desire for knowledge? There are several ways: observation, memory, personal experience, testimony, expert or authority instruction, scientific experiment, reading literature, and a few other ways. Why discussion?

We discuss for several reasons:  is more interesting than lecture; it helps us retain the information; it challenges our own viewpoint; and because philosophy itself is a dialogue. Furthermore, discussion with friends and experts is one of the best ways to learn, especially about philosophical truths. But what is discussion?

A good discussion is more than just sharing opinions; it is an eager, friendly search for truth. It is not combative or competitive but friendly; it is not full of posturing, disguises, but sincere and eager. It is not a search for “opinions” but a search for truths not known, or deeper understanding of truths known.

Why search for truth? On the one hand, there are three situations in which you do not need to learn X. You do not need to learn X if you already know X; or if you do not know X but you don’t realize it; or if you do not know  X, and realize it, but X is unimportant.

On the other hand, you desire to know when this happens: X is important, you do not know X, you realize you don’t know it. Asking questions helps us realize what we don’t know.

We ask questions, and propose an answer. We then evaluate the answer: is it a good answer? Is it good enough? Are there any flaws? Are there any other more reasonable answers?

II. What is “Socratic discussion”?

A Socratic discussion is not just any old discussion. Discussion can be random, led by whim, associative, a stream of thought, teacher lead, individualistic, and aimed at displaying brilliance. A Socratic discussion is none of those things.

Rather, a Socratic Discussion is:

  1. Not random, but oriented toward a telo,

  2. Not by whim, but prepared

  3. Not associative, but deliberative

  4. Not a display of brilliance, but a discovery

  5. Not teacher lead, but student lead

  6. Not a constant stream of thought, but rather a mix of pauses, thoughts, questions, and silence

  7. Not a lecture re-cast in questions and answers, but an exploration with explanation

  8. Not just student centered, but text centered

  9. Not individualistic, but communal

III. Ground Rules (Short)

1. ANSWER the question.

2. CITE the text often.

3. ADDRESS each other, not just the teacher.

4. SILENCE can be good, too.

5. CONVERSE naturally, no need to raise hands.

7. SAY what you really think.

8. LISTEN carefully to your neighbor.

9. UNDERSTAND first, then agree or disagree.

10. CHANGE your own mind, seek the truth.

11. COLLABORATE with each other.

12. FOLLOW the argument wherever it leads.

IV. Ground Rules (Detailed)

1. ANSWER the question.

The first task of a discussion is to answer the question using all the available means at your disposable. Use the text, logic, your own experience, Bible, and the comments of others to develop a satisfying answer.

2. CITE the text often.

We are always or almost always discussing a book. We might also discuss a movie, lecture, poem, or experience (like Hume Lake). We might also debrief the last discussion and discuss how well we are doing.

When we are discussion a text, cite it. Use portions you underlined. Refer to relevant sections. Bring up puzzling passages. Don’t just go from memory — read and re-read the text before class, but also read and re-read it in class.

3. ADDRESS each other, not just the teacher.

Don’t compare yourself to each other. Sure, one of us must be the dumbest person in the room. But who cares? If it’s you, wouldn’t it be a good thing to be surrounded by your intellectual superiors? Statistically, we are each different in life experiences, skills, languages, and, of course, IQs. If you are the quickest person in the room, great, help us. If you are the slowest, great, learn. Don’t be either haughty or hopeless; be humble and helpful.

4. SILENCE can be good, too.

Just because it’s a “discussion day” doesn’t mean we have to discuss the whole period. We need time to digest, to think, to process, to formulate, to ponder, or just to rest. If I am not talking, then you are free to. If I am talking, you are free to interrupt and ask for a minute to think.

5. CONVERSE naturally, no need to raise hands.

A good discussion flows naturally. Don’t raise your hands, just try to get your word in edgewise.

6. NO SIDE-TALK. Talk to everyone or no one.

If you are sitting next to friends, you may be tempted to share your thoughts only with them. Don’t give in! Talk to the whole class.

7. SAY what you really think.\

We are going to be discussing some big “hypothetical” topics. Don’t be fooled. We can only grow if we put ourselves on the line.

There is an opportunity to become someone new in this class. You can become someone you’ve never been, to ascend new vistas. If you challenge yourself, you will scale new heights, uncover unknown breadths, and plumb uncharted depths. But if you hide your real question, your vulnerable, dangerous, trembling, shy question, then none of this will happen. You will stay comfortable, but at what cost?

8. LISTEN carefully to your neighbor.\

Some people are easy to listen to. Some are hard. Practice listening to both. If a person is crazy, annoying, loud, quiet, irrational, or irritatingly rational, listen anyway. At some point in this class, you will be hard to listen to — but you want others to listen anyway.

9. UNDERSTAND first, then agree or disagree.

If the truth is life to us, and falsehood death, then helping each other out of error and falsehood is not optional — it is obligatory. It is not a debate tactic, a “gotcha” move, oppression, verbal abuse, hateful, or aggressive — it is loving. Of course, both parties in a philosophical argument have to (a) want the truth and (b) love each other.

10. CHANGE your own mind, seek the truth.

If truth is life to us, and falsehood death, then you don’t have much time to bother with just your neighbor’s errors — focus on your own. Seeing our blind spots is so difficult it is almost impossible. You will have to work harder on seeing your mistakes than working out and staying fit. It’s harder to learn your errors than to get an “A” in class. It’s harder to see yourself than to travel the world.

11. COLLABORATE with each other.

We can hurt each other and still be friends. You have hurt and been hurt by your family and you’re still family, aren’t you? But we don’t want to intentionally hurt each other with insults, teasing, and mocking. Sometimes the truth hurts. We have to say the truth. So sometimes we have to hurt each other. Try not to hurt your neighbor unless it is for this reason.

12. FOLLOW the argument wherever it leads.

Human reason is not infallible, but it is reliable. Trust the argument, even if it leads to unexpected, surprising, painful, or implausible conclusions. If the conclusion we are lead to is in error, use the argument to expose that error. If not, then take courage, have faith, and change your mind (and if need be, change your life).

V. Preparation

Each discussion day is centered around one essential question. These will be posted ahead of time so that you can work to think about the question and adduce evidence for your answer before class happens.

Discussion will take place every two weeks on Friday (A days) or Monday (B days).  See this coming and prepare!

VI. How to Lead Discussion:

Ready to help lead a discussion? As we get better at discussion, some of  you will try your hand at leading. Here are some tips.


  1. Read the text carefully, attending to main themes and one’s own wonder/interest/questions.

  2. Brainstorm opening questions

  3. Filter out yes/no questions, or questions whose scope is impossibly large, or questions that relate text


  1. Give introductory comments on topic (to frame question)

  2. Ask opening question (to give students today’s goal)

  3. If needed, give brief comments (to support question)

  4. Temporarily sit back and be quiet (to allow students to take responsibility for answering the question, defining the terms, finding and citing relevant text, etc.)

  5. Moderate discussion (to keep students on the topic and relevant tangents, to challenge easy but inadequate answers, to deepen curiosity)

    Ready to learn How to Lead a Discussion?