The Discern and Digest Toolkit: How Beeck’s Dialogue Series Can Help Build Reflection into the Classroom Experience
June 4, 2021–By Grace Rector
My favorite day of the week is Friday—and not for the reasons you might expect. It’s because every Friday my fellow Beeck Center student analysts and I come together to engage in a structured dialogue about a social impact topic and how it relates to our lives. This weekly discussion space—which we call Discern + Digest (D + D)—has become sacred to me because I can ask the questions that are on my mind and I can admit that I don’t know everything.
Often in my classes at Georgetown I am afraid to give the wrong answer. The classroom is a place where we as students learn about the world and the social issues it faces. Unfortunately, traditional lecture-style courses don’t always make space for students to process these current events and challenging situations on an emotional or personal level. Professors have a lesson to teach and students need to learn, but where is the time for discernment and dialogue?
At the Beeck Center, we decided to respond to this need and developedD + D—a dialogue series that functions as a space for student analysts to grow together through meaningful conversations. Building off of Georgetown’s value of discernment, every week a group of Beeck student analysts gathers together to discuss and unravel difficult questions related to their work and personal identity. This series takes questions a step deeper than traditional Q&A forums, preparing students to become comfortable with inquiry and therefore engage more fully in their work. Each week, a guest speaker joins the space and tells a story that captures a question they’ve explored throughout their professional career or personal life. Some powerful questions we’ve discussed in the past include:
- How can we go beyond diversity and create inclusive spaces?
- How do you stay grounded while trying to change the system?
- How do our identities shape the way we move through school/work?
The art of asking good questions is sometimes more powerful than knowing the answers. In academic spaces I am often afraid to ask a “dumb” question or offer the “wrong” answer, which hinders my learning. During a D + D dialogue I feel brave enough to share my experiences and questions with the group without fear of judgement. If D + D were integrated into my classrooms I would be more likely to engage, ask questions, and connect with my peers.
That’s why we developed the Discern + Digest toolkit, which was created primarily for on-campus centers and student organizations, but can also be adapted for educators who want to bring critical thinking to their classrooms in an innovative way. D + D is for professors who want to offer students the space to dive deeper into course material through conversation or co-curricular leaders who want to introduce discernment in their work and activities. At the Beeck Center, D + D runs as a 10-week series with one session per week on Fridays; however, a professor or campus leader can still benefit from implementing just a few one-time conversations throughout their semester, following our one-time D + D agenda.
Educators may be thinking, How would this enhance my course? How will this help students achieve learning goals? D + D is a pedagogical approach to deepening students’ learning. In the summer of 2020, the sustainable student involvement team at the Beeck Center conducted a feedback survey in which 100% of student participants of D + D agreed or strongly agreed that they learned something new and 100 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the series helped create a strong community among participants. Rather than simply teaching the material to students, professors can create a one-time or regularly allocated time to have a dialogue about a course-related question that will allow students to practice critical thinking and ultimately retain more information from the class. Applying D + D to the classroom may function similarly to this fictitious scenario that we developed.
The Beeck Center’s Chief Strategy + Social Innovation Officer and Georgetown Adjunct Professor Nate Wong is building a version of D + D into a new course he is teaching called “Social Impact as Consciousness” On an individual level, students in his class are required to keep a “philosopher’s journal” to keep track of their learning and introspection. But they are also encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings in the classroom around a probing question posed each week. As Nate writes in his syllabus for the course, “This seminar is a container for deeper community among other students who are also going through their impact discovery journey. It is meant to be a brave space for fellow journeyers to explore deeply, thoughtfully, and vulnerably.” Allowing students to connect personal experiences with curriculum may help them achieve learning goals. As a student, I crave deeper conversations in classrooms and I desire more time to apply course materials to my life. Leveraging students’ funds of knowledge significantly improves the course as a whole because students bring insight and experience that the professor would not be able to access otherwise.
Furthermore, bringing in a guest speaker (as we often do at our weekly D + D sessions at Beeck) allows the students to gain a different perspective on the curriculum, further deepening their understanding. Many professors currently invite guest speakers to their class; however, the speaker often dominates the space, leaving little room for students to engage in a critical discussion with their classmates, professor, and guest. By using the D + D model and appointing a student (or students) to facilitate the conversation, students gain the opportunity to improve their public speaking and planning skills, which will serve them beyond their time at Georgetown. Integrating D + D-style conversations into the classroom will increase student engagement, deepen critical thinking skills, and encourage students to bring their whole selves to the classroom to engage with the material and improve learning outcomes. The Beeck Center incubates tools like D + D with the intent to scale them for wider social impact. If you’re interested in utilizing this resource and starting your own D + D discussion series, please do so and let us know how it goes! If you would like support in integrating these principles into your classroom, please contact the Beeck Center.
Grace Rector is a senior at Georgetown graduating in May 2021 with a degree in Culture and Politics with a concentration in International Education. Grace is currently looking for a role where she can utilize her passion and experience with education to create inclusive training, workshops, and programs. She has worked as a Beeck Center Student Analyst since 2018. Follow her at @grace-rector (Twitter) and on gracemarianarector.com