Lessons from a Dead French Guy

TT Balanced Authority traffic light

When the power goes, what happens at traffic intersections? Without the central authority of the automated traffic lighting system, the drivers are forced to slow down and become more aware of their surroundings and fellow travelers in order to pass safely through the crossroads. Traffic continues because people, largely, organize themselves. While not ideal for expeditious transit, driving during a blackout can teach one more about the infrastructure of roadways than when the lights are functioning perfectly. Similarly, students can learn more about infrastructures of ideas when a teacher’s authority discussion is less explicit.

The Role of Authority

Think of all the different reasons you may feel the need to act like a traffic cop during in-class discussion. You want the discussion to not stray from what matters. You want everyone to be involved. You don’t want the most opinionated students to dominate. These are legitimate concerns, but they can encourage teachers to adopt too strong an authoritative presence during discussion. The key is balance.

We want our students to be cognizant of the issues and the viewpoints of their peers. We want them to learn how to have a constructive conversation and learn how to learn as a group. At the same time, we don’t want some voices to grow silent while others fill the vacuum with their own relatively strong personalities, competent or not.


When the class process is transformed, from the presentation of facts by an authoritative expert to the discovery of the best application of those facts made amongst peers, then correction is no longer a punitive act. Students are more energized, and are more likely to internalize what they learn, when they learn from each other, and guidance of such a process does not have to draw their focus back to the teacher each time. As the French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essais: “We evade correction, whereas we ought to offer and present ourselves to it, especially when it appears in the form of conference, and not of authority.’

Consider using conversation in similar ways to the following examples in your course:

-The validity of experimental data as measured in a lab
-The applicability of prior rulings in case law

-The difference between terseness and maintainability in programming code
-The choice of weights given to factors in a cost analysis

-The meaning if any, in a poem or song lyric
-The best management technique that might be applied to a studied case scenario

-The effects of certain international trade agreements on job markets When conversation is used in this way learning comes from discovery rather than from lecture, books, or some old dead French guy.

Not that you should (or can) disappear entirely. When you’re in a class, you don’t ever really go away the way the electricity does during a power outage. You can, however, model good discussion techniques, prompt quiet students for contributions and steer the conversation back to the topic at hand in order to “get the traffic flowing,’ while not stepping in after every speaker to reclarify the purpose of the discussion.

Montaigne held that a richer learning experience is offered in discourse that is unavailable from books alone: “The study of books is a languishing and feeble motion that heats not, whereas conversation teaches and exercises at once.’

Discussion is an opportunity to formatively assess the collected knowledge of your class;  note when students correct each
other, or when one goes out on a thoughtful limb while the others listen. Without the authority of a grading mechanic, students more readily express themselves and critique the arguments of others.

TT Balanced Authority montaigne