Discussions can look and feel very similar to dialogues, but there are important differences that are not easily noticeable. A main difference is that discussions typically have a desired outcome and are often characterized by the teacher or other power figure being the gatekeeper or endorser. Watch a classroom discussion, and many times, the teacher speaks nearly every other time—known sometimes as the Initiation, Response, Evaluation (IRE) model. The goal of a discussion is often to broaden a topic, exchange opinions, review previous concepts, or help engage students by soliciting their ideas. Discussions are great for reviewing for tests, eliciting opinions, sharing, hearing other viewpoints, and creating interest.
Debates, characterized by two oppositional sides, create competitive environments. Each side attempts to win by proving their views and disproving the opposition’s. The goal of a good debater is often to manipulate others into agreement. Debates can be combative and sometimes feel as though both sides just want to tear the other down instead of building understandings up. Debates are primarily useful for critical thinking, data analysis, expanding research skills, synthesizing information, and improving public speaking skills. In a debate we might ask to hear the other side, but in Socratic Seminar we want to ask about all of the sides—and even create new ones.
Participants in Socratic Seminar are meant to engage in dialogue, which differs from both debate and discussion. Examining the roots of the words themselves is revealing (from Online Etymology Dictionary). Discuss and discussion both come from roots meaning “to dash to pieces or agitate” (just think of con-cussion). Debate comes from the notion of “fighting, quarreling or even beating.” Dialogue, however, has its roots in the ideas of “speaking across” and “to collect and gather.” Of the three, dialogue is clearly the most cooperative and collaborative.
early 13c., "literary work consisting of a conversation between two or more persons," from O.Fr. dialoge, from L. dialogus, from Gk. dialogos "conversation, dialogue," related to dialogesthai "converse," from dia- "across" (see dia-) + legein "speak" (see lecture). Sense broadened to "a conversation" c.1400. Mistaken belief that it can only mean "conversation between two persons" is from confusion of dia- and di- (1). A word for "conversation between two persons" is the hybrid duologue (1864).
Notes: the word is based in the idea of "speaking across," or bridging. One of the few words in English with all five vowels; interestingly Education is another. Dialogue is meant to
late 14c., "to quarrel, dispute," from O.Fr. debatre (13c., Mod.Fr. débattre), originally "to fight," from de- "down, completely" (see de-) + batre "to beat" (see battery). As a noun, from early 14c. Related: Debated; debating.
Note: the root of the word has to do with fighting and disagreement. Socratic Seminars should be focused on agreement.
mid-14c., "examination, investigation, judicial trial," from O.Fr. discussion "discussion, examination, investigation, legal trial," from L.L. discussionem (nom. discussio) "examination, discussion," in classical Latin, "a shaking," from discussus, pp. of discutere "strike asunder, break up," from dis- "apart" (see dis-) + quatere "to shake." Meaning "talk over, debate" in English first recorded mid-15c. Sense evolution in Latin appears to have been from "smash apart" to "scatter, disperse," then in post-classical times (via the mental process involved) to "investigate, examine," then to "debate."
Note: the word has the root of smashing or dispersing. The idea probably has to do with talking about something to reveal the component parts, but not necessarily to put something together.
From a word origin perspective then, it is clear that we generally would want dialogue in the classroom. Of course, debate has its place, especially for developing speaking skills. And discussions are commonplace for their quick and easy nature. But it is dialogue that is the highest form of discourse.