Barn Raising: Collaborative Group Process in Seminars

In the classrooms of higher education, the seminar is a puzzling phenomenon. Most teachers understand what to do with a lecture and, usually, what causes its success or failure. But the seminar is another matter. Most instructors aren’t sure what a good one ought to look like, and, even if we did know, how to accomplish that. The problem is both technical and attitudinal. It seems intuitively clear that a seminar ought not to be a question-and-answer session, though often it is. Conversely, the implication is that it should be conversation among the students in which the participation is widespread and the teacher is just another participant, or else in some way a facilitator of the discussion. But what sort of conversation? Experience teaches that when it is not a question-and-answer session, it is either aimless drifting (“just a bull-session” in the students words) or an argument.

“Well,” the reader might ask, “what’s wrong with a good argument? It keeps people on their toes, forces them to have prepared and punishes those who haven’t thought through their ideas. A boxing match is fast and aggressive or it is dull. Isn’t that true of an intellectual conversation, as well?” This paper will take the position that the boxing match is not the best possible model for a seminar. “But,” our reader might reasonably object, “for two hundred years the European and American tradition of education has been that students must be challenged to sharpen their thinking. They must continually test the validity of their ideas by exposing them in combat. The classroom is a dueling school in which one’s most basic weapons are sharpened for the battle of life.”

We would like to suggest:

1. The classroom battle is not a good way to teach thinking.

2. Even if it were, it makes idea-conversation so unpleasant that students do their best to avoid it, in college and afterwards.

3. It is a significant contribution to the building of a society of contention and enmity.

4. And, as an alternative, there is another way to talk about ideas which obviates those difficulties.

The model we are about to offer is not a boxing match but rather a group of builders constructing a building together or a group of artists fabricating a creation together. Anyone who believes the old aphorism that no work of art was ever made by a committee has never attended a good jam session.

It is not hard to imagine why the fight model has clung so in American education. For one thing, it has had the support of much of academic psychology. The motivation psychologists have taught for many years that moderate arousal is good for performance and that the source of the arousal is irrelevant. While acknowledging that a lot of fear or anger would paralyze the student, psychologists have steadfastly maintained that a little bit of adrenaline is what keeps things alive and that moderate amounts of fear and anger are perfectly acceptable ways of generating it. In the old rat labs of Yale and Iowa all drives were the same and could be added and subtracted to each other. That tradition has died hard. The truth of the matter is that there is absolutely no evidence that fear or anger in any quantity enhances complex mental activity and there is plenty of evidence that it interferes with it. There is no question but that moderate arousal is necessary to keep the students awake. But it matters considerably which drive generates that arousal. If fear and anger are not useful, what would do? Well, breaking down of old cognitive structures is arousal; so is the excitement of working at an intellectual task; so is the joy of building a structure with collaborators.

Football coaches are apt to get a lineman angry before a game; all he has to do is beat hell out of the guy across from him. But coaches have cause for concern if the quarterback is angry. The quarterback needs all his smarts; he cannot afford the functional cortical damage caused by the mid-brain firing off the fear and anger signals. So we are going to offer here a collaborative model for the seminar.

Before describing how to go about setting up a more effective seminar, we will quote from an earlier paper which describes three dysfunctional kinds of seminar and then describe our fourth model. The four are

. . . the Free-for-All, the Beauty Contest, the Distinguished House Tour, and the Barn-Raising. We think they go in that order toward being progressively freer from our cultural liabilities, and consequently, that they go in that order toward being progressively richer styles of intellectual conversation.

Free-for-All-In this seminar there is a prize to be won, whether it’s the instructor’s approval or one’s self esteem. There is no other goal but to win. If fighting fair won’t win, then one fights in whatever way will win. One wins not simply by looking smart, but by looking smarter. Thus, important as it is to look smart, it is equally important to make the others look dumb.

Beauty Contest-This is the seminar in which each idea is paraded in all its finery, seeking admiration. When it has been displayed, its sponsor withdraws to think up the next idea, paying little attention to the next contestant. Thus, each person’s ideas bear little or no relation to anyone else’s.

Distinguished House Tour-Similarly, the Distinguished House Tour seminar begins with one member advancing an idea. The other students spend some time exploring that idea as they might an interesting house. They ask questions and look for inconsistencies, trying hard to understand the conception. When they have a good grasp of it, someone offers another idea and the seminar members explore that. Just as gracious hosts don’t compare houses or claim one is better, each idea is thought to be interesting in its own right. This is a high form of discourse and can produce a good seminar. It also has some problems.

In our early work we had thought that the Distinguished House Tour was the most advanced seminar. It is, after all, the Socratic dialogue. Socrates invites a friend to adopt a position and then incisively questions that position. Gradually, we learned from our own experience what Socrates’ students may well have learned from theirs: defending or explaining a position is lonely and stressful. When one is trying to explore a new thought, the pressure of the group probing for problems or inconsistencies is at best like a trial and at worst like an inquisition. We began by observing that the young and the shy, far from feeling encouraged, quickly retreated in the face of this exploration, however friendly and polite it might have been. Later, we saw that it was not just the inexperienced; there are few people, even those who enjoy fencing, who find that this position enhances the development of a thought. In most Socratic dialogues, we realized, Socrates emerges one-up and everyone else comes out looking a little foolish.

That discovery led us to our next step.

Barn Raising-In frontier America when a family needed a barn but had limited labor and other resources, the entire community gathered to help them build the barn. The host family described the kind of barn it had in mind and picked the site. The community then pitched in and built it. Neighbors would suggest changes and improvements as they built.

This seminar begins with a member telling the group ideas which might be newly formed and not yet thought out. Then the community gathers to build the barn, to put together that idea. As I hear you say the original idea, it may be something I “disagree” with or something I’ve never thought about before; but now it becomes my project, and I set about helping you build it, helping us build it. After you’ve offered the idea, you have no more responsibility for developing it, defending it, or explaining it than anybody else in the group. If I have a problem with that idea, the problem belongs to the whole seminar, not just to you. You are not the lonely defender of that idea but part of a task-force whose job is to develop it to its fullest potential, to make the best possible case for it. It is not your idea anymore; it belongs to the seminar. The energy which might have gone into conflict, or into polite challenge-and-defense, now is directed toward a common goal.

One advantage of the Barn Raising seminar turned out to be that people don’t come out of the seminars holding their original ideas. Social psychologists’ work on persuasion has made it clear that an effect of argument is to entrench the original ideas all the more firmly (Hoveland, Janis & Kelley, 1953). In contrast, one of the most effective methods of helping someone to unfreeze an old attitude or idea is to ask that person to make the case for an unfamiliar or unwelcome position (Nels, Helmreich, & Aronson, 1969). Thus, students, building on colleagues’ ideas, maximize the chances of freeing their own flexibility and creativity.

It is not easy at first to discuss ideas in this way. Two problems quickly arise. First, we all tend toward intellectual conservatism (Festinger, 1957). Letting go of an idea can be quite wrenching.

Second, it is often difficult to acknowledge peers as teachers. We are raised to believe that the person who teaches is one-up and the one who accepts that teaching is one-down. It takes some time to learn the particular gratification of giving another the ungrudging, even admiring, acknowledgment that he or she has taught me something.

It should be made clear that the freedom to build ideas in this way depends on the crucial difference between idea-groups and groups required to make a decision. In the early stages of conversation, a decision-group can learn much from barn raising. But, eventually, mutually exclusive alternatives must be recognized as such. That fact serves to underline the major freedom provided by idea-groups. It is ironic how rigidly trained we have been to squander that freedom and argue ideas as though we believed a decision had to be made. Is Hamlet mad or not? The world will little note which decision we reach. But we will long remember whether we have explored the question in a way calculated to enrich our understanding of the play and our relationship with each other (Kahn, 1981).

We learned in barn-raising that when a seminar develops a point of view about anything, another point of view is likely to emerge which seems at first hopelessly contradictory to the first. In doing this work we have come to see the world as composed of an endless collection of dilemmas. In our culture what we typically do (and most academic discussions are no exception) is deny the pain of the dilemma by assuming that one horn or the other must be wrong. We then set up an argument-my horn against yours. The undesirable consequences of this way of defining differences are clear. First, it is very hard to think during combat. Second, it makes winning more important than understanding or analysis; and third, it forces us into a greatly over-simplified view of the issue when its complexity may be its greatest beauty. So, in our seminars, we learned to try to identify and preserve the dilemmas rather than allow them to deteriorate into debate.

But what do you do with them, beyond merely preserving them? It seemed to us that the thing to do was to try to convert them not to debate, but rather to dialectic. Dialectic consists of two posed, potential antagonists (thesis and antithesis) which come together and give birth to the synthesis. It also leads discussants to collaboration, instead of struggle, with each other.

The goal of the seminars we facilitate is to have as much barn raising and as few beauty contests and free-for-alls as possible. So how is that to be done?

Preparing the Students

We begin by asking the students to read a paper on barn-raising (Kahn, 1974). This paper offers the attitude of collaborative idea-conversation and teaches the general concepts of barn-raising. It also sets two guidelines for the student preparing for a seminar. The reading must be done – all of it, carefully and on time. There is no way to play this game if everyone is not familiar with the material to be discussed. In reading it, we give participants the following task: “Read the material looking for a question about it which you can offer the seminar. Choose the question you would most like to ask a very wise person who had read this material. Choose the question that seems to you put the material in the widest possible perspective.”

In addition to asking students to prepare by reading this paper, we have found it useful (and fun) to introduce the concept with a nonverbal experience designed to illustrate the principles of the four kinds of seminars. The exercise goes as follows:

1. “Divide up into pairs. Now, with your right hand, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can, and with your left hand, screw up your partner’s.” (Let them continue for a minute or two or until it gets rowdy.) “OK. Now stop and quietly reflect on how that was for you. What feelings did it evoke?”

2. “Now, with both hands, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can, but don’t get caught peeking at your partner’s. You might though, sneak a peek to see if it is better.” (Allow this to continue for a minute or two, then ask them to reflect on it.)

3. “Now, one of you, with both hands, make the most beautiful hand sculpture you can. The other person should explore it and examine it.” (Let this continue for a minute and then have them reverse roles. When both have completed, have them reflect quietly.)

4. “Finally, make the most beautiful four-hand sculpture you can.” (Let this continue for a couple of minutes, then ask them to reflect on how this is different.)

5. “Now talk to your partner about the different experiences for a couple of minutes.”

Following the discussion, we have a general discussion with the pairs sharing their experience (paying particular attention to what they have learned about their own attitudes in doing these exercises). This exercise nicely compliments the aforementioned paper as a way to introduce the seminar.

The Seminar

We begin every session with a brief “check-in” round, asking everyone to say a few words about how they’re feeling and what is occupying them. We have found this very useful for ice-breaking. Then we ask everyone to read her or his question, with all of us writing down each question; thus writing them down is necessary. Also, it focuses attention on the process and makes each student feel a certain welcome respect as the entire class writes down his/her question. And finally the questions prove useful later in the seminar as the developing discussion casts them in a new light.

Then the seminar leader randomly picks one of the students to choose a question. We remind them that we will undoubtedly touch on many of the questions in the course of the discussion so choosing one is not a life-or-death matter. When the question is chosen, its author is given the optional opportunity to say anything more about it. Then the question no longer belongs to that person who is not to be questioned about it. Any questions are now to be addressed to the group.

The seminar then proceeds by trying to find as many rich and varied ways as possible to answer the question. (This is the same basic format we use for subsequent class sessions.)

The Interventions

The task of the leader in a barn-raising seminar is to teach these new modes without putting down students. One thing that has helped us with this is to remind ourselves that the other ways of talking are deeply ingrained in the culture, that unlearning them requires some major resocialization, and that, for all our experience, we ourselves still talk in the old ways a good deal more than we wish we did. All of this tends to make us very tolerant. Thus we try hard never to imply there’s a better way without suggesting what it might be.

There are several principles of intervening in this kind of seminar:

1. The instructor must intervene, and intervene a good deal at first. Eventually the leader can wither away, but until students have a considerable amount of experience with barn-raising they need an active, intervening leader. We have tried merely distributing the paper on barn-raising, but nothing changed, in spite of them all being very excited about the idea in principle. It isn’t enough to read about a new behavior you wish to learn. We all need considerable guidance in learning these new behaviors.

2. The seminar leader has to keep her or his eye on the ball. This means remembering the original question and keeping track of how the conversation relates to it and when the tangents are getting too far from it. You can remind your seminar that they are building a coherent structure either by asking, “Could we take a moment here and see how this relates to the question?” or by actually doing some relating yourself: “We’ve been talking for some time about the price Oedipus pays for pursuing the truth. Our question is about the price Jocasta pays. I wonder if they’re related.”

3. Avoid battles by reminding the student that each remark belongs to the entire seminar and need not be defended by the person who voiced it. Suppose Jack is building a case for Marx’s theory of history. Jill interjects, “How can you say that, when Weber showed that capitalism followed Protestantism rather than the other way around, as Marx would have said?” At that point you might say, “I would like to interrupt here. Before you answer, Jack, I would like you to consider, Jill, how it would work if you were to take responsibility for that question rather than putting the responsibility on Jack? Perhaps you could explain the Weber criticism to the group and see if we can somehow integrate it into Jack’s ideas. Jack’s support of Marx isn’t his to defend once he’s said it. It belongs to us all, yourself included.”

Hopefully, this will short-circuit the attack and defense cycle of traditional seminars.

4. Watch for the chance to identify dilemmas. A very useful technique when two sides of a question square off for a debate is to suggest that the entire group build first one side and then the other. Whichever side a student was on originally, she joins with the others in building each side in turn. When both arguments have been well-built it is a fascinating exercise in group intelligence to try to build a superordinate picture which includes the best from both sides, i.e., to formulate the synthesis.

5. Try to keep the focus off you. It is usually enough to remind the group that you feel uncomfortable when most remarks are addressed to you instead of the group at large.

6. See if you can find ways of including the quiet people without increasing their discomfort. We sometimes say straight out, ” Bill, I wonder how you’re feeling about the discussion. We haven’t heard from you.” But at other times an approach that encourages without so directly putting the spotlight on the person is useful. (“Bill, you seem very engrossed in the discussion. I hope when you think it’s appropriate, that you will jump in.”)

7. As you approach the end of the allocated time in that class period, it is a good idea to spend the final minutes reviewing the content to see how the question was dealt with. This gives a final and often very useful chance to discover connections between the main question and what had previously looked like tangents. It also gives the seminar a chance to view the structure they have built, and, perhaps, to admire it. Then after that content review, it is useful to finish with a process review. How did this seminar work? How did we like it? What do we want to do differently next time? What did we discover that was particularly useful?

The barn-raising seminar is not merely a form of classroom learning. It can be a way of making every conversation an educational experience; a contributor to harmony and good feeling without leaving unwanted residues of frustration and irritation. And isn’t that what learning in academia should be all about?


Kahn, M., “The Seminar.” Unpublished paper, 1974.

Kahn, M., “The Seminar: An Experiment in Humanistic Education.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 21(2), 119-127 Spring 1981.