Blog Series

Civil Discourse is Doable

by Michelle George on Oct 12, 2016

  • Classroom Management
  • General Education
  • Positive School Climate
  • Professional Development

During a recent professional development training, I was talking with some teachers from neighboring schools, and the topic of our current contentious presidential race came up. One teacher said his school had decided to ban any sort of political campaigning or sign posting. He said the administration was concerned about inappropriate discussions and aggressive disagreements, so the decision was made to simply avoid the whole thing. I was flabbergasted. If we as educators can’t provide frameworks and processes for students to have intelligent and respectful conversations about the leadership of our country, where are our young people going to learn to be active citizens? In my mind, learning the art and practice of civil discourse is an integral responsibility of public education in the United States.

Establish a Safe and Respectful Culture

There’s no doubt staging political discussion in our current climate is touchy business, but I think it’s doable. The first step is to establish a safe and respectful culture in the classroom; something we all strive to do. Students and teachers need to clearly understand the expectations for behavior and interpersonal relations, and know that personal attacks are not acceptable. Discussion and activities to establish this type of climate must happen at the beginning of the year, and be reinforced throughout the year. I think it’s also helpful to give students the language they need for respectful discourse, and then reward them when they use that language. For example, the students can brainstorm respectful phrases they could use to show a difference of opinion or present a counter argument. Some possibilities might be, “I respectfully disagree,” or “Perhaps a different way of looking at the issue …” Then, when the class is in the midst of a discussion, the students have the words to voice their opinions. The teacher can acknowledge or even award points based on this positive practice to reinforce respectful dialogue.

Once students know they are safe and respected, a format for contentious discussions must be explicitly taught. I’ve tried several types of debate structures, but I’m becoming convinced that debate isn’t necessarily the best option. By its very nature, a debate is intrinsically adversarial. Each debate must conclude with a winner and a loser. I prefer to use a variation on the Socratic method, where everyone is united by the goal to understand complex concepts by questioning assumptions. The Socratic method was introduced by the philosopher Plato as a way his teacher, Socrates, guided his students to a better understanding of a complex topic through a dialogue of questions. As the dialogue proceeds, illogical beliefs are eliminated and basic truths are eventually revealed. In many classrooms, the Socratic method is used to focus the critical analysis of a common text. I’ve used the format with literature circles because it gives my students ownership for the material, and they really need to know the content before they can participate in this type of in-depth discussion. During the discussion, students become personally vested and the resulting conversations are nearly always insightful and exciting.

To facilitate a possibly contentious discussion like politics, the students would have to participate in some significant preparation. As a first step, I would have students brainstorm essential questions about one of our ongoing political races. The presidential race provides a plethora of materials, but some teachers might want to stay more local. At this stage, teachers need to explicitly teach different types of questions: factual, convergent, divergent, evaluative, and combinations. I can imagine students would tend to choose questions like: “What makes a candidate presidential?” or “What qualities are most desirable in a presidential candidate?” These questions work as starting points to begin the research and guide discussions.

Depending on the skill level and time available, either the teacher or the students could collect relevant source texts. A common query provides the opportunity for a teacher to outline criteria for reliable and unbiased sources. Of course all sources will have some sort of bias, and that can and should be part of the conversation. Some acceptable sources might be a video of a presidential debate, a review of a reputable fact-check site like Factcheck.org, and a clear description of the responsibilities of the office. All participants should complete in-depth reading of the common texts. Students will need to have time and guidance to carefully annotate these texts and collect evidence. Having accurate information keeps the conversation rooted in fact rather than emotional response.

This inquiry step provides an opportunity for teachers to review basic concepts like differentiating between facts and opinions. It’s always surprising to me how many students, and sometimes adults, don’t recognize the difference. I find that it takes directed practice, where students read a persuasive text line by line and identify facts and opinions. It’s important to understand that opinions are essential elements of persuasive writing, but they aren’t logical proofs. Evidence consists of verifiable facts, not gut reactions or even beliefs. I have my students use highlighters to color facts in blue and opinions in orange. Using this strategy can visually show students at a glance whether a text is supported by fact. This strategy works with traditional paper and markers as well as online tools like the Google add-on, Texthelp Study Skills, or Diigo. I’m sure there are more available. These tools not only highlight, but pull and group those highlights by color. 

Socratic Seminar Format

Once students have done the work and collected the information they need, they can begin to have productive discussions. Using a modified Socratic Seminar format, students can use a fishbowl structure where a small group of students sit in the middle and participate verbally while those on the outside observe and take notes. (See an example of this format by clicking here.) After a specific time, the two groups switch positions and roles. This keeps all participants engaged. Students in the middle pose these higher-level questions and respond to one another, always referring to facts from the texts to support their opinions.

Socrates is claimed to have said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” not because he was an idiot, but because this granular type of investigation exposes the complexity of important issues. I believe participants will quickly discover that most of the knee-jerk issues that fill our headlines are actually quite complex and nuanced. This is again where the Socratic method is a more effective format. Rather than a right or wrong answer, students can examine evidence from the various stances for themselves and build understanding. It’s only by taking the time to guide these types of investigations and subsequent discussions, will we be able to prepare our students to be active and intelligent citizens … and that is a vital goal. We are blessed as U.S. citizens with not only rights, but responsibilities. One of those critical responsibilities is informed voting. We can use our classrooms to prepare our students. By teaching them to pose open and incisive questions, search for specific and unbiased information, and then critically discuss complex issues, we will go a long way toward that preparation.

So, this school year, I plan to guide my students in an investigation of our political candidates. I’d like them to use solid research strategies and investigate our political candidates for themselves. I’m not proposing a Trump rally or Hillary fest, but when the contentious conversations arise, and we know they will, my students will be ready with solid facts and trained to refer to evidence rather than gut reactions as they seek solutions. Now, if we could only invite some of our political leaders.


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