Article 5 / Teaching Civil Discourse at The Discussion Lab
The disintegration that we have witnessed in the nation’s political discourse over the past decade represents arguably one of the...
A foundation of the Civic Lab’s commitment to equip the next generation of civic leaders is the need to teach better models for dialogue and discourse than we typically encounter in this highly polarized era. The Discussion Lab presents a model to promote more civil dialogue by offering a scaffolded approach to building conversation and listening skills among diverse groups of youth.
We know that to accomplish the goal of civic preparation, we need to do more than talk at kids about what they need to learn and do. The Civic Lab is also developing a number of “learning labs” designed to deepen young people’s skills to engage in more civil dialogue, to solve real-world problems through advocacy and innovation, and to operate with a bias towards collective action in partnership with others.
One of the biggest challenges facing civil society today is the preponderance of incivility that dominates our public discourse. We lack constructive models for engaging with different people and perspectives in order to develop a fuller understanding of our own unique perspectives, much less our shared goals and challenges. The ability to have better dialogue — not only despite our differences, but also about those differences — is the starting point for better problem-solving, better collaboration, and better outcomes. And we need a better model for this than what we see on cable news.
We are exploring such a model through the Discussion Lab, a scaffolded approach to building speaking and listening skills among diverse groups of youth. We want young people to be able to sharpen their dialogue toolkit with approaches drawn from extensive research and practices to support civil conversations, in addition to frameworks drawn from practices that facilitate individuals being able to enter critical conversations. The skill sets required to do this boil down to these four areas:
First, we are teaching that conversations ultimately are about relationships — indeed, conversations are relationships — and that we can build better and deeper relationships with a diverse range of people through conversation.
Second, we are teaching that we can build better relationships and practice better conversation when we approach each of those with a sense of curiosity and a desire to understand.
Third, we are teaching an element of dialogue that is too often overlooked: it turns out that the key to better dialogue is not speaking more — it’s listening more.
And fourth, we are teaching the importance of engaging with different perspectives because the capacity to recognize multiple perspectives is an integral component of equipping students to be able to build bridges, to compromise when necessary, and to find workable pathways to solutions in the future.
The Discussion Lab we are piloting at Georgetown Day School High School is spread over four sessions spanning several months. In the first session, we introduced a series of prompts from a well-designed study into questions intended to build relationships between individuals quickly in a relatively low-stakes way. Future sessions will introduce conversational frameworks that deepen skills in storytelling, active listening, question-asking, modeling vulnerability, and engaging around divisive topics.
The scaffolded approach builds upon the skills developed in each prior session, with the final session devoted to student-led dialogues on the topics most salient to them in their school and social contexts. Through the Discussion Lab, we hope to build individual skills that lead to positive community outcomes: deeper connections and a shared sense of belonging, increased empathy for others with different perspectives, and a greater capacity for entering and leading critical conversations.