Last Week, Jake Fay of the Constructive Dialogue Institute wrote a letter on the state of dialogue in education. Today, he offers some suggestions for how we can go about solving the issue.

Rick Hess

In my last post, we covered how polarization is distracting us from educating young people. Today, I’ll offer a solution to some of the challenges polarization poses to schools. It’s called constructive dialogue.

Let’s start with a definition. At the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI), we define constructive dialogue as a form of conversation where people with different perspectives try to understand each other—without giving up their own beliefs—in order to live, learn, and work together.

I want to call attention to this part of the definition: without giving up their own beliefs. The goal of constructive dialogue isn’t to change minds or arrive at some best answer to a problem or question. Rather, the point is to build understanding between people who think differently than each other so that more productive conversations are possible. This makes constructive dialogue different from debate or deliberation.

Building understanding across different beliefs takes a commitment to developing certain mindsets and skills. I’m pretty sure questions related to these skills have flashed through all our minds at some point. Some variations of: How can I even talk to someone who I’m pretty sure thinks very differently from me? How can I respond to a view I deeply disagree with? How can I diffuse an explosive situation? How can I let someone know I hear what they are saying but I don’t agree with it?

At CDI, we think these questions and others like them can be answered by developing five mindsets and skills:

  1. Let go of winning: Approaching a conversation like a zero-sum battle, where one side wins and the other loses, sets up an adversarial dynamic that will typically lead others to put up their defenses. This dynamic minimizes the possibility of learning and often damages relationships. Instead, approach conversations with curiosity and the goal to understand.
  2. Ask questions to understand: Not all questions are created equal. Questions that are laced with judgment or are meant to trap someone can quickly undermine dialogue. But questions that invite someone to share something meaningful, reflect genuine curiosity, or seek out the nuances of someone else’s perspective can create possibilities to connect and lead to meaningful responses.
  3. Share your story and invite others to do the same: Stories move people emotionally. They offer context to facts and figures. And they can allow people to convey their own views without telling someone else their view is wrong. Stories can be a powerful tool to replace frustrating disagreements with constructive ones because they help people move past what they believe to why they believe it.
  4. Make yourself and others feel heard: If tensions rise during difficult conversations, it’s important for people to address what they’re experiencing and make room for others to do the same. People may need to explain how they’re feeling or why they’re reacting in a certain way—including acknowledging mistakes they may have made.
  5. Find what’s shared: The commonalities we find with each other—experiences, beliefs, values, hobbies, identities—can be the glue that holds a conversation together through conflict. Finding what’s shared is about purposefully seeking out those similarities and using them to move forward together, even in the middle of a disagreement.

This may sound pretty simple, but at CDI, we distill a lot of trusted research from social and moral psychology into practical, usable strategies for navigating difference. And trust us, there’s a lot of it. People have been fascinated by how we engage across difference for a long time. The good news is that people have figured out really promising strategies that don’t require us to all think the same thing or even agree with each other about things that really matter.

So the question, then, is how can constructive dialogue help educators and students?

For educators, helping students develop the mindsets and skills of constructive dialogue can be akin to releasing a pressure valve. By teaching students how to engage with each other, discussions can return to classroom activities to look forward to, not fear. Educators can talk to students’ parents about a pedagogical approach that focuses on what students think and how they can learn about and from each other. They can explain that their role in these conversations is to sustain the conversation, which may help skeptical parents who worry about educators putting their thumb on the scale in conversations about contested issues.

For students, constructive dialogue can ultimately help them realize the benefits of engaging with those who think differently from them. In a moment when Americans are increasingly choosing to live, work, and associate with people like them, schools are one of the last social settings where people can interact directly with people who think differently from them. And that is a valuable thing. As one educator put it: “If all you’re ever exposed to is people that look like you and think like you, you fall into the thinking error that they are just like you and that the way that you perceive the world is the capital ‘T’ true and the capital ‘R’ right way to perceive the world because everybody else perceives the world exactly like [you].” In other words, if students can’t learn from each other, across their differences, then we are just flooring the accelerator toward an even more polarized future.

The case I’ve been making for constructive dialogue ostensibly rests on how it can mitigate some of the worst effects of polarization in schools. It’s important to remember that those effects are deeply entangled with student learning. That means addressing polarization can’t just be about tempering divides; it must also be about helping to foster vibrant, robust learning environments. It’s time to cut through the ways polarization distracts us from the work of educating. And that starts with creating spaces where students can talk to each other constructively.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last updated August 14, 2023