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Crisis Overblown: Teaching Students to Talk to Each Other

By Jake Fay, Director of Education, Constructive Dialogue Institute
Jake will be leading a special pre-conference session titled “Teaching Ethics with Constructive Dialogue.” Register here.

Headlines across the country are constantly reminding us that there is a crisis on our college and university campuses. We all know the stories. Campus ideals like free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of expression are threatened by larger social and political fractures. Students are afraid to talk to each other or speak up in class. Faculty find their jobs under scrutiny (or worse) for things they teach or say. And institutional leaders wait with baited breath for scandal to find them and turn their prestigious school name into a trending hashtag.

For many ethics instructors, this environment can have a chilling effect on the classroom. Ethics, by its very nature, often requires students to discuss morally complex questions. It invites controversy from the moment class starts. So in this moment, it can feel understandably daunting to teach topics like abortion, immigration, race, religion, social justice – topics that feel right in the crosshairs of the so-called institutional crisis.

But ethics instructors do not face an insurmountable crisis. Rather, they face a pedagogical challenge — the challenge of teaching students how to talk to each other.

I get it! This can sound like an underwhelming solution to the stories we hear. However, the ability to talk to each other is an understated skill. We expect students to walk into our lecture halls ready to have discussions about anything and everything. We don’t consider talking to each other as a skill required for learning, even though research shows it leads to more advantageous outcomes. The typical K12 setting offers a sharply different experience where academic freedom is not the norm, so if not during secondary schooling, where can they gain the know-how for discourse?

This is why it is important for ethics instructors to reframe the way they think about the role of dialogue in their courses. How can we introduce students to dialogue and support their nascent skills? How do we know they are ready to have a conversation about a moral dilemma? How can we help sustain conversations when tensions rise? And how can we use the source material of ethics to engage students in dialogue? (You’ll notice these are very much questions of teaching and learning – not institutional policies and rules!)

In my role as the Director of Education at the Constructive Dialogue Institute, I work with faculty to build principles and practices of constructive dialogue into their courses. Constructive dialogue is a form of conversation where people seek to understand each other – without giving up their own perspectives – in order to live, work, and learn together. It is well-suited to the higher education environment, where understanding and truth are paramount.

It is also well suited to the moment. Given the stories we hear about speech-related conflicts on campus, we are often drawn to think about what to do in moments where conversations go off the rails. But this shouldn’t be our primary concern. Teaching students to talk to each other through constructive dialogue requires that instructors focus on preparing and supporting students to engage with each other. We can cultivate students’ ability to navigate discussions and give them practice opportunities to hone those skills through our course content.

At CDI, we focus on five principles that form the bedrock of constructive dialogue:

1. Let go of winning

2. Share your story and invite others to do the same

3. Ask questions to understand

4. Acknowledge the role of emotions

5. When possible, seek common ground

These are not hard skills to teach and – for those worried about covering dialogic skills and all the major metaethical theories – they are easily integrated into course content. We can, for example, ask students to think about major ethical theories by reflecting on decisions they’ve made where they’ve used deontological or consequential reasoning, and then share those stories with a friend. We can have them learn to ask questions to try to understand a classmate’s position on a morally-complex issue before debating them or attempting to prove their position wrong. These are practices that build relationships, develop dialogic skills, and meet content-focused learning goals.

Now, constructive dialogue is not a guaranteed cure for all the challenges that can come up when discussing complex topics. It is important to learn how to intervene to sustain dialogue when pressure mounts, because those moments will happen. But by treating dialogue as a pedagogical challenge we have to rise to meet rather than a crisis to mitigate, we can prepare our students and ourselves to be ready to manage those moments. And while this might not solve everything, it will help instructors create the learning environments they envision.