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 greatest threats to our democracy. Our federal legislatures operate in a state of seemingly perpetual deadlock, with politicians unable—and in many cases, unwilling—to build coalitions with colleagues from the other side. At the same time, polarization has also calcified in the American populace, with 90% of voters saying that victory by the opposing political party would result in long-term harm to the country—not just discontent, but harm. This degree of bad faith only suggests bad outcomes, and we do in fact see how political polarization reinforces social media echo chambers and can even lead to real-world violence when people on opposing sides have the rare opportunity to interact with each other.

Young people today implicitly understand the value of engaging with different perspectives. During the 2020 election cycle, the New York Times hosted a virtual forum called the “Civil Conversations Challenge for Teenagers” in which youth across the country were invited to share their views on various political and cultural topics with one another on an online message board. Some of the threads featured extensive back-and-forth exchanges among teens representing vastly different backgrounds and perspectives on issues. In a subsequent report on the outcomes of the Civil Conversations Challenge, it was striking how remarkably insightful young people were about the pitfalls of civil discourse in a polarized country. One teen summed up what is perhaps the most salient truth: “To claim a political stance has become equal to supporting a sports team…Kids should not be blamed for this type of behavior. We mimic what we see everyday.”

We need a better model for civil discourse than what we see on cable news.

GDS’s newly-launching Civic Lab (previously conceived as the Center for Civic Engagement) is exploring such a model through the Discussion Lab, a scaffolded approach to building speaking and listening skills among diverse groups of youth. The Civic Lab aims to create a space where young people—at GDS, throughout the DMV, and even nationally—can learn and practice the skills of effective civic leadership for necessary social change. When we were outlining the pillars that underpin the Civic Lab’s commitment to the next generation, the need to teach better dialogue emerged as a top priority—with special emphasis placed on listening. We want young people to develop their dialogue “toolkit” with approaches drawn from extensive research and practices, in addition to frameworks drawn from diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that facilitate the ability of individuals to bring their full selves to conversations not only despite but also about their differences.

The Discussion Lab we are piloting at Georgetown Day School will be held in four sessions over the next several months. For 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.

Giving young people constructive spaces to encounter others with different perspectives and to listen to those perspectives with the goal of better understanding them—rather than simply listening for their turn to start expressing their own views or disagreement—feels like a radical notion in today’s era of polarization. And yet, teaching better dialogue is a necessary place to start in equipping young people today to be able to build bridges, to compromise when necessary, and to find workable pathways to solutions in the future.

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