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Eight Steps to Foster Civil Discourse on Controversial Issues

A man in Shaanxi, China, recently learned that the object he’d been using to crack walnuts for the last 25 years was a live hand grenade. Uh oh.

I think we’re experiencing a similar emotional grenade on our school campuses.

There’s lots of talk today, both in K-12 and higher education, about civic readiness. This is, of course, nothing new. Students have always faced a challenging jump from campus life to being prepared to engage in social, political and civil issues in the adult world. Sometimes, graduates find themselves cognitively prepared, but emotionally unprepared for such an emotionally charged debate.

With controversial issues like police brutality, Black Lives Matter, immigration, gender equality issues, and the last presidential election—students are having a difficult time hosting a civil discussion on such topics. And is it any wonder? Over the last six months, they’ve witnessed fist-fights at campaign rallies, hyperbolic fake-news reports, and angry political posts on social media. America’s partisan divide is deeper today than at any point in nearly a quarter-century, according to the Pew Research Center in a recent report.

So, let me ask you a question: are you preparing students to be civic ready? Are we helping them experience civil discussions about community and political topics, especially when they become controversial issues?

Eight Steps to Lead Students in Civil Discourse

photo credit: francisco_osorio University Life 295 via photopin (license)

1. Begin with ground rules for discussion. Communicate clearly that all sides of the debated topic must be expressed with respect, empathy and even love for all people. You may want to follow the Times commenting standards to be civil and respectful. No name-calling, no profanity, no SHOUTING. Encourage the students to be counter-cultural and take a higher road than many from today’s older generations.

2. Begin by having some facilitator clarify the validity of all sides of the topic debated. In other words, if possible, invite someone who is objective and can articulate the two or three chief perspectives on the issue, so it isn’t up to the best debater in the class to make the case. It’s important to begin with clarity, not with a bias based on what the most popular or articulate student in class can express.

3. Next, ask students to first write down their thoughts anonymously before saying anything. This helps the introverted student or the one who may feel intimidated speaking in front of a large group to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Tackle only one topic at a time. Once you’ve given a few minutes for writing, the discussion can proceed.

4. Practice the Indian Talking Stick. This is huge. Based on a Native American custom, this is a symbolic “stick” held by the one who has the floor. By holding the stick, they are the only person allowed to speak. They are given a time limit, but no one can interrupt them until they feel that their viewpoint has been heard and understood. Only then, is the stick handed to someone with another viewpoint to offer a counter-argument. (This is one of our Habitudes®.)

5. Be grounded in facts. Require students to always document any fact or statistic they communicate. This requires them to do some reading and research, and to find legitimate sources for their opinion. As the facts are brought up, teachers or objective facilitators can do a fact-check to ensure the sources are not from fake news stories.

6. Halfway through your time, require that both “sides” of the debate begin offering potential solutions—not just problems—to the conversation. This practice prevents the debate from becoming a “complaint fest” or “a mud-slinging party” at the expense of opposing sides. When I worked for Dr. John Maxwell, he made any of us who brought a problem to him to also bring 2-3 potential solutions. It was an attitude adjuster.

7. Transform the larger class into smaller communities for conversation. This allows all students a chance to enter the conversation, not just the extraverts. It also enables students to determine what gets through their “filters” and what does not. As their dendrites fire in their brains, they’ll decide what makes sense and what to embrace.

8. Continue the conversation on-line. Teacher Kate Harris recently wrote:

“Teachers have to address the political and social issues that divide our nation and dominate our social media feeds. More important, we need to equip students to address those issues on their own, to engage with and respond to conversations and news that may be troubling or challenging, from domestic gun control and police brutality to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and worldwide terrorism. So much of our students’ world is online. How can we get them to think critically, not only about big media delivered by giants such as Fox News and The New York Times, but also about “little media,” or the comments and tweets that they write, read and repost?”

I recently spoke with Cory Epler, the Chief Academic Officer for the Department of Education in Nebraska. He told me how he’d heard two military officers who disagreed while debating a political issue, but both said in the end—“Regardless of your perspective, I’d take a bullet for you.”

This is the spirit that enables our discussion to remain civil.


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  • Kristi Leonard

    This is excellent. How can I, as a parent, do the same thing at home?

    • gschneider

      I think I hear your question – what does this look like with my own teen? Mine are grown & on their own. But I mentor a high school student & work with the teen small groups at our church. Aside from taking this article apart one point at a time & thinking about how I can do this in a somewhat different setting with the student I mentor, I’ve found an additional parent/teen resource that answers – “what does handling “xyz issue” look like with today’s teens? It’s Parenting Today’s Teens with Mark Gregston, from Heartlight. both Gregston & Elmore are incredible resources. The link to Parenting Today’s Teens is: https://www.heartlightministries.org/parenting-todays-teens/ and if you go there, look for the recent blog post section. Underneath that is a link, “See more teen articles.” At that link is a drop down box of blog articles by categories/subject matter. Best to you.

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