As society becomes increasingly polarized, the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute has released a playbook to help educators navigate difficult conversations in the classroom.
The playbook shares five “familiar, but important practices” on constructive dialogue that teachers can put in place at the beginning of the school year, said Jake Fay, director of education at CDI. The organization defines constructive dialogue as a form of conversation in which people with different perspectives, beliefs and values seek new ways to interact with one another.
According to the playbook, five practices to foster constructive dialogue in a classroom include:
- Co-create resilient classroom norms by setting explicit standards about what students should expect to experience with these conversations.
- Model and practice asking questions that encourage students to understand another viewpoint instead of trying to persuade someone else.
- Make thinking visible in a classroom by asking students about their thought processes and admitting uncertainty or possibly what is still unknown about an idea, belief or value.
- Create space in a classroom for students to discuss talking, in itself, through normalizing constructive dialogue as a learning process. Practicing 10- to 15-minute discussion debriefs after a dialogue-focused activity is another way to do this.
- Teach with stories to help make big and complex issues feel real and accessible to students. Storytelling also provides an opportunity for students to practice and understand empathy, Fay said.
This recent guidance from CDI follows a 250% increase in proposed state curriculum censorship bills to restrict classroom instruction on topics like race, gender, sexuality and U.S. history reported by nonprofit PEN America.
Whether a teacher lives in a state impacted by curriculum censorship or not, the playbook can help educators give students the tools needed to discuss polarizing issues outside the classroom, Fay said.
Teachers have also dealt with the fallout of political polarization, Fay said. An August RAND Corp. study found 37% of teachers and 61% of principals said they faced harassment over COVID-19 safety measures or teachings on race, racism or bias.
“We need to encourage dialogue in classrooms, and I think it can be incredibly tricky navigating contexts where there are laws in the books that are trying to prohibit certain things from being talked about in classrooms,” Fay said. “The nice thing about this [constructive dialogue] work is that it doesn’t have to be about topics that are maybe flashpoints … that could endanger a teacher’s career.”