Creating Opportunities to Learn Respectful Discourse and Debate

Regardless of where one is on the political spectrum, it’s obvious that our current politicians are not serving as positive role models for conducting civil discourse. We only need to look at the current government dysfunction to know this is true. The public is rarely provided with examples of discourse that emphasize clearly articulated viewpoints or that demonstrate civil listening skills.

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Yet, we all know that when disagreements occur, as they naturally will in any democracy, it is helpful to have leaders with an ability to reconsider positions in light of evidence-based perspectives. And while weighing the pros and cons of each argument, society benefits when the people making key decisions keep the interests of the general population in mind as they build consensus and arrive at necessary compromises. 

Instead, students are far more likely to hear or read about the polarized and often contentious world that they will one day inherit. And for this very reason, it is more important, and I would argue more meaningful, than ever for teachers to model and prepare their students for a world where respectful, civil discourse can be the norm, not the exception.

One way to do this is to facilitate debates among students and then coach them to develop the range of skills they need to achieve these goals. Teachers may help students judiciously select their evidence to build the clearest and most convincing arguments. They may also encourage them to listen closely to their classmates and consider others as a resource for learning new information and broadening one’s perspective. And teachers may want to solicit ground rules from their students that will establish a classroom culture that is equitable and has a safe space for a range of perspectives.

Once these values are ingrained in the classroom’s culture, teachers may facilitate conversations that are more nuanced and go beyond the obvious pros and cons. They may also involve students who are undecided on particular issues to serve as impartial judges in certain debates. Throughout, teachers should remain neutral and model established goals for good communication and debate in their instruction.

The ability to have respectful discourse is likely to be one of the most important skills in the twenty-first century. And without the positive role models in our political landscape, it is up to our teachers to nurture the environments and foster the attitudes that can be used to create a brighter future.


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