Running Class Discussions on Divisive Topics Is Tricky. Here’s One Promising Approach.

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The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Teaching newsletter shares Reflective Structured Dialogue as a successful method for facilitating class discussions on divisive topics. The highly structured approach follows strict guidelines for starting the discussion to ensure that participants both speak and listen without trying to convince someone else that their own ideas are best and others’ ideas are wrong.

Here’s how it works. The dialogues have a facilitator — the instructor, in a classroom setting — who guides the conversation along pre-agreed lines. Participants are encouraged to reflect before they speak. The approach hinges on the use of “curious questions,” those meant to let the questioner learn from others, rather than to trap them or convince them that they’re wrong. And it’s highly structured, with people taking set turns to speak and doing so under a time limit, and the facilitator following a script.

The Chronicle article shares Jill DeTemple’s experience implementing Reflective Structured Dialogue, a method that originated in family counseling work. DeTemple is an an associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. DeTemple and the college friend who introduced the method to her, John Sarrouf, recently penned an article on using Reflective Structure Dialogue, released in the journal Teaching Theology & Religion.

The Chronicle article offers the following illustration of a way Reflective Structured Dialogue can be implemented in the classroom.

Difficult conversations often get off to a bad start, DeTemple said, because they begin with everyone arguing their position. Reflective Structured Dialogue opens instead with the facilitator having participants tell a story that has informed it. So to start off a discussion about guns, for instance, students might share their experiences hunting as a child, or describe an act of gun violence that touched their lives. Next, participants talk about the values that underlie these experiences. Then they talk about any ways in which they feel pulled in competing directions on the issue. That third question, DeTemple says, is meant to bring out empathy. Only after working through the three starting prompts do participants start asking each other questions. The goal is not to have anyone switch sides, she said. It’s to help students change the way they relate to one another, to listen and consider different perspectives. Doing so, it turns out, can enrich students’ understanding of difficult content, DeTemple has found, since they have an opportunity to consider it in context.

DeTemple shares this simple tip at the heart of the method: “When students get stuck, ask them to tell each other a story.”

CoP Note: Our divisive political and social environment makes teaching divisive topics challenging. Rather than skip or omit such topics, what are methods that can help us as adjuncts teaching adult students — whose views are often solidified and deeply rooted — provide strategies for listening with care and speaking with regard to the other viewpoints in the room? I’ve been known to shorten or reroute a conversation that was veering into controversial waters. What strategies do you incorporate into your classroom to encourage healthy discussions that allows divisive topics to be thoroughly addressed without anyone coming out of the conversation a “winner” or “loser”?

Photo by suju (Pixabay)

Daniel Hocutt

Web Manager and Adjunct Professor of English for the University of Richmond School of Professional & Continuing Studies.