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April 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 7

Teaching Students to Talk Across Political Difference

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By deepening students’ discussion skills, schools can play a key role in bridging communication divides in our society.

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Marshall High is a diverse school on the outskirts of a U.S. city. Most of its students identify as liberal, some as independent, and a smattering as conservative. Soon after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Matt, a student at Marshall, started wearing a MAGA hat at school. The hat didn't land well with many other students. Over the next few days, Matt was repeatedly called an "a-hole," among other insults, and threatened a few times. Several students gave him the finger in the halls and class.
Matt posted on social media that the adults and students at Marshall are "total hypocrites." They claim, he wrote, to believe in free speech and to respect diverse opinions, but not a single adult, even when they were within earshot, had tried to stop the insults. The post was read widely by students and staff. About 15 students—predominantly white—defended Matt on social media, saying that everyone has a right to express their opinion. They pointed out that many students wear Black Lives Matter and Biden/Harris t-shirts. But most students expressed outrage about the hat wearing, arguing that it was racist and offensive.
Many community and political leaders find themselves paralyzed by partisan divides that threaten our ability to solve dire, pressing problems such as climate change, election integrity, or mass shootings. Family members and neighbors with different ideologies increasingly feel alien to each other. Too many of us, often fueled by the daily shout shows, stereotype and degrade those with different political and moral views. When asked on a 2021 survey by Making Caring Common (a group we are affiliated with that develops children's capacity to care about others) how much they respect the other party, nearly a quarter of Democrats and Republicans gave the other party the lowest possible score—1 out of 10. Democrats and Republicans increasingly see members of the other party as more lazy, unintelligent, immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded (Pew Research Center, 2022).
Schools can't solve this problem alone, but they are a vital piece of the solution. The reality is that schools are the only institution that can, on a large scale, cultivate in young people the sensibilities and skills to engage constructively with those with opposing ideologies—to view them not as stock characters or villains, but as complex individuals—and seek common ground. Further, as the episode that roiled Marshall High School demonstrates, divisive issues related to race, patriotism, sexuality and reproductive rights, and others will inevitably surface in hallways, cafeterias, and sports fields or find their way into classroom discussions. Failure to address these issues can speak volumes and cause tensions to spiral destructively.

Helping students navigate conflicts is indispensable preparation for being an ethical community member and citizen in a democracy.

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What's more, schools routinely deal with thorny issues rooted in fundamental values and rights that mirror conflicts at the heart of our democracy. For example, important as it is, as Matt argued, to promote the right to free speech and multiple views, it's also critical to protect students' right to freedom from discrimination or degradation. In terms of preparing students to be inclusive community members and citizens, it can matter hugely how a teacher handles a discussion on immigration, including the view that undocumented immigrants should be deported—especially when undocumented students are in the class. Many issues that are now tearing our country apart involve a collision between the right to freedoms and the right to protection from harm. Helping students navigate these types of conflicts is indispensable preparation for being an ethical community member and citizen in a democracy.

Strategies for Constructive Dialogue

All this is no small challenge. After all, such conversations ask children to do something we as adults seldom do: disagree respectfully with others on issues deeply connected to our core values. Taking on these issues also means contending with parents, some of whom are ignited by any whiff of ideological indoctrination, fear their children are engaging subjects that cause distress, or simply don't view discussion of political and moral issues as appropriate in school.
So how can teachers prepare students to interact constructively with those with opposing views? Drawing from research, our experience as educators and our conversations with educators, we offer seven strategies. Given how strapped teachers are these days, we certainly don't expect most teachers to use all of these approaches, and we recognize that what teachers elect to do in the classroom will be affected by, among other particular circumstances, the dynamics of their school community and local laws. But we hope at least a few of these strategies will be useful to a wide range of teachers and that some teachers will take up most, if not all, of them.

1. Establish Norms

Discussion norms—such as challenging ideas, not people, or seeking to understand others' intentions—are valuable for all classroom conversations and essential for creating cultures that promote constructive dialogue across political differences. These conversations can hit all sorts of landmines. Norms help prevent and mitigate damage. Establishing norms with students' input also requires students to think about the elements of healthy democratic decision making and of any fruitful conversation involving conflict. Norms are most effective when they are constant touchstones, guiding students in their interactions even outside the classroom.

2. Spend time on Humanizing Activities

Conversations across the political divide are more likely to be honest and productive in inclusive classrooms where diverse students feel part of a community and connected to and respected by each other. Engage in a variety of light-lift relationship-building activities early in the school year and periodically throughout the year to build this type of community. For example, students might play "Newsball," a game in which they throw an item to each other around a circle. When students catch the newsball, they share something that has made them happy, excited, sad, angry, etc.—or simply something new. More focused experiences can get students talking about their fears, hopes, and values. Scavenger hunts, in which the "items" students scavenge are responses to thoughtful questions they ask peers and adults, give students opportunities to discover fun and meaningful facts about their classmates and build new relationships.
It's also vital to break down stereotypes and support students in humanizing those on "the other side." Our tendency to view our political opponents as less moral can cause us to assume the worst about their motives, leading us to withdraw or come out swinging—which may elicit behaviors that reinforce our negative stereotypes about "the other side." Among other strategies, enable students to interact and connect with others around multiple aspects of their identities, giving them varied opportunities to demonstrate their strengths. Teachers might work with students to share personal stories that reveal many aspects of their identities and strengths, while guiding listeners in identifying biases that may impair their appreciation of those strengths. Students, for example, could share anecdotes related to barriers created by different in-group and out-group memberships and have opportunities to dissect the term identity.
In classrooms in which students share roughly the same political views, be creative in bringing diverse political views into the classroom. Bringing in alternative views is especially important because bonding activities can produce undesirable side-effects in a highly homogenous class, making students feel less empathy for people who aren't like them. Educators can offset in-group biases by providing experiences that extend those same humanizing feelings to people who aren't in the class, such as by bringing in speakers or assigning readings that show people with complex vulnerabilities, motives, and views on different sides of important issues.

3. Develop students' abilities to ask questions and listen

The skills of asking questions and respectful, generous listening are essential to engaging constructively with people who hold opposing views. In the same Making Caring Common survey previously mentioned, we found that only 15 percent of adults indicated an interest in talking to those with opposing political views, but that jumped to 61 percent when we asked whether respondents would be interested if their political opponents "listened respectfully" (Making Caring Common, 2021).

The skills of asking questions and respectful, generous listening are essential to engaging constructively with people who hold opposing views.

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Before students engage in difficult conversations, they need practice in asking questions and listening carefully. For example, the St. Luke's School in Connecticut is a very "purple" school politically that signed on to MCC's #CommonGood campaign. #CommonGood is a nationwide effort that mobilizes high schools across the U.S. to deepen their commitment to students' ethical development and commit to actions to inspire students' concern for others and the common good. This school created a project focused on helping students learn the skills of listening with a curious rather than a judgmental ear as preparation for engaging in political conversations. Good resources and guidance are available online for building these skills from groups like Facing History & Ourselves, The Right Question Institute, the Listening Project at New York University, and Greater Good Science Center.

4. Build a shared reality

Adults these days often live in information bubbles, undermining their ability to find common ground and feeding animosity toward "the other side." Students also often operate within largely different "realities" and are vulnerable to misinformation. So, it's vital to build a shared reality—a shared understanding of facts. Much of this involves developing skills that are the natural domain of schools, such as data literacy, the capacity for critical inquiry, and other analytic skills that enable students to distinguish facts from fiction. Agreeing on a shared set of practices for investigating reality—such as identifying criteria for valid news sources, developing a process for reconciling conflicting information, and making explicit how evidence supports one's views—can help clarify points of disagreement and dispel claims that lack support.
It's important to acknowledge, though, that even when students have tools for critical thinking, their use of those tools will be affected by social and psychological forces they may not be aware of (Kahne & Bowyer, 2017). Teaching about confirmation bias—the tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms one's own views—and related psychological habits may help students gain self-understanding. By combining those insights with simple encouragements to consider alternative possibilities when discussing controversial issues, teachers can increase students' openness to information that doesn't mesh with their first instincts (Kolbert, 2017). Devoting time to listening and building empathy may also lessen the social threats that often incentivize confirmation bias and other distortions of reality.

5. Uphold crucial moral principles and rights

Discussions of charged political issues can cause real harm if they're not anchored by certain moral principles. Establishing these principles in a classroom is a powerful form of moral education. In our age, many children and adults adhere to a brand of relativism—the belief that everyone has a right to their opinion, and no one has the right to claim their opinion is superior to others. But this type of relativism is dangerous. While many opinions are rooted in important moral principles (such as the importance of fair and just treatment regardless of background) and human rights, other opinions have no legitimate moral basis—and are destructive.
As you facilitate political conversations, help students identify relevant moral principles and distinguish between political positions that do and don't have a moral basis or a foundation in human rights. For example, teachers can encourage students to take different views about how to achieve gender equality in this country and discuss what moral principles underlie work for equality. But expressing views that denigrate a person on the basis of gender violates human rights.
Making a call about which positions have a legitimate moral basis can be very tricky in cases that aren't clear-cut, especially given that teachers themselves are affected by cognitive biases. There's no easy solution to this conundrum, and the stakes can be high. Minimally, leaders should support teachers by acknowledging the inherent difficulty of their position and the courage they show in doing this work. Teachers should have opportunities to consult with administrators and peers who will help them discern whether a political position does or doesn't have a sound moral basis, challenge them to consider their own biases, and help them feel less vulnerable and alone if a conversation takes a tough turn or a parent ignites. Creating institutional norms that aid teachers in making such determinations can also help, and teachers may want to look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for guidance.
Many of these same guideposts apply to situations where principles or rights conflict, as in Matt's case. Some students felt Matt had a legitimate right to express his views; others found those views toxic and a violation of their rights. One valuable guidepost in such situations is upholding not only an ethics of rights but an ethics of care. While Matt has the right to wear the hat, he should be asked to consider what the hat means to other students, why they feel denigrated by it, and whether it's consistent with an ethics of care. This ethics of care also applies to any teacher who did nothing as Matt was being harassed, and to students who were harassing him, who should consider more constructive ways of expressing their anger.
Other practices that can help teachers lead discussions that encourage students to exercise their right to free speech respectfully include offering optional classes on highly sensitive topics (so students who may be especially vulnerable can opt out) and surveying students about whether and how to discuss charged topics. It probably makes sense for a small number of well-trained teachers in a school to pioneer leading this type of conversation and provide guidance to their colleagues when tough situations arise.

6. Work with parents

In many communities, the hardest part may be working with parents, including those parents who are on alert for signs of indoctrination or for content they perceive to be distressing their children. The following guideposts may help.
  • Be transparent with parents about plans to discuss difficult political topics in the classroom. Be clear about the goals of these conversations and anticipate and respond to particular concerns that many parents are likely to share. Parents shouldn't be blindsided. One risk of failing to notify parents is that they are likely to hear about these conversations from their children, who may not represent interchanges accurately or may share fragments out of context.
  • Focus parents' attention on the values that they share as opposed to their divergent values. For example, one of us spoke with a former teacher at the Brookwood School in Massachusetts. Anticipating parents' concerns about a human sexuality curriculum that had provoked some parents in previous years, this school proactively gathered parents to consider the hopes and values they shared in relation to the curriculum. These meetings didn't altogether dispel parents' worries and concerns, but they mitigated them significantly.
  • Present multiple perspectives. Parents may be significantly more open to these conversations when teachers present varied perspectives. But be mindful about encouraging or supporting perspectives that clearly violate the rights of others, including racist or homophobic perspectives and views based on misinformation.
Too often it's the loudest, most partisan parents that claim administrators' and teachers' time and attention, while research suggests that the majority of parents care about healing divides in this country and are "exhausted" by partisan hostility (Hawkins et al., 2019; Making Caring Common, 2021). Elevate these moderate parents who want to dial down the hostility. You might encourage them to join sessions when curriculum issues are being discussed or ask them to help facilitate conversations with other parents about contentious issues. Surveying parents to assess their support for taking up certain difficult topics can mitigate the risk that the loudest parents will disproportionately influence curriculum decisions.

7. Engage in scaffolded discussions of hot topics

Ultimately, in equipping students to talk about controversial issues, there's no substitute for the real thing: allowing students opportunities to practice authentic deliberation with their peers. Start with lower-stakes, less "flammable" controversies (like the ethics of eating meat) and teach students key elements of effective conversations and arguments.

In equipping students to talk about controversial issues, there's no substitute for the real thing: allowing students opportunities to practice authentic deliberation with their peers.

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To help students gain these skills, teachers might use fishbowl protocols, where groups of students alternate between observing and critiquing an ongoing discussion and participating in a discussion. More advanced activities include having students debate an issue formally (with preparation) or engage in a mock Congress where they craft a piece of legislation on a controversial issue that reflects a compromise among competing views.
It also helps to keep referring to a few basic principles for engaging in healthy arguments, such as the five principles the civics-related initiative Better Arguments Project has identified.

Ongoing (and Hopeful) Work

Though we've presented these seven steps with something of a trajectory in mind, the reality is that developing competencies for talking across difference is an ongoing project. Throughout this work, it may be important to return to earlier steps and—especially as students develop more complex skills—look back with them on what they've achieved and remind them of what it is they're learning. Moments of reflection let young people celebrate progress on a daunting challenge and further their appreciation of the complex, important nature of that challenge.
Data from our recent national survey indicate that Americans haven't given up on each other and do not want a "divorce." Only 9 percent of those we surveyed supported peacefully dividing our country into two countries, one Democrat and the other Republican. Two thirds of respondents reported that they cared for all Americans, regardless of their political views. But there is no time to waste; partisan divides only seem to be widening. Schools have a vital role in reversing this trend, and it's on schools' efforts that our experiment in democracy may depend.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What do you see as schools' role in helping young people talk across their differences?

➛ What do you do as a teacher or leader to help students with very different views interact respectfully? What more could you do?

References

Hawkins, S., Yudkin, D., Juan-Torres, M., & Dixon, T. (2019). Hidden tribes: A study of America's polarized landscape. More in Common.

Kahne, J., & Bowyer, B. (2017). Educating for democracy in a partisan age: Confronting the challenges of motivated reasoning and misinformation. American Educational Research Journal54(1), 3–34.

Kolbert, E. (2017, February). Why facts don't change our minds. The New Yorker.

Making Caring Common. (2021). Do Americans really care for each other? What unites us—and divides us.

Pew Research Center. (2022). As partisan hostility grows, signs of frustration with the two-party system.

End Notes

1 While this scenario is based on an actual incident, names and details have been added and changed to protect confidentiality.

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