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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

The Art of Deliberation

With their diverse populations and social and academic problems, schools are unique arenas for learning how to thrive in a civilized society. Educators must seize the teaching opportunity.

A school is not a private place, like our homes," writes kindergarten teacher and moral philosopher Vivian Gussin Paley. "The children I teach are just emerging from life's deep wells of private perspective: babyhood and family. Then, along comes school. It is the first real exposure to the public arena" (1992).
Paley's observation is insightful, and the implications are far reaching. For most children, school is the first sustained, daily experience of public life. For this reason, schools are ideal places to nurture the public habits and values (sometimes called civic virtue or civility) that are crucial for democratic living in diverse societies.

Diversity on Common Ground

Schools are places where diverse children are gathered together. Their diversity often runs the gamut from language and religion to ability and intelligence to race and social class. The diversity of students is increasing more rapidly than ever. It is estimated that by 2026, the Hispanic and nonwhite student enrollment in U.S. schools will reach 70 percent, the inverse of today's proportion (Garcia and Gonzalez 1995).
This buzzing variety does not exist, as Paley notes, in a "private place, like our homes." It exists where diverse people congregate, where people from numerous private worlds are brought together on common ground, where private perspectives and personal values are brought face-to-face around mutual problems and concerns.
Compared to life at home, schools are like crossroads, marketplaces, village squares, and cities themselves. When aimed at democratic ends, interaction in schools can help children develop the habits of behavior and character necessary for public life: the courtesies, manners, tolerance, respect, sense of justice, and knack for forging public policy with others, whether one likes them or not. Without these qualities, anything approaching a vigorous civic life is impossible. As Plato asked, "Are there not some qualities of which all the citizens must be partakers if there is to be a city at all?"

How to Nurture Civility?

To clarify the distinction between a private and public place, we could contrast life in a criminal gang with life in a public school. This is what John Dewey did in 1916 when American society was also roiling in a new wave of diversity. In the gang, Dewey wrote, "we find that the ties which consciously hold the members together are few in number;" they are almost entirely reducible to defense, offense, and crime. Such ties "isolate the group from other groups with respect to the give-and-take of the values of life" (1916). A gang is ingrown. Its members are so similar and their shared interests and reference points so few, and of such a nature, as to partition them from exchange with the broader congregation. Because they are removed from the soil in which civility might grow, bigotry and decay—both personal and social—grow instead.
A public school, by contrast, has members who are not so similar; the common school movement of the last century and Supreme Court decisions in this century saw to that. Students cluster into cliques and peer groups, of course, but they also share many interests that bring them face-to-face with others outside these groups. The great task for teachers, administrators, and parents is to seize the opportunity afforded by this diverse congregation and channel it to help children develop the habits of behavior and character necessary for civilized public life.
  1. Increase the variety and frequency of interaction among students who are different from one another.
  2. Orchestrate these contacts to foster deliberation about two common kinds of problems: those that arise from the friction of interaction itself and those grounded in the academic controversies at the core of each discipline.
  3. Clarify the distinction between deliberation and blather. In other words, expect, teach, and model competent deliberation that is rooted in knowledge.

Increasing Interaction

One can deepen and expand the opportunities for interaction in two arenas: the classroom and the common areas of the school. In both, students should be mixed in various kinds of groups. These groups should be temporary and task-oriented. Why? Because separating students permanently, for whatever reason—ability, prior knowledge, behavior—does not build civic health (Slavin 1995, Radencich and McKay 1995). The isolated group lacks the multiple reference points, and hence the give-and-take, of public life. Here are a few examples of interaction in both arenas.
Classroom interaction: (1) Primary grade children sit in a group around the teacher to share their work with one another; (2) students in a science class, who have been taught cooperative skills, work in teacher-assigned cooperative learning groups to compose biographies of Galileo; (3) middle school children work in teacher-assigned pairs to practice a skill, recite a poem, or interpret a chart or essay; and (4) middle and high school students gather for band and choir classes.
Schoolwide interaction: (1) Students gather in after-school clubs and teams, in assemblies, and at school events and presentations—dances, plays, pageants, athletic games, band and choir concerts; and (2) students are assigned to cross-grade teams to care for an area of the school they have adopted. (A team may, for example, consist of five children, one each from grades 1-5, with the 5th grader as leader.) This is a time-honored activity in Japan, where it is considered part of the "moral education" program.

Fostering Deliberation

It is one thing to attend a Friday night dance with a diverse group of classmates, but quite another to plan the dance together. Students need such opportunities to deliberate together. (Note that the word deliberate comes from the Latin word libra for scale. It means "to weigh," as when weighing alternative courses of action or which policy would be best for all concerned.)
Elementary and middle school students are in the perfect setting to deliberate classroom and school policies. High school students should be doing this, too, but also deliberating divisive and complicated domestic and foreign policy questions—from environmental issues to dilemmas of international trade and resource distribution.
Deliberation should not be confused with debate, where people who have already formed their opinions gather to advocate and defend them. Nor is deliberation the same as alternating monologues, where there is sequential talking but no real listening, let alone empathy.
What I call the "deliberative arts" include a host of skills: listening as well as talking, taking turns, striving to understand points of view different from one's own, criticizing ideas rather than persons, admitting ignorance, slowing the rush to judgment so as to reframe the problem or gather more information, courageously asserting unpopular views, supporting claims with reasoning, drawing analogies, and appreciating Voltaire's principle: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
This is difficult work, of course, but so is democracy. It is what schools are for (Greene 1996). Here are a few examples.
Classroom deliberation: (1) Primary grade children sit in groups around the teacher to consider a classroom rule that the teacher has proposed (Paley 1992); (2) students research and deliberate academic controversies in U.S. history, such as the causes of the Salem witchcraft hysteria or Supreme Court civil rights cases (Johnson and Johnson 1988); (3) students in teacher-assigned cooperative learning groups gather information on an assigned topic after deciding on the fairest and most effective division of labor; (4) students hold weekly homeroom meetings to weigh classroom and school policies on cheating, stealing, violence, and vandalism (They rotate the role of discussion moderator); and (5) high school seniors take a rigorous course called "Senior Problems," in which they deliberate pressing domestic and international policy questions.
Schoolwide deliberation: (1) A vigorous student council has rotating delegates from homerooms who meet in order to decide policies and plan activities; (2) classrooms in each wing of the school congregate as "houses" within the larger school, planning joint projects, setting policy, and solving common problems (see Kohlberg's "Just Community" model [Power et al. 1989]); and (3) cross-grade teams decide on and plan a community service project.

Expanding Knowledge

Knowledge is the intellectual capital that a liberally educated student can bring to deliberation; it is what distinguishes deliberation from bull sessions. For this reason, early and continuous education in the liberal arts—history, the social and natural sciences, mathematics, literature, philosophy—is fundamental to the development of civility.
Perhaps no one has argued the point better, and for the American context particularly, than W.E.B. DuBois (1903) in The Souls of Black Folk, an historic critique of Booker T. Washington's work at the turn of the century. Washington advocated vocational education for recently emancipated African Americans. But DuBois warned that this would be a disabling education of "adjustment and submission" because it would be shorn of disciplinary knowledge—great ideas, theories, visions, and struggles. Therefore vocational education would be damaging to both the people subjected to it and the public spaces they might have created together. These arguments still provide us with an object lesson in high and low achievement expectations (Darling-Hammond 1996).
During deliberation, a rich fund of knowledge will reveal itself in numerous ways: how a student frames a problem, searches for related information, uses reference materials and databases, seeks diverse viewpoints, judges the strength of arguments, interprets charts and primary documents, adjudicates competing interpretations, and weighs alternative courses of action. Studies of experts at work reveal the almost seamless interaction of substantive knowledge and problem-solving abilities (Glaser 1984, Wineburg 1991). Of course, the possession of such knowledge does not guarantee its deft application, but certainly no application is possible without it.
  • Children are gathered on the rug to deliberate a proposed rule that would forbid a child from telling other children that they cannot join in a game. Some children bring an array of examples and observations to the discussion, using these to construct a more elaborate understanding of the proposed rule than their peers are able to do (Paley 1992).
  • High school juniors are weighing the possible causes of the witchcraft accusations in Salem in order to decide on the most probable cause. Some students are able to bring substantial historical knowledge to the topic. They draw analogies to the Spanish Inquisition, the McCarthy anticommunist hearings, and anti-Semitic hysteria in Germany.
  • Students are assigned to cooperative "Jigsaw" teams to create a museum exhibit on the Salem witchcraft phenomenon. They are deciding on a division of labor and their knowledge of the topic is a key factor in how they divide the work. For example, if they studied world history the year before and know of the European witchcraft craze that occurred at about the same time, they may have a team member compare the American and European cases. Or, if in studying the Holocaust they learned something about the relationship between economic insecurity and scapegoating, they might gather socioeconomic data on the Salem accusers and victims.

Fertile Teaching Arenas

In sum, schools are public places in which diversity and mutual problems (policies, vandalism, racism, theft, and so on) come with the territory. In addition, every topic addressed in class is loaded with genuine problems of interpretation and explanation. Teachers should seize upon both types of problems to teach the deliberative arts.
Included in the deliberative arts are the many facets of joint problem solving—listening as well as talking, grasping others' points of view, and using the common space to forge positions with others rather than using it only as a platform for expressing opinions. Acquired long before, this blend of skills, dispositions, and knowledge is what enables a diverse group of people—young or old—to peacefully discuss divisive issues in order to forge an intelligent and just decision that is binding on all. Such education in schools helps children develop the public virtues needed "if there is to be a city at all."

Darling-Hammond, L. (1996). "Democracy and Access to Education." In Democracy, Education, and the Schools, edited by R. Soder. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 151-181.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan, p. 89.

DuBois, W.E.B. (1903, reprinted in 1990). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Vintage, p. 42.

Garcia, E.E., and R. Gonzalez. (1995). "Issues in Systemic Reform for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students." Teachers College Record 96, 3: 420.

Glaser, R. (1984). "Education and Thinking: The Role of Knowledge." American Psychologist, pp. 93-104.

Greene, M. (1996). "Plurality, Diversity, and the Public Space." In Can Democracy be Taught?, edited by A. Oldenquist. Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa, p. 28.

Johnson, D.W., and R.T. Johnson. (May 1988). "Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy." Educational Leadership 45, 8: 29-33.

Paley, V. (1992). You Can't Say You Can't Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.16.

Power, F.C., A. Higgins, and L. Kohlberg. (1989). Lawrence Kohlberg's Approach to Moral Education. New York: Columbia University Press.

Radencich, M.C., and L. McKay. (1995). Flexible Grouping for Literacy in the Elementary Grades. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). "Cooperative Learning and Intergroup Relations." In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, edited by J.A. Banks and C.A. McGee Banks. New York: Macmillan, pp. 628-634.

Wineburg, S. (1991). "Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in the Evaluation of Documentary and Pictorial Evidence." Journal of Educational Psychology 83: 73-85.

End Notes

1 For curriculum models, see W.C. Parker, ed., Educating the Democratic Mind, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996); R. Soder, ed., Democracy, Education, and the Schools, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996); J.T. Dillon, ed., Deliberation in Education and Society, (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1994); and A. Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).

2 Helpful, inexpensive curriculum materials for launching such a course are Choices for the 21st Century Education Project, (Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 1996); and National Issues Forum, (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1996).

Walter C. Parker has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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