Creating a Space for Open Dialogue - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

November 1, 2017

Creating a Space for Open Dialogue

To foster discussions about controversial topics, teachers must establish a judgement-free environment.

Instructional Strategies

Democratic government cannot survive without an open dialogue, yet, according to The New Yorker, "One in three Americans declines to discuss politics except in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own" (p. 39) 1 . Although you could argue that such reluctance to communicate is caused by apathy, the comments section at the end of online news articles proves otherwise. No matter the news source, certain articles generate thousands of reader responses. Not all responses are appropriate and respectful, but their numbers prove that many people want to participate in public discourse and care about the future of their country. As teachers, we must harness this eagerness to communicate and use it as the first step toward fostering open dialogue in a time of grave polarization.

Many of our students are eager to discuss current events and controversial topics. However, public school teachers are often reluctant to engage their students in debates. Some fear backlash from blind adherents of political correctness. Others are anxious about their students' immaturity. Personal biases and restrictive curriculums may also play a role in teachers' hesitation. But to prepare our students for effective citizenship, however, we must shed our fears. We must allow multiple opportunities to discuss a variety of unsettling subjects.

In the aforementioned article in The New Yorker, Columbia University professor John McWhorter is quoted as saying, "Many of the things that we're being told we shouldn't even discuss, and that the mere discussion of it constitutes a space becoming unsafe, are really things which, in an intelligent and moral environment, people will reasonably have discussions about" (p. 42). As educators, we must make an effort to create such "intelligent and moral" environments in our classrooms. If we want to live in a robust society, our students need to be able to talk about the issues they care about.

The Teacher's Role

One of the challenges of open dialogue in the classroom is the teacher's lack of control: What if a student says something unacceptable? What if some students are misinformed? Although I do not support unhinged conversations, I do believe that it's our responsibility to take the risk and facilitate honest discussions—and especially so if we are nervous that some of our students might be misinformed.

Another challenging aspect of open discussion is the teacher's ability to create a safe and judgment-free environment in which all students feel free to express their opinions. In this case, "judgment-free" refers to a teacher's judgment of her students' character just as much as to students' judgements about their peers. I often witness the detrimental effects of ongoing adult censorship on my students. For example, last fall, when we were analyzing James Weldon Johnson's poem "The Creation: A Negro Sermon" as part of our unit on Biblical allusions in World Literature class, I asked my students to infer what kind of people would typically have used such terms as mammy at the beginning of the 20th century. My students were silent for a while, with visible discomfort on their faces. Eventually, a young man raised his hand timidly and inquired, "Am I allowed to say a black man?" The poem, in fact, was written to appeal to a black audience, as its subtitle indicates, and perhaps even to suggest that the Christian God might have been black Himself. But my students were too afraid to reach any of these conclusions because they feared their comments about black people might be misconstrued as prejudiced.

Prior to our examination of Middle Eastern literature, I asked that same class to list common perceptions of the Middle East. My students were silent again. The same young man raised his hand and asked, "Is it OK to say that some people think all Muslims are terrorists?" I needed my class to acknowledge negative stereotypes like this one so we could address them throughout the unit. Yet my students were too scared of being called "Islamophobes." When people are nervous about being honest or adhere to excessive political correctness, an open dialogue cannot take place. Difficult as it might be, we, as teachers, need to ensure that our students' voices and opinions are heard.

A Not-So-Perfect World

I strive to create these safe spaces for open dialogue in my classroom. Every year, in preparation for the unit on satire, my senior English classes complete a project I call "Utopia." Unlike most utopian projects that require students to create an imaginary physical environment complete with maps, 3–D models, and lists of rules, my seniors are tasked with transforming the United States. To accomplish that, I put students in groups of four or five, mixing them by gender, personal interests, and race if possible. Each group is required to come up with 15 crucial problems in our country and 15 laws to address those problems. Then students must decide how to enforce each law, such as by fines, rewards, prison sentences, reliance on propaganda, and economic stimuli.

Year after year, I encounter rather unsettling proposals: Some groups decide to execute or exile everyone who disagrees with their society's rules; others insist on severe punishments for those who practice any religion. Some groups want to make people pay enormous fines for having more than two children, while others argue for complete prohibition of abortion. A few propose using snipers to shoot illegal immigrants who cross the border. I must confess, some of the proposals make me gasp. But I've made a conscious effort to avoid calling such responses racist, intolerant, homophobic, elitist, liberal, right-wing, radical, or any other label that tends to divide rather than unite people.

Furthermore, many of my students' "inappropriate" solutions have been tried throughout history, so are not unworthy of analysis. Stalin and Hitler purged those who disagreed with their leadership; England exiled its prisoners to Australia; Protestant, Catholic, and Islamic leaders persecuted people of other faiths; the Soviet Union dismantled Orthodox churches and Islamic mosques; China restricted its citizens from having more than one child; in the 1960s, Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed abortion and contraception in Romania; and Hungarian authorities this year hired 3,000 "border hunters" to guard their wall against the influx of illegal immigrants.

However extreme some of my students' proposals might seem, instead of calling their solutions inappropriate, I encourage students to explain their thinking and ask their peers to question their logic. For instance, one of the groups decided to make divorce illegal because it causes distress to minors. The group's punishment for couples who insist on divorcing was to take away custody of their children.

After the presentation, some of the students in the audience immediately raised their hands to point out that minors would be traumatized even more if they were placed in orphanages. Further, by making divorce illegal, the policy would force people to stay with abusive spouses, increasing the likelihood of an injury or death in the family. In the end, the presenters admitted that they had not considered the detrimental effects of their proposal and that their decision might have not been the best. As a teacher, I did not have to do a thing: The students were in charge of the interaction, taking ownership of their learning.

I find that usually the teacher's respectful attitude toward the presenters is enough to minimize mockery and condescension, but if necessary, I remind all students about the importance of listening with open minds. Many students find themselves out of their comfort zones during their peers' presentations, and in times of uncertainty, young adults often look to us, the adults, for the appropriate social cues. I make sure my responses are as free of judgment as possible throughout the process. In one case, a group proposed cutting off people's fingers for "throwing gang signs." This proposal resulted in a loud round of derision. However, when I pointed out that punitive limb amputation has been practiced since Babylonian times and is still relied on in some countries, all laughter stopped. Furthermore, when I asked the class whether they think this solution could be effective, most students admitted that it might actually work. In the end, we agreed to disagree with the team, justifying our rejection of dismemberment on the grounds of our moral beliefs. Thus, the team felt validated in their thinking, yet they also realized why their solution is not morally acceptable despite its potential practicality.

At the end of all presentations, students are asked to write in their journals, this time focusing only on one of the most appealing and one of the most upsetting solutions presented by any group. Afterwards, I give students an opportunity to share their written responses. One appealing proposal that students journaled about was an idea to restructure American education to reduce the number of required academic courses and introduce more vocational options and required personal finance classes. On the other hand, many students journaled about an upsetting suggestion that the United States "nuke" North Korea. Students pointed out that in addition to killing many innocent Koreans, we would also start a war that would endanger U.S. citizens and other people around the world.

From my students' journals and our class discussions, I have learned that most group members grow to appreciate how hard it is to compromise and solve national problems to everyone's satisfaction. A few students begin to question simplistic solutions, such as building a high wall along a nation's borders.

Some students are shocked to discover how many of their classmates think differently from them, which is not surprising, considering that many have not been allowed to talk about controversial subjects at school. Certainly, some students' opinions remain unchanged, and, although I might wish for some changes in their perceptions, I try not to pressure them. My goal is to ensure that all students are listened to without being dismissed and that they feel respected despite their classmates' disagreement with their ideas. If I succeed, these students might be more willing to consider other people's points of view later in their lives, which will eventually result in an open dialogue outside of school.

The Role of Debate

In the article quoted at the beginning of this article, Jill Lepore writes,

For centuries, learning how to argue was the centerpiece of a liberal-arts education … Etymologically and historically, the artes liberales are the arts acquired by people who are free, or liber. Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it's the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government. (p. 40)

Debating must become the centerpiece of our education again. Although there are many ways to teach how to locate credible academic sources, differentiate fake news from real reporting, and make sure that arguments lean toward logos (reasoning) rather than pathos (emotions), we need to remember that allowing students to discuss meaningful topics and providing them with a safe environment should be our priority. Whether we emulate the Lincoln-Douglas format, write argumentative papers, or simply talk, what matters is the conversation itself—its honesty and its inclusiveness—because an open dialogue is the only way to restore our trust in one another and to preserve democracy.

End Notes

1 Lepore, J. (2016, September 19). "The state of debate: How should presidential candidates—and voters—argue about politics?" The New Yorker, 38–44.

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?