Summer Workshop Series: Civilizing Civic Debate With Empathic Imagination and Dialectical Thinking
Under the best circumstances, civics education triggers student passions. In a recent column on the “Trump effect,” I outlined many educators’ concerns about discussing politics in the classroom during the 2016 election season. One of the biggest challenges teachers face is ensuring that students are comfortable enough to voice their opinions while being respectful of dissent.
For civil classroom discussions, teachers must dismantle ‘us versus them’
This year’s presidential contest, marked by angry protests and deep divisions between voters, means teaching civics in even rougher waters than usual. Because divisiveness thrives on an “us versus them” mentality, the key to getting students to value dissenting opinions is to break through that contentious model and encourage them to see a bigger picture. Encouraging students to practice empathic imagination and dialectic thinking can inject a needed amount of civility into any subject.
A summer workshop that cultivates healthy debate with dialectic thinking and empathic imagination
This workshop is best suited for middle and high school students. Its flexibility in design makes it ideal for a summer workshop, but also useful for classes such as civics, social studies or science. The content will help students understand:
- The values behind opposing views on a controversial subject
- How to find common threads in different points of view
- Why using persuasive techniques can unite diverse populations
Exploring controversy: instructor prep for an empathic imagining lesson
To prepare for a dialectic thinking and empathic imagination day, teachers should choose a specific controversy to explore. This allows for content flexibility. A science teacher might select topics like legislating global warming or requiring labeling for genetically-modified (GMO) foods, while a civics teacher can explore arguments for or against seating a Supreme Court justice or changing the general election process.
The workshop requires students to be split into groups representing a vested interest in and decided opinion on the issue. For example, a workshop that explores the controversy around mandatory labeling of foods with GMO ingredients has invested populations including scientists, politicians, the media, consumers and farmers. These groups can be further split into for, against, or even neutral factions.
Pro tip: Assign students to groups rather than letting them choose sides
To complete preparations, teachers should identify which populations students will explore and which side of the controversy each will take. It is essential to assign these rather than ask students to choose a group. An assigned position forces each student to engage with a stance that may be contrary to his or her personal beliefs.
Civil civics: leading students through the dialectical thinking process
The goal of this workshop is to help students learn that contrary opinions are based on values and beliefs, and that understanding those beliefs and finding where they intersect is key to engaging and changing others’ minds. On the workshop day, provide an overview of your chosen topic, then lead students through the following steps.
Five-minute free-write for initial thoughts
Pose your controversial question to students and give them an opportunity to write for five minutes. This allows them to explore their own thoughts.
Set aside your own POV
As a next step, encourage workshop participants to set aside their existing points of view. Explain that dialectic thinking and empathic imagination require entertaining multiple perspectives on an issue.
Find the reason for your group’s beliefs
Assign students to groups and ask them to consider the reasons that population might support their assigned position. Then, encourage them to identify specific values and beliefs underlying those opinions. In the GMO labeling example, reasons and values might include:
- “I want to know the food I eat is safe”
- “Research indicates that genetically modified ingredients don’t have any health risks”
- “My constituents are concerned about the safety of their food”
- “I believe that growing organic food is the best environmental choice”
- “There should be a consistent labeling system for food containing GMO ingredients”
Share groups’ positions and arguments
Once small groups have completed their brainstorming, have each group share their ideas with the class. Tell students they can quietly take notes while listening to the presenting groups, but they may not engage in debate.
Find common threads
Once everyone has shared, ask students to return to their assigned groups. Challenge them to create a list of reasons and values stated by opposing groups that could be used to support their group’s position. For example:
- Farmers and consumers want their families to eat healthy food
- Consumers and the media believe in the public’s right to know scientific facts on GMO ingredients
- Scientists and the media want consumers to make informed decisions about nutrition
- Politicians and scientists support legislation that benefits public health
- Farmers and scientists value crops that can be used to decrease global food insecurity
Create bullet points and propaganda
If time allows, students can then be tasked with creating a visual argument or propaganda poster that attempts to appeal to other audiences using the values and beliefs of those groups to support their argument.
Final step: written reflection
Students can end the workshop day by free-writing their experience and what they learned from stepping into someone else’s shoes.
How empathic imagination and dialectical thinking exercises improve classroom culture
Exercises that use empathic imagination and dialectical thinking are a powerful way to instill deeper civility in the classroom. If discussions get heated, teachers can encourage students to practice a small-scale version of the workshop process.
Holding this type of workshop early in the school year can also help ensure that many voices are heard and protected in the classroom environment. Being forced to defend, and honestly engage with, opinions other than their own helps students to see that some contrary political beliefs are, at their foundation, based in common values.
The same skills that prevent a breakdown in civility are essential to critical thinking
One of the breakdowns in civility comes from refusing to acknowledge that various political and social groups have more in common than they are apt to admit. Practiced and revisited habitually, engagement of the empathic imagination and the process of dialectical thinking — a key habit in critical thinking — becomes an essential skill set in civil civics.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- John Allen Rossi, "Creating Strategies and Conditions for Civil Discourse About Controversial Issues," Learner.org
- "Propaganda and Spin," NC Civic Education Consortium