A longtime educator and nonprofit leader shares his blueprint for turning contentious topics into teachable moments that help turn students into global citizens.
By Dr. Ian Jamison
More than any other generation in human history, the students who are in school today will live alongside, work with, and relate to peers with the widest possible range of cultural backgrounds, beliefs, values, and perspectives. To help them thrive in this complex world, it is imperative that we give them the tools they need to build societies that welcome diversity rather than fearing it, that encourage open-mindedness rather than cultivating prejudice, and that include rather than exclude.
The alternatives are too terrible to contemplate. Every day we see news reports that indicate what happens as a direct result of people rejecting diversity, celebrating intolerance, and wishing to impose their monolithic vision of reality upon others. With the rapid growth of social media and other forms of online communication, our students are almost certainly already participating in global discussions. At best, young people are being subjected to poor examples of how to interact online, and at worst, we know that a great deal of radicalization into violent extremism takes place online.
I believe that educators everywhere want to help students approach the diversity of the world in an open-minded way, but today’s teachers also need simple and clear-cut classroom activities that can help them achieve this goal without disrupting their need to deliver the kinds of results that their curriculum—and their students’ parents—demand.
To help navigate difficult or challenging conversations and situations, Generation Global provides teachers complimentary resources that are straightforward, easy-to-use, and have a genuine impact on their students. Everything we do starts with one concept: dialogue. Below are three best practices for teachers who want to facilitate fruitful dialogue about potentially divisive topics.
1) Define Dialogue
When teaching students who have grown up immersed in the high-speed, anonymous conflict of social media, a crucial first step is differentiating dialogue from debate. Simply put, in a debate one person wins by putting forward a better argument; the other loses. Debate is intrinsically competitive and is about establishing difference.
In a dialogue there are two winners. I learn from you; you learn from me. We may compromise or agree to differ. It is inherently reciprocal, and acknowledges similarity and difference equally. In our work with schools we describe dialogue (from a student perspective) this way: “An encounter with those who might have different opinions, values and beliefs than my own, dialogue is the process by which I come to understand the other’s lives, values and beliefs better, and others come to understand my life, values, and beliefs.”
2) Create a Safe Space
It is critical to establish a safe space at the start. This means a physical safe space, where students feel comfortable and dialogue will not be interrupted, and a psychological safe space, where students feel that they are able to speak freely and not need to self-censor.
A safe space starts with clear ground rules or expectations of behavior that everyone should abide by. A few simple rules are better than a great many complex ones. We suggest starting with these three:
Trust each other. The activities we provide in The Essentials of Dialogue resource give your students a chance to practice their dialogue skills by talking about non-contentious issues. Engaging in this kind of activity is an effective first step in developing trust in one another.
Be non-judgmental. Students need to know that dialogue is a space where they can challenge one another’s deeply held beliefs and values, but in a positive way. Exploring one another’s points of view leads students to say, “I’m uncomfortable with x, because of y,” rather than saying “You’re wrong!”
Be inclusive. It is important that everyone’s voice is heard in dialogue (or at least that everyone has the opportunity to take part—choosing to ‘pass’ is fine, too). Many of our students are strong speakers, but some of them lack confidence, have low self-esteem, and may be excluded by their peers for various reasons. Their voices are critical to genuine dialogue as well, and teachers should work to cultivate their speaking and listening skills.
3) Provide Trusted Facilitation
For a dialogue to be a true learning experience, the facilitator must be an honest broker; neutrality and encouragement for all is critical. Facilitating dialogue for your students is not difficult, but it is a different way of managing classroom discussions than some teachers may be used to. Facilitation requires no special knowledge; it is more about ensuring that the safe space is preserved. A facilitator should:
· Ensure that one individual or group does not dominate,
· Try to be neutral,
· Ensure that many views are heard and encouraged,
· Ensure that the group members develop their curiosity and ask good questions,
· Check clarity when people express complex views (“I heard you saying...”), and
· Ensure that the agreed-upon expectations are observed by everyone.
All of this said, it is crucial that the dialogue belongs to the students. If a teacher’s role is too directive, students may rely on the teacher’s arguments or not participate in discussion.
Practicing dialogue will help your students to do more than understand one another and their global peers; it will also help them move beyond simple stereotypes of the “other.” Through dialogue they will hear one another’s individual stories and come to understand the profound complexity of humanity.
Dr. Ian Jamison is Head of Education at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. He trains teachers around the world on Generation Global’s pedagogy of dialogue. He is an advocate for the power of dialogue for empowering people to address challenges, build understanding, and positively transform societies. Previously, he taught Religious Education for 20 years, and has experience of subject leadership in a number of schools, including Head of Religious Education. He won the Guardian Award for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in 2007. He tweets at @ianjamison