Education for Deliberative Democracy

Education should prepare students for democracy. But what exactly is democracy and what does it require?

Democracy is often defined as majority rule with due respect for minority rights. But democracy is ideally an effort to identify the best options through deliberative processes of argumentation open to all. If we cannot achieve consensus we may have to vote, but argumentation ideally improves our understanding and generates better decisions.

To sustain democracy, then, citizens must be experienced and competent in argumentation. How can we best prepare students for active participation in deliberative democracy? Building Our Best Future: Thinking Critically About Ourselves and Our World, a new book by Deanna Kuhn, provides detailed guidance for promoting argumentation, and associated reasoning and writing skills, in middle school and beyond.

Kuhn is not new to this topic. On the contrary, she is the world’s foremost authority on the development of reasoning and argumentation beyond childhood. Her research has appeared regularly since the 1970s in top journals of cognitive, developmental, and educational psychology, as well as in many important books, including several of her own. In recent years, she has focused especially on the promotion of argumentation in middle school students.

In Education for Thinking, a 2005 volume published by Harvard University Press, Kuhn synthesized her research to present a developmental conception of education as the promotion of inquiry and argument. More recently, in Argue with Me: Argument as a Path to Developing Students’ Thinking and Writing, she and two co-authors wrote directly for teachers about her argumentation curriculum.

Kuhn’s new book is perhaps the ultimate step in her ongoing efforts to make her work accessible. This is a book that can be read and applied by middle school students, who are, in fact, the intended audience. The book is a student manual for Kuhn’s argumentation curriculum.

Building Our Best Future presents 44 topics in four categories. The categories (and examples of the issues raised) are “A Personal Future” (course selection, nutrition, alcohol, money management), “A Community Future” (school curriculum, age of majority, taxes and services, elder care), “A National Future” (voting rights, health insurance, abortion, capital punishment), and “A World Future” (immigration, foreign aid, the United Nations, weapons of mass destruction).

Students may also choose topics of their own. For each agreed topic, two positions are identified and each student chooses a position, leading to a division into two teams, which ultimately compete in a “showdown” of argumentation including a series of face-to-face individual encounters.

In preparation for the much-anticipated showdown, students engage in a sequence of activities in both small and large groups. Guided by the manual, they generate reasons, evaluate them, identify questions, seek relevant evidence, consider opposition arguments, formulate counterarguments, and prepare “comebacks” to opposition counterarguments. For topics in the manual, lists of questions are provided, with online access to answers.

After the showdown, in a phase called “sharing your thinking,” students write individual short essays defending their current position. Regardless of whether their position has changed, their depth of understanding facilitates their writing and is reflected in the quality of the final product. For a second essay, presenting a greater challenge, students with differing views may collaborate on an essay explaining the issue and presenting the arguments and evidence for both sides.

There is also a Teachers Edition of Building Our Best Future, which includes most of what appears in the student edition plus explanatory notes and instructional suggestions. A concluding chapter, unique to the Teachers Edition, briefly reviews the substantial published evidence for the effectiveness of the curriculum and provides guidance on assessing progress in the reasoning and writing of individual students.

The final chapter of the Teachers Edition also notes that adults may be concerned about having young adolescents address controversial social and political issues in school. But the students, Kuhn observes, “are entirely comfortable and eager to talk about issues that they believe really matter.” All that is needed is an occasional reminder to “criticize ideas, not people.” In an age of ideology and polarization, this may be the curriculum we need to revitalize democratic deliberation.

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