Moving from Debate to Empathy

In my freshman writing class, my job is to teach students how to write a researched essay. I encourage students to pick topics that interest them, but I warn them that if they go into their project already convinced that one answer is correct (that euthanasia should/should not be legal, that abortion is murder/healthcare, that high schools should increase funding to whatever activity they did in high school and cut some activity they think is pointless), they won’t learn what they need to know about how research informs educated opinions. I can warn students against choosing topics that don’t tend to work out. (For instance, never in my 20 years of teaching have I had a student complete a successful paper in favor of legalizing marijuana.)

But in other courses, it’s the subject matter itself that’s contentious. This article describes a method for covering a contentious subject without making students feel like discussing a contentious topic means taking sides and fighting it out.

College students in a lecture hall. A facilitator is crouched in the aisle, talking to a smiling student.Family therapists describe the problem that often arises in difficult discussions by saying they get “stuck,” DeTemple said. Research shows that humans go into fight-or-flight mode — in which their ability to think critically is compromised — when they feel threatened. The problem: “Your body,” she said, “can’t tell the difference between a viewpoint threat and a bear.” The challenge for professors, then, is to help students get unstuck from this instinctive response. That’s what Reflective Structured Dialogue is meant to do… The approach hinges on the use of “curious questions,” those meant to let the questioner learn from others, rather than to trap them or convince them that they’re wrong. And it’s highly structured, with people taking set turns to speak and doing so under a time limit, and the facilitator following a script. —Running Class Discussions on Divisive Topics Is Tricky. Here’s One Promising Approach.