Election season tends to bring big, divisive issues into school buildings and classrooms. Environmental policies, guns, abortion, immigration and racial inequality are all on the ballot this year, and as we near Election Day, tensions are running high. With political topics as polarizing as they are right now, it is understandable for teachers to want to try to avoid them and just stick to the lesson plan.
But external pressures have permeated classrooms like never before, from book bans to critical race theory debates to mask mandates. School leaders report that polarization over major social and political issues interferes with schools’ ability to educate children. And students, more plugged in than ever, are often acutely aware of the social and political topics that influence their lives. At home, in the hallways and on social media, these topics tend to come up whether teachers planned to broach them in the classroom or not. Students are eager for honest exchanges about these important issues; even if they can’t vote, they know that many of the issues on the ballot impact their lives.
This leaves us with the question: Where can students engage each other on these important topics most constructively?
We believe it begins in classrooms. Elections present unique opportunities for educators to teach students how to engage with others across complex, sensitive topics because they are current and pull from real life. Creating space for students to talk to each other—and teaching them the skills and mindsets they need to interact—allows educators to show students that school can be a space for engaging with important issues while developing vital skills for lifelong learning.
Teaching constructive dialogue is central to maximizing the educational opportunity that elections present. Constructive dialogue is a form of conversation in which people who have different values, beliefs and perspectives seek to build new ways to understand and interact with each other, even as they sustain commitments to their own stances. It builds opportunities for students to connect rather than argue, to understand rather than vilify, and to step into curiosity rather than judgment. Practicing constructive dialogue lends itself to developing conflict resolution skills, critical thinking and reflective thinking around ideological differences—all essential to improving the health of our democracy.
Five Core Principles of Constructive Dialogue
At its core, constructive dialogue asks us to do the following:
- Let go of winning. The purpose is to understand, not to change someone’s mind.
- Share your story and invite others to do the same. Stories offer an entry point to engage others. We can use stories to share why we care about an issue or hold certain commitments.
- Ask questions to understand. Questions must aim to promote authentic, honest sharing in others, rather than to prove a point or find fault.
- Acknowledge others’ emotions. Simple acknowledgment of another’s feelings can foster connection. Acknowledging someone else’s experience does not mean that you have to agree with their position.
- Seek common ground when possible. Points of connection—a shared value commitment, policy stance, or even interest—can make it easier to explore disagreement with another person.
Laying the Groundwork
Teachers can use those five core principles as foundational approaches to constructive dialogue. Here’s how to lay the groundwork for actual dialogue practices.
Step 1: Prepare
Successful school dialogue starts with pre-work. During this stage, teachers can start by doing some self-reflection:
- What goals do you have for your students in these conversations? What do you hope for?
- Given what you know about your students and the group’s dynamic, what might be challenging for them? Trust in one another? Curious listening? Asking questions to understand? How could you mitigate those difficult moments in advance?
Preparing students also means building a culture of constructive dialogue in the classroom. Educators can do this by:
- Co-creating norms for a resilient classroom community—begin to define, together, what qualities like “respect” and “non-judgment” look and feel like, and what to do if they are not being upheld.
- Building trust and cohesion in the classroom through bite-sized sharing activities around topics both light-hearted and serious.
- Facilitating reflection and intention-setting by encouraging students to consider their hopes for dialogue, and their biggest concerns about engaging with those with whom they may disagree.
Step 2: Support
Dialogue will not be successful on its own, even if a classroom has strong norms and a foundation of trust. Educators must also support students as they begin to engage in conversation about complex issues.
Here are key practices for teachers to keep in mind:
- Structure the conversation. When students have strong feelings about a topic or issue, it can be difficult to know how to start. It helps to have structure, such as small group discussions, timed go-rounds, writing before speaking, practicing dialogue with loved ones at home first, or sharing opinions by moving along an agree/disagree spectrum on the floor.
- Practice dialogue skills. Listening to understand, asking questions of curiosity and expressing the values underlying one’s beliefs are skills students can learn just like anything else, and there are practice-based activities that teachers can facilitate to foster those skills.
- Talk about talking. Turning discussion onto the group’s dynamics can be a powerful part of a dialogue experience. This means inviting students to share about the type of community they want to create in the classroom, what gets in the way and debriefing how a conversation went after it happened.
Step 3: Intervene
Sometimes conversations go sideways. Interventions in high-pressure moments are most effective if educators have already grounded their classrooms in key practices such as norms, discussion structures, skill-building and debrief options. But difficult moments are inevitable even with prior planning and support. When they happen, try these key approaches to facilitation:
- Ask questions: “Can you tell me more about what you mean?” “What makes you say that?”
- Refer to group expertise: “What is it like for the group to hear this?” “What makes you worried or confused about what you’ve heard?”
- Point out shared values: “I can see that many people in this room care about democracy and truth.” “Both of you are really committed to fairness.”
- Refer to norms: When establishing group norms, we suggest including “Embrace discomfort as an essential part of the learning process.” Then, remind students of this norm when things get heated.
- Restate and check for understanding: “It sounds like Maya’s comment made you feel frustrated—is that right?” This slows down the conversation, checks for misunderstandings and lets students know you’re listening.
- Change the structure of the conversation to small groups or pairs: “Share with your partner how you are feeling about this conversation, and a question of curiosity you have.”
- Pause: “I want to pause and notice that something was just said that could possibly be harmful to those in this room. I could be wrong, but I want to check.”
- Name group dynamics: “I’m noticing some of our class seems like they are withdrawing from the conversation. Would someone like to speak to the feelings that are coming up or the reactions they are having?”
These steps and guiding questions are an important start for those who wish to engage in constructive dialogue in the classroom, but it is only that—a start. Our organization, the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute, created a free, downloadable guidebook, Constructive Dialogue and Elections: An Educator Guide to Engaging Students, which is full of ready-to-try resources for teachers to bring constructive dialogue to their classrooms.
As we head into Tuesday’s midterm elections and their aftermath, we hope educators will feel empowered to engage their students in constructive dialogue around thorny topics.
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