Democracy Rising 20: Deliberative Dialogue as Service Learning

Democracy on the rise is a blog post series about deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why it’s time for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originated in the United States but will discuss principles and draw on examples from around the world. The views and opinions expressed in each article are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

Democracy Rising 20

Deliberative Dialogue as Service Learning

University professors have a reputation for being far-left liberals. College classrooms are seen as bastions of liberal ideology where nice conservative kids go to lose their humanity. This is far from true, especially when deliberative pedagogy is at the heart of the program. Through deliberative pedagogy, students are prepared to participate in solving issues important to them and their communities.[1]

I discovered deliberative dialogue in the spring of 2021 through the American Democracy Project, a nonpartisan initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It was interesting to engage with professionals who focused on the science and practice of negotiating difficult conversations. It reminded me of developmental psychologist Robert Kegan’s Theory of Constructive Development, in which he advocates “moving from dichotomous choice to the dialectical context that brings up the poles in the first place.”[2] I’ve been holding that quote for a while now, thinking about it, sitting on its importance, but not quite realizing how important it would be.

When I found the deliberative dialogue, I realized that I had found something special. I spent the summer of 2021 redesigning two undergraduate psychology courses to incorporate deliberative dialogue as a form of service learning. I reviewed materials from the National Issues Forums Institute, the Campus Compact, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, as well as several books on the subject.

I started the fall semester by facilitating a dialogue about whether students should be required to wear masks. In August 2021, our college strongly encouraged, but did not impose, the wearing of a mask. Instead of the typical program exposé, my students deliberated pros and cons of various policy positions on masks using The Flip Side News articles to include multiple perspectives. The students decided that personal responsibility was the common value of the group and that everyone would do their part to keep the community safe. Whether the students were wearing masks or not, they all participated in the discussion and had the opportunity to voice their concerns.

During the first term of the semester, introductory psychology and human growth and development students were trained to facilitate deliberative dialogues. Their training took place over four class periods, which included an introduction to deliberation, research in neuropsychology and social psychology, opportunities to practice facilitating difficult conversation, and peer feedback on their progress.[3] This class met twice a week, leaving one day for dialogue and one day for content. Making connecting to content seamless took extra effort; however, students were able to learn both course content and the process of deliberative dialogue.

Throughout the training sessions, I shared local data on basic population demographics, health statistics, and educational outcomes. Student teams were encouraged to select topics that interested them and corresponded to the course content. To bring community partners onboard early in the process, I invited the director of the local Family Connection Collaborative to talk about their work and the importance of outreach to community resources. I also invited the Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners to talk about how local government works and how citizens can get involved to influence the changes they want to see. After hearing the data and meeting with community partners, most teams chose to research and dialogue on various aspects of mental health, violence, or education.

Each team was paired with a community leader to plan, promote and facilitate two dialogues on the chosen topic. For the first dialogue, most teams only recruited two or three participants. They ignored advice on the difficulty of encouraging people to attend these events and the power of the personal invitation. Between the first and second dialogues, I invited a local journalist to talk about marketing and partnered with a marketing class to help promote the events. The next round of dialogues attracted more participants, including new participants, returning participants, and several students who chose to support other teams by attending their dialogues. Over the course of two months, my students facilitated 32 dialogues in various locations on campus, in the community, and online.

Their last semester project was a summary of the results that was given to their community partner. I hope community partners will read the comments and share them with their councils. I don’t know how far the summary has gone to inform the work of their community partners, but I know there have been significant changes for individual students, for our campus, and for the local community.

Several students continued to facilitate deliberative dialogue forums in the spring of 2022, focusing on suicide awareness and prevention. Another group of students helped the college’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council host a dialogue on free speech and inclusivity. Other individual students have held dialogues in other off-campus locations. A dual-enrolled high school student facilitates dialogues for her peers in high school. Another student is planning a summer dialogue training for local 4-H. A deliberative dialogue even occurred at a binational business team meeting where a team of students weighed the pros and cons of working to solve various sustainability goals. Once students acquire these skills, they seem to become better thinkers and more capable citizens.[4]

As I consider how to structure my classes for Fall 2022, I know that deliberative dialogue will play a role. For anyone considering adopting deliberation as a teaching tool, I encourage you to weigh the pros and cons for your students. If you decide to do so, here are my tips:

  • It’s good to start small. Students can learn deliberative skills without becoming trained facilitators. One of the best deliberations we had was on compassionate accountability. What happens when we go too far one way or the other?
  • Consider how many teams you want to manage, or consider assigning a team of student leaders from each class with supervisory and management duties. Having 16 teams of students split into two classes and facilitating 32 dialogues in two months was a bit overwhelming, especially for a small campus and small community.
  • Design a simple communication method outside of the learning management system. Discussion boards are great for grading, but Slack is a much better communication tool for team projects.
  • Consider using a collaborative project management tool like Trello or Padlet.
  • Spend time preparing your community partners for their role and make sure they are connected at work. Students need to continually communicate with their partner through a variety of means.
  • Engage student teams for feedback and reflection. This would secure dialogue participants from their individual team and serve as an integrated collaborative community for troubleshooting and improvement between dialogues.
  • Make sure students have a marketing plan. It’s daunting to spend hours researching an issue, preparing a dialogue guide, and planning a dialogue, and then having a student’s grandparents as the only attendees. The most effective invitation is the sincere personal invitation.

Deliberative dialogue is an excellent educational tool. My students learned the skills easily, were able to navigate difficult conversations, and continued to use these tools on and off campus. The most difficult challenge has been and continues to be to have a diverse group of dialogue participants in the room. The work is difficult and sometimes exhausting, but it is worth it when I see that my reach exceeds my reach.

* * *

[1] Shaffer, T., Longo, N., Thomas, M. and Manosevitch, E. (2017). Deliberative pedagogy: teaching and learning for democratic engagement. United States: Michigan State University Press. Johnson, J. & Melville, K. (2019). National Issues Forums: “Choice Work” as an Essential Civic Skill. In N. Longo & T. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: An Introduction to Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp. 140-146). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Edition.

[2] Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process of human development. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

[3] Barker, D. (2019). Deliberative civic engagement. In N. Longo & T. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating Space for Democracy: An Introduction to Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education (pp.57-68). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Edition. Carcasson, M. (2018). Why the process matters: Democracy and human nature. National Civic Review, 107(1), 36–39. https://doi.org/10.1002/ncr.21353.

[4] Pincock, H. (2021). Does deliberation make better citizens? In T. Nabatchi, J. Gastil, G. Weiksnere, & M. Leighninger (Eds.), Democracy in motion (pp. 135-162). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Teaser photo credit: By Shimer College – File provided by Shimer College, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38164965