Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
Democracy Rising 20
Deliberative Dialogue as Service Learning
College professors have a reputation for being far left liberal. College classrooms are thought to be bastions of liberal ideology where nice conservative kids go to lose their humanity. That’s far from the truth, especially when deliberative pedagogy is at the heart of the curriculum. Through deliberative pedagogy, students are prepared to participate in solving problems important to them and their communities.
I learned about 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 were focused on the science and practice of negotiating difficult conversations. It reminded me of the developmental psychologist Robert Kegan’s constructive-developmental theory, in which he advocates “moving from the dichotomous choice to the dialectical context which brings the poles into being in the first place.” I’ve held onto that quote for a while now, mulling over it, sitting with its importance, but not quite realizing just how significant it would be.
When I found deliberative dialogue, I realized 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 material from the National Issues Forums Institute, Campus Compact, and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, along with several books on the topic.
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 require, the wearing of masks. Instead of the typical syllabus talk, my students deliberated the benefits and drawbacks of various policy positions about 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 each person would do their part to keep the community safe. Whether students wore masks or not, they were all involved in the discussion and had the opportunity to share their concerns.
During the first quarter of the semester, students taking Introduction to Psychology and Human Growth and Development were trained to facilitate deliberative dialogues. Their training took place over four class periods, which included an introduction to deliberation, research from neuropsychology and social psychology, opportunities to practice facilitating a difficult conversation, and peer feedback on their progress. This class met twice a week, which allowed one day for dialogue and one day for content. Making the connection to the content transparent required additional effort; however, students were able to learn both the course content and the deliberative dialogue process.
Throughout the training sessions, I shared local data on basic population demographics, health statistics, and education outcomes. Student teams were encouraged to select topics of interest to them and relevant to the course content. To incorporate the community partners early in the process, I invited the director of the local Family Connection Collaborative to talk about their work and the importance of awareness about 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 the community partners, most teams chose to research and dialogue about various aspects of mental health, violence, or education.
Each team was partnered with a community leader to plan, promote, and facilitate two dialogues on their chosen topic. For the first dialogue, most teams only recruited two or three participants. They did not pay attention to the guidance about how difficult it is to encourage 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 drew more participants, including new attendees, returning attendees, and several students who chose to support other teams by attending their dialogues. Over course of two months, my students hosted 32 dialogues in various locations on campus, in the community, and online.
Their final semester project was a summary of findings that was given to their community partner. I hope that the community partners read the feedback and shared it with their boards. I don’t know how far the summary went toward informing the work of their community partners, but I do know that there have been meaningful changes for individual students, for our campus, and for the local community.
Several students continued to host deliberative dialogue forums during the spring of 2022, focusing on suicide awareness and prevention. Another group of students assisted the college’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Council to host a dialogue about free speech and inclusivity. Other individual students have hosted dialogues in other locations off campus. One dual-enrolled high school student is facilitating dialogues for her peers at the high school. Another student is planning a summer dialogue training for the local 4-H. Deliberative dialogue even showed up in a binational business team meeting where a team of students was weighing the benefits and tradeoffs of working to solve various Sustainable Development Goals. Once students learn these skills, they seem to become better thinkers and more capable citizens.
As I think about how to structure my classes for fall 2022, I know that deliberative dialogue will play a role. For anyone considering picking up deliberation as a pedagogical tool, I encourage you to weigh the benefits and drawbacks for your students. If you choose to do it, here’s my advice:
- It’s okay to start small. Students can learn deliberative skills without becoming trained facilitators. One of the best deliberations we had was about compassionate accountability. What happens when we go too far in either direction?
- Think about how many teams you want to manage or consider having a team of student leaders from each class take on the supervisory and management functions. Having 16 student teams across two classes host 32 dialogues in two months was a bit exhausting, especially for a small campus and community.
- Devise an easy 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 to the work. Students should communicate with their partner continually through various means.
- Partner student teams for the purposes of feedback and reflection. This would guarantee attendees at their individual team dialogues and serve as a built-in collaborative community for troubleshooting and improvement between dialogues.
- Ensure that students have a marketing plan. It is disheartening to spend hours researching an issue, preparing a dialogue guide, and planning a dialogue, then to have the only attendees be the grandparents of one student. The most effective invitation is the sincere personal invitation.
Deliberative dialogue is an excellent pedagogical tool. My students learned the skills easily, were able to navigate difficult conversations, and have continued to use these tools on and off campus. The most difficult challenge was and continues to be getting a diverse group of dialogue participants in the room. The work is challenging and sometimes exhausting, but it is worth it when I see that my reach is exceeding my grasp.
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 Shaffer, T., Longo, N., Thomas, M., & Manosevitch, E. (2017). Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement. United States: Michigan State University Press. Johnson, J. & Melville, K. (2019). The National Issues Forums: “Choicework” as an indispensable civic skill. In N. Longo & T. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating space for democracy: A primer on dialogue and deliberation in higher education (pp. 140-146). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
 Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
 Barker, D. (2019). Deliberative civic engagement. In N. Longo & T. Shaffer (Eds.), Creating space for democracy: A primer on dialogue and deliberation in higher education (pp. 57-68). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Carcasson, M. (2018). Why process matters: Democracy and human nature. National Civic Review, 107(1), 36–39. https://doi.org/10.1002/ncr.21353.
 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