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 26

 Middle Schoolers as Deliberative Civic Actors

 I started my career as a school psychologist and counselor in a middle school. When I would tell people what I did for a living, I would usually get a response that conveyed empathy for middle schoolers and the adults who work with them. After all, middle school can be a turbulent time because students are negotiating increasingly complex social dynamics and beginning to wrestle with questions about who they are outside of their family unit. There can be a lot of questioning and drama in the lives of eleven- to fourteen-year-olds, and adults may wonder how to connect and guide them effectively during this critical time.

I love middle school kids for the exact reasons that draw groans from some. Because middle school is a time when young people are beginning to outwardly struggle with social issues and can process increasingly complex information, they are developmentally primed to think about civic issues and to learn to be civic actors.

Chip Wood, the author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14,[1] is credited with describing the age cohorts that bookend middle school in this way:

Powerful advocates and strong believers, elevens are passionate about their ideas and opinions, allegiances and sense of justice. They’re devoted to classmates and peer groups, and the social negotiations surrounding cliques (which often peak at eleven and twelve) can be positive practice for teenage and young adult affiliation and attachment.[2]

Fourteens’ significant positive attribute is a growing ability to self-evaluate, to be more aware of their own gifts and challenges. They now think and reason more abstractly, showing more adult-like understanding of right and wrong. They express this often by taking sides, being righteous about issues of social justice and fairness at school and in society.[3]

Middle schoolers are interested in issues of fairness and representation, they have enough life experiences to begin to grapple with social issues, and they are not inclined to sit back and do nothing. While they can learn civic lessons from textbooks and lectures, they are able to internalize lessons that are active, social, and rigorous. Debates, group projects, and service learning can feed the middle schoolers’ desire for competition, socialization, and action, while deliberation can reinforce the cognitive, social, and emotional skills middle schoolers need to participate in diverse communities and to solve problems with others. Unlike debate that emphasizes argumentation and winning, deliberation emphasizes careful weighing of information to learn and find common ground with others.

Later in my career, I began working with the Kettering Foundation on a research project with secondary school teachers focused on deliberation in the classroom. Middle school teachers from Alabama, New York, and Pennsylvania were part of this group and all were actively involved in using deliberation to engage their students in grappling with complicated public issues—like immigration, climate change, and bullying—and considering how those issues could be addressed. Together we learned about the specific benefits of deliberation for this age group.

Communication without domination

Middle school students’ communication skills vary widely, and it is common for a few students to dominate classroom discussions. Improving the quality of classroom discourse is uniquely challenging for middle school teachers, who tend to have at least a few students who are actively vying for the attention of their peers (this is developmentally normal and to be expected!).

In deliberative classrooms, teachers intentionally model, practice, and reinforce conversation skills focused on sharing experiences with the issue at hand, exploring how facts interact with students’ concerns and values, and identifying the ways in which different students’ contributions to the conversation build a deeper understanding of a problem. This approach to communication and problem-solving requires that students listen to one another, so they can ask clarifying questions and build upon others’ ideas. It also requires students to learn to manage conflict productively, rather than avoid it.

As noted by a teacher from Birmingham, Alabama who was part of the Kettering research project, middle school students usually like to talk a lot, but “they show some apprehension when it comes to discussing problems.”[4] For some students, deliberation may be their first experience of working through a divisive issue without arriving at “one right solution.” This process can be initially uncomfortable but, over time, students come to appreciate the opportunities that deliberation provides for self-expression and exploring new ideas.

Another teacher described the impact that deliberation had on her class and shared quotes from her students: “I witnessed increased participation and confidence as the year progressed. At one point, a student remarked, ‘remember how quiet we were when the year started?’ Their confidence in their opinions and responses increased with each deliberation.” [5]

A different student in the teacher’s class reflected, “(Deliberation) encourages me to speak and ask more questions than usual, but it also taught me to listen to and value the opinion of others.” [6]

Critical thinking as a community practice

Middle schoolers can be wonderful critics. They notice and find humor in unexpected places, and many are not afraid to ask questions and challenge ideas. According to Understanding Science: 6-8 Teaching Guide, middle school students “tend to ignore evidence that does not support their current thinking and explanations about the world.” Correspondingly, they benefit from “investigations that challenge their current explanations and understandings.”[7]

Within a deliberative classroom, students learn to think critically and talk about public issues by reading and discussing materials that highlight three or four different ways of understanding the issue. To help structure participation, teachers involve their students in creating “rules,” “norms,” or “agreements” for deliberative discussions. These rules of engagement emphasize the type of participation that supports collective learning. For example, students may be encouraged to listen for understanding, “disagree without being disagreeable,” and hold the group accountable for considering neglected perspectives. The focus is on exploring the complexities of an issue to uncover different ways the issue is understood or experienced by different people and to learn how the issue interacts with things people hold valuable. This type of understanding provides an important foundation for group problem-solving.

Deliberation also helps middle schoolers begin to see their peers as resources. A seventh-grade teacher from Long Island shared a quote from one of her students: “[E]very class, every group needs someone like Adam (not the student’s real name) to question statements others make.” [8] Since many students seemed annoyed with Adam at the beginning of the school year, she attributed the class’s experience with deliberation with helping them learn to appreciate the contributions of this student.

Another teacher reported, “[D]eliberation has improved my students’ critical thinking skills by allowing them to work with complex texts and issues.” Through deliberation, they discover that most public issues are complicated and “cannot be solved by a single person or decision…. They are learning to rely on each other to investigate, discuss, and peel back the many layers of public issues.” [9]

Feedback loops to foster inclusion

Middle school teachers who participated in the Kettering Foundation research implemented surveys with their classes to provide students the opportunity to offer feedback on classroom deliberations and share what they were learning. Initially, these data were used to assess the impact that deliberation was having on students. Over time, these regular check-ins informed teachers’ efforts to create a more engaged and inclusive classroom community.

Some of the survey items were designed to tap into whether students felt that the classroom learning environment had an “open classroom climate” which is one that that encourages students to “bring up relevant issues in the class, express their opinions, and explore diverse opinions that may differ from their own.”[10] Research suggests experiencing an open classroom climate in secondary school can contribute to interest in civic issues and future civic engagement.[11]

Teachers must be sensitive to middle school students’ emerging sense of belonging when they encourage dialogue that involves open sharing of opinions. By anonymously surveying students on how they perceived the classroom climate, teachers were able to hear from every student and have a pulse on the social and emotional dimensions of the learning environment. This information was used by teachers to adjust how they organized the classroom and designed deliberative experiences to ensure to all students felt safe and valued. Data from class climate surveys were also occasionally fed back to students, for discussion and to engage them in identifying ways to improve learning for everyone.

These teachers’ trust in, care for, and support of their middle school students to engage in deliberative conversations throughout the school year paid off. Reflecting on the experience of using deliberation in the classroom, one teacher wrote about the changes she noticed:

I have observed increased interest by students in (political topics) such as elections, voter disenfranchisement, laws (especially the Bill of Rights), climate change and other (issues) that affect them directly and indirectly. Students were motivated to spend time processing and researching topics on their own. In doing so, they were able to lead discussions by asking questions to ignite dialogue in the classroom among their classmates. The classroom climate changed from being teacher centered to student  centered.[12]

In addition to fostering communication and thinking skills, deliberation can lead to changes in how young people engage as learners and citizens. To learn more about how to use deliberation in the classroom, you may wish to read my book: Deliberation in the Classroom: Fostering Critical Thinking, Community, and Citizenship in Schools. To access some of the materials these teachers used, visit https://www.nifi.org/en/issue-guides/educator-resources.

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[1] Chip Wood, “Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. A Resource for Parents and Teachers” (Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children, 1997).

[2] Responsive Classroom, “The Electric Eleven-Year-Olds,” 2011, https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/the-electric-eleven-year-old/

[3] Responsive Classroom, “The Fervent Fourteen,” 2015, https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/the-fervent-fourteens/.

[4] Quote from a teacher’s written report to the Kettering Foundation.

[5] Quote from a teacher’s written report to the Kettering Foundation.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Understanding Science, “6-8 Teaching Guide: Nature of the Student,” https://undsci.berkeley.edu/for-educators/teaching-guides/6-8-teaching-guide/nature-of-the-student/ (accessed September 9, 2022).

[8] Quote from a teacher’s written report to the Kettering Foundation.

[9] Quote from a teacher’s written report to the Kettering Foundation.

[10] Ryan Knowles and Jason McCafferty-Wright, “Unlocking the civic potential of current events with an open classroom climate,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 11,3 (2016):112

 

Teaser photo credit: David Mathews Center for Civic Life