We Need to Teach Students How to Have Difficult Discussions6 min read

On the day following the Parkland shooting, many of the students in my class of high school seniors came to school visibly shaken up. Not that this was a new feeling to them, seeing school shootings in the news has become quite normal, but this one had an apparent effect on them. I thought I’d hold a discussion about it and let them air out their feelings and anxieties about it all. My students sat in a circle and the first student to speak talked about how afraid he was. The next student, visibly angry, spoke loudly about how guns were completely to blame for this, and “this is our dumb country’s fault.” Then a student, the son of a veteran, retorted that his family fought for this country and that he doesn’t appreciate her putting it down. The other student responded that the country isn’t that great, then others chimed in on both sides, voices were raised, and I watched the nice discussion dissolve in front of me.

Now, this was an obviously tense day for everyone, and I’m sure that contributed to the discussion spinning out of control and me having to put an end to it. However, every day is an extra tense day for some of my students. Often national and local events happen that cause the atmosphere in a school to be overstrung. The climate in school that day is not completely to blame. This discussion mainly went off the rails because my students were not equipped to have it. They did not know how to discuss a contentious topic; these students didn’t know how to disagree with one another without raising their voices or getting personal.

And let’s be honest, many adults are not equipped for these discussions as well. This explains why people often Tweet using CAPS LOCK. It’s why so many of us dread the Thanksgiving table because we know someone is going to mention politics. It’s why the media has swung far right or far left; it’s easier to communicate with people you agree with than disagree.

This is why it is so essential we teach our students to have healthy, difficult discussions. Because if they do not learn how to have them in school, then when will they develop the ability to? And if they do not have the ability, how can people ever possibly find consensus, understanding with each other, and as a result, harmony?

Here are some ways to promote healthy class discussions even if they are difficult ones to have.

Set Ground Rules

There needs to be strict ground rules for any type of class discussion. These are non-negotiable guidelines everyone must follow, whether the discussion is about Shakespeare or race issues. The purpose of the ground rules is to ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute and that they feel safe in what they say. Some examples for the ground rules are “Listen respectfully when someone else is talking,” “Be critical of ideas, not people,” or “Ask for clarification if you are unclear on something.”

Print these out on a poster, share them with the class before every discussion, make them clear from the beginning of the school year. The hope would be that after students leave your classroom, they still abide by these rules when having discussions.

Get the Class Discussion Ground Rules Poster for free here.

Provide Structure for Discussions

Having free flowing discussion is fine, and these are what our students will mostly have the rest of their lives, but when learning how to discuss, especially for difficult topics, it’s helpful to have some type of structure. Structure gives some certainty to students, relieving anxiety by allowing them to prepare for the discussion and know what to expect from it.

For instance, you could hold a Samoan Circle where students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the chairs in the middle of a circle, or you could use an active listening protocol where the listener cannot react in any way to the speaker while the speaker is talking. These structures are like workouts for our discussion skills. This is a skill that can be strengthened in a safe and somewhat contained environment, so that students can use it in situations that are not as controlled as school.

This can’t be the only time students have meaningful discussions.

Students cannot just have meaningful class discussions when a crisis occurs or the topic is contentious. They should be having structured discussions regularly, working out their discussion skills on topics that are lower stakes and less divisive. Having difficult discussions is not the best time to learn the basics. Students should be learning how to actively listen, control their emotions, and manage their words regularly in class. They should discuss when learning about photosynthesis, when talking about a novel, when learning about history- discussion is foundational to learning. And when students know how to contribute to one when the stakes are lower, they will be much more equipped to participate in the difficult discussions.

Learn in school so that you can do it for life.

And I know I keep making this point, but I’ll say it again: because students are learning how to have difficult discussions in school, they will therefore be ready to discuss as adults after their school experience. Let’s be honest, we need that. We need people who know how to listen. We need to have conversations on difficult issues that do not deteriorate into a screaming match, but instead, new and better understandings of ourselves and issues. God knows our political world could use better discussion. The world needs better discussion, and school is a great place for people to learn how.

Check out my new book, The Collaborative Classroom, which goes into much more detail on how to teach healthy collaboration and discussion.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.