Deliberative Dialogue Blog: Part One

October 4, 2018

The following is part one of a three-part blog series by Sharyn Lowenstein, Ed.D., Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Community-Based Learning at Lasell College.

What is deliberative dialogue?

Deliberative dialogue is a structured discussion on pressing social issues in which participants explore the prevalence, severity, and parameters of an issue and then explore ways of addressing it through three or more options. The goal is to learn together, understand one’s own personal stake, look at the issue and its possible treatment from multiple perspectives, weigh the pros and cons of each option, and, if possible, come to a resolution. Rather than debate, persuasion, eloquence, or negotiation, the goal is collaborative decision-making, that is, opening the ‘tent’ to all participants including those with the least popular opinions. The range of social issues spans a variety of contexts including hyper-local (campus parking), state or regional (New England oil pipeline), national (student college debt), and international (climate crisis, food insecurity, homelessness, wealth distribution, immigration, gun safety, opioid abuse, transgender rights, social media impact and regulation, animal rights, fashion industry sourcing and ethics, etc.).

What does deliberative dialogue look like?

There are many forms of deliberative dialogue; I’ve adapted my work from the National Issues Forum Institute/Kettering Foundation (, which have a host of ‘issue guides’ laying out the scope of many of the issues identified above, provide guidelines for thinking about the moderator role, and research/publicize best practices. I’ve also developed my own guides and collaborated with other faculty to develop guides so that we might tackle issues more specifically related to their courses.  Because deliberative dialogue is a process, an orientation, and a set of practices, it sits at the crossroads of multiple areas: the slow teaching movement, participatory democracy, collaborative decision-making, small group work, diversity and inclusion, and deliberative negotiation among them.

What is the promise of deliberative dialogue?

Participating in deliberative dialogues, especially with scaffolded activities that lead up to the actual dialogue and the use of an issue guide which students carefully read, can facilitate students’ deep listening, communication, tolerance, and mental flexibility.  As Molinar-Main notes, “what students learn from choicework (deliberative dialogue) is subject matter, but much more. They discover their own powers of agency.” (99) I believe that participating in one or two deliberative dialogues, and reflecting on both the process and its outcomes, can nurture students’ early development of four out of the six AAC&U Civic Engagement learning outcomes: civic communication, civic identity, civic knowledge, and diversity of communities and culture (Rhodes). More specifically, deliberative dialogue provides a path to hear all student voices, enhance students’ personal stakes in a course/topic, help develop empathy, build the civic capacity of the group and individuals, and reveal not only interconnections among students, but also between students and course topics. Because deliberative dialogue serves as a way to diffuse faculty authority, it allows both students and faculty to ‘stretch’ their roles and become more flexible.

What are some of the questions it raises for faculty?

I have always considered myself more informal and democratic as a teacher, but when I’ve used deliberative processes, I have felt some role shifting in new ways.  For example, incorporating deliberation in some parts of a session and then moving to more conventional methodology in another part requires that faculty become much more skilled at transitioning. We don’t necessarily come by these skills easily. I have also ended up asking myself a lot of tough questions:  If I incorporate some deliberation, but still give tests or control most of the discussions, am I confusing students?  Am I a democracy fraud? Am I merely gamifying my course without actually teaching for democracy? How transparent do I need to be at the start?  How do I balance all this with the original requirements of the course, especially if it’s a required course within the major?  These questions keep us and our classrooms fresh as we experiment and search for answers.


Gastil, J. (2014). Democracy in small groups: Participatory decision-making and communication. 2nd edition. Create Space Publishing.

National Issues Forum Institute. Http://

Kaner, S. (2014) Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rhodes, T. (2009).  Assessing outcomes and improving achievement: Tips and tools using the rubrics.  Washing, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Warren, M & Mansbridge J et al. (2016). Deliberative negotiation. Political negotiation: A handbook.

Sharyn Lowenstein

Sharyn Lowenstein, Ed.D., is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Community-Based Learning at Lasell College. During her Spring 2017 Sabbatical, Sharyn explored democracy in higher education, and more specifically, democratic practice in the classroom. She is collaborating with other faculty on pioneering deliberative dialogues on pressing social issues across the curriculum, applying the National Issues Forum Institute/Kettering Foundation model and further adapting that model to facilitate syllabus deliberations in her classes. In this approach, students collaboratively decide on the weights of major course requirements.  Recently, Sharyn presented at several national forums, and with her colleague Denny Frey, presented at the June 2018 Frontiers of Democracy conference.

For more information, Sharyn invites anyone to contact her at SLowenstein {at} Lasell(.)edu.