Deliberative Dialogue Blog: Part Two

April 12, 2019

The following is part two 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.

Introduction

In our first blog, posted in October 2018, I defined deliberative dialogue (DD), provided parameters and guidelines for implementation, identified the immense promise and potential learning outcomes of the practice, and offered questions for consideration. In this blog, I delve into the practical strategies that have made this work move forward at my institution.

Lasell’s Approach

Since Fall 2017 Lasell, a small, private, four-year college with graduate programs (online and hybrid), has had the opportunity to incorporate deliberative dialogues in 19 sections across multiple disciplines, including First Year Seminar, Humanities, Communication, Ethics, Criminal Justice, Psychology, English, a multidisciplinary sophomore experience course, and History. In addition, this Spring 2019, we are also incorporating DD into Sociology and Public Speaking.

Thus far, in my role as Director of the Center for Community-Based Learning and co-facilitator of the development of our civic engagement learning outcomes, I have usually been the initiator, inviting faculty to consider incorporating a deliberative dialogue into their classes.  With nearly four semesters in, some faculty are now starting to approach me as well. What I have found is that although a dialogue could most likely be included in any course, those courses with lurking or overt ethical components and the potential to consider personal action and societal implications seem most immediately viable for a deeper experience.  I also look for faculty invested in developing student voice and who are open to student disagreement.

Each of these dialogues has been a very interesting journey of sorts and a lovely exchange between the course faculty and the dialogue facilitator.  For example, faculty and I discuss how the DD might impact the ‘flow’ of the course, how the introduction of another faculty might affect ‘host faculty’ role both during and possibly after the sessions in which I am active.  We also talk about the relative importance of both the process of the discussion as well as its content.  Although Lasell’s approach has been a two-person effort for almost all of the DDs (myself as initiator and facilitator, with course faculty as a supporter and co-planner), if, as a faculty member, you are ‘running solo,’ it is still possible to facilitate deliberative dialgoue in your own course.  (See ‘Running Solo’ section below.)

Faculty-DD Facilitator Co-discovery and Collaboration

Typically, faculty first raise three sets of concerns: They want me to sketch, in not a lot of detail yet, how a deliberative dialogue works and how long it takes to hold one, the need for any preparatory sessions, course-related goals that could be partially addressed through the dialogue, and the feasibility of a dialogue in a particular course section.  A second consideration is where/when to situate the dialogue within the arc of a course.  Surprisingly, not until these two concerns are resolved, do we get to the topic itself, that is, the focus/topic of the actual dialogue within a particular course.

What we have learned is that there is a discovery process to find the most viable topics for each course. We discover the optimal topic through faculty-facilitator outside-class discussion, as well as through some interaction with the class itself.  We found out early on that simply because students have experience with/a stake in a particular topic, or that a course ‘covers’ a particular topic, doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be the focus of a DD.  Sometimes a topic is so close to our students (or a good portion of a particular class) that it is too difficult to talk about.  For example, although it is tempting to use the rich, always-in-the-news topic of opioid abuse, for some students it is just too painful.  On the other hand, sometimes students think they want to talk about a topic, but their limited experience with it leaves them minimally prepared to do so. In those cases, the preparation session prior to the DD day are particularly important to raise issue awareness.

What’s the question? Issue Framing and Issue Guides

As with the NIFI/Kettering dialogues (https://www.nifi.org) described in my first blog post, we frame the topic as a question.  Framing has been a joint faculty-facilitator effort, sometimes accomplished almost instantaneously, and sometimes requiring a meeting followed by several email communications between the course faculty and me.  Framing questions are open-ended, usually some version of “how can society reduce/expand/address……” We have found that crafting the right-approach question is as important as the general topic itself.

Unless we are using or adapting an NIFI issue guide, I will do some research in which I explore some of the class reading assignments.  In a few cases, the topic has not been explicitly part of the class readings, and additional research has been necessary. If an issue guide needs to be written, I typically have taken the lead, although some faculty have taken on a strong editing function, and one repeat faculty is now – thankfully –creating his own issue guides, which is of course ideal.

The best issue guides do three things:
1) Discuss the rationale for doing a DD and how the experience relates to democratic practice and a democratic society.

2) Define the social issue addressed in the DD, describe its impact and prevalence, make the case for the importance of tackling it, and offer a range of approaches that have been or might be attempted in the future.  The key is to provide a substantial, but not overwhelming background.

3) Offer three or four options for addressing the social issue, with pros and cons (or tradeoffs). For example, options could include what individuals and families can do, what schools and communities can do, what law enforcement can do, or what legislators can do to address the issue.  Within each of these broad categories, specific strategies are outlined.

Scaffolded Activities Leading up to the Dialogue

Faculty and I have created a progression of scaffolded activities preparing students for deliberative dialogues.  For example, sometimes faculty and I decide that I should come early in the semester just to introduce myself and the deliberative dialogue practice.  Ideally, faculty note the deliberative dialogue activities right in the syllabus, and most have done that. Some also assign academic weights to these activities, as opposed to the DD being considered as part of a larger ‘participation’ grade. We also plan one or more activities to prepare students, including exercises (in pairs or small groups, or even as a whole class), in which we help students deepen their personal connection to or stake in the issue and framing question. During this phase, we encourage students to share their experience and evaluate the importance of the issue to themselves and their families.  We may also do some skill-building, particularly around disagreeing respectfully. We provide guidelines for conducting or participating in the DD (confidentiality, respect, deep listening, encouragement to disagree with grace, inclusion of all voices, etc.).  When we first started, we simply distributed the issue guide with instructions to read it as homework. Now, most of the faculty develop a more specific issue guide activity.

Implementation

The DDs can be structured in several ways, particularly if there is the flexibility to do a preparatory session one to two weeks prior to the actual dialogue day.  The basic DDs typically run about 45 – 50 minutes.  For seating arrangements, we form an elliptical or semi-circle.  [This format can be new to students, so we arrange them in this format for the preparatory session(s) as well.] Sometimes it is important to revisit what the issue means to students.  We also remind students about the guidelines for the DD, which I write on the whiteboard.

I have been the primary facilitator, with the host faculty taking process notes.  Where we can, we also have a secondary content note taker. The host faculty and I try to make the space as safe as possible (through, for example, reminding students of the confidentiality and respectful listening guidelines).  I encourage the more silent students to participate. I announce the order of the DD (option #1, #2, #3 and then comment on when we are at the end of the discussion) so that students always know where we are in the discussion. We also leave time for students to comment on the outcomes of the discussion and describe “what just happened.”  In the next blog, my colleague, Denny Frey, who has hosted DDs in 8 sections of World History, and I will report on specific class outcomes.

Running Solo*

If you are considering facilitating a DD in your own course, here are some ‘starter’ suggestions.

  • Mention DD in your syllabus and schedule it
  • Choose an issue guide that has already been written (such as through Kettering Foundation/National Issue Forum Institute)
  • Prepare students for this new kind of discussion and review ground rules
  • During the preparation and DD sessions, organize the class to encourage discussion with peers (i.e. chairs/tables in a circle or semi-circle)
  • Include student evaluation (both written and verbal)
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 further discussion on how to implement DDs in classrooms, Sharyn invites anyone to contact her at slowenstein {at} lasell(.)edu.