Deliberative Dialogue: Part Three

July 9, 2019

The following is the last installment of a three-part blog series on deliberative dialogue, written by Sharyn Lowenstein and Denny Frey from Lasell College.

Introduction

In the first two-parts of this blog series, posted in Oct. 2018 and Apr. 2019 respectively, Sharyn provided first a definition and some guiding parameters to Deliberative Dialogues in the classroom.  In the second part, she discussed the practical strategies that she relied on as she piloted this pedagogical tool at Lasell.  In this third-and-final part of the blog, Denny assesses how Deliberative Dialogues have worked in his history course (i.e., HIST104 – World Civilization II).

Brief Overview of HIST104 in Lasell College’s Core Curriculum

The Core Curriculum at Lasell College is built upon three broad goals:  Core Intellectual Skills, Core Knowledge Perspectives, and Core Synthesis & Application.  Each of these goals has associated student learning outcomes that are intentionally structured in a developmental arc moving students from the development of skills and habits (Core Intellectual Skills) through disciplinary knowledge and understanding (Core Knowledge Perspectives) to a higher order of thinking (Core Synthesis & Application).  In the first two years, students work through a set of courses and experiences that focus primarily on the first two goals, so as to prepare them for the challenge of synthesizing and applying those skills, dispositions, and ways of knowing to their chosen fields and disciplines.  Inspired by our mission of Connected Learning, we created an innovative general educational framework that intentionally and developmentally connects liberal learning to our predominantly pre-professional programs in, for example, Exercise Science, Business, Communications, Criminal Justice, and Fashion Design.

Among the four learning outcomes listed under the Core Knowledge Perspectives is “to interpret and analyze the complex interrelationships and inequities in human societies in a global and historical context.”  Around campus, we call this the Global & Historical Knowledge Perspective, and the only course that meets this requirement is HIST104—World Civilization II.  This is not, at all, the usual survey course in history.  Instead of offering grand, chronological narratives to the students, we have radically restructured the course to emphasize the following six components:  1) engage in historical inquiry and analysis; 2) practice historical empathy; 3) understand the complex nature of the historical record; 4) generate significant, open-minded questions about the past and devise research strategies to answer them; 5) craft historical narrative and argument; and 6) practice historical thinking (disciplined skepticism) as central to engaged citizenship.   

With these components in mind, instructors select, within the broad chronology of world history from about 1500 to the present, a theme for exploration.  Some recent themes have been Consumerism & Globalization, Rebels & Dissidents, World Wars, Science & Medicine, Animals: Human & Nonhuman, and East Asia.  As they study the topic together, the students and instructors focus primarily on the temporal dynamics at work (i.e., changes and continuities over time), but they also pay close attention to economic theories, political philosophies, gender, culture, religion, and social structures as they “analyze the complex interrelationships and inequities in human societies.”  And, it should also be noted, that this course is designed to be a cohort experience for students ranging in their third to fifth semester at Lasell.  Indeed, most of the students take this course during their sophomore year, which for many is a transitional year as they move from the front-loaded, liberal learning of our Core Curriculum to the more discipline-specific coursework of their professionally-oriented majors.  To be sure, however, their general education continues as they are compelled to connect, synthesize, and apply.

Deliberative Dialogues & Class Outcomes

Given the specific outcomes for HIST104, but especially historical empathy and disciplined skepticism, it is no surprise that when my colleague, Sharyn Lowenstein, approached me with the idea of incorporating Deliberative Dialogues, I leapt at the opportunity.  After all, this pedagogical tool is intended to generate thoughtful, collaborative conversation about complex issues as participants grapple with seemingly intractable differences.  Nearly all of the themes explored by HIST104 dovetail nicely with DDs, because the themes instantiate those very same complexities and varying interpretations.

As mentioned in Sharyn’s last blog, she and I have employed the DD in 8 different sections of HIST104 over the past couple of years.  The topics have ranged widely from “Fast Fashion” in my section studying “Consumerism & Globalization” to “Animal Testing” in “Animals: Human & Nonhuman.”  In each case, we scaffolded the DD over the course of 2-3 weeks, with preliminary exercises and experiences designed to prepare the students for the full Deliberative Dialogue.  For instance, Sharyn comes to a class meeting a week or two in advance so that I can introduce her to the students.  She then leads them in preliminary conversations about what will take place the following week.  While the conversation starts with a focus on the reasons for Deliberative Dialogues, Sharyn also primes the pump, so to speak, by getting the students to make connections between the abstract theme and their everyday lives.  As we have learned over the years, this is a critical step, because without it, the students arrive on the day of the DD without any concrete connection to the topic.

In addition, we distribute an issue guide related to the topic, which I normally design and edit from the boilerplate examples offered by the Kettering Foundation’s website:  National Issue Forum Institute.  We explain to the students that they should read the issue guide closely before the DD occurs.  Usually, we have some additional resources, such as TED Talks or other visuals, embedded in the issue guides in order to complement the readings that are also assigned in my class textbooks.  The issue guide has a survey attached to it, which we ask the students to complete after the DD.  The survey, which is voluntary, consists of both qualitative and quantitative questions about the experience.  The table below shows the collective results from those surveys:

Quantitative Questions from Survey (N=105) average median
Q4. Were you heard & respected? 9.25 10.00
Q5. How much did you care about the issue BEFORE the DD? 6.18 6.00
Q6. How much did you care about the issue AFTER the DD? 8.18 8.00
Q7. How satisfying was this DD? 8.20 8.50

Scale:  10 (absolutely) to 1 (not at all)

As mentioned above, I see the DDs as an opportunity to focus the students on two of the course’s sub-outcomes, namely historical empathy and disciplined skepticism.  The overwhelmingly positive results in the table suggests that these outcomes—certainly the empathy—have been experienced.  The shift of 2 points in “caring” about the issue from 6.18 “before the DD” to 8.18 “after the DD” also suggests that the students have become more critically aware, which is fundamental to disciplined skepticism.  In responding to the qualitative questions, students indicated that they learned not only a lot about themselves but also about the topic.  For instance, one student from Spring 2019 wrote, “I learned that I am not nearly as educated as I thought I was on certain ideas related to consuming animal products.  I thought I knew what all the labels meant and what was ‘better,’ but I learned that I definitely need to educate myself further on these topics.”  Another student from the same semester commented that “[t]his is a great exercise that I wish more classes and people did.  This is an important way to realize how individuals around you think and feel.”

These results are not too surprising given the expertise and care that Sharyn brings to the classroom.  Her abilities at facilitating dialogue are outstanding, as she both guides and leads the students through the issue.  Relying on a host of tactics, Sharyn engages everyone in the dialogue, generating plenty of interpretations and viewpoints that promote healthy and thoughtful discussion.  Having served as her note-taker in nearly all of the DDs in my classes, I have had a chance to observe these techniques closely.  Sharyn makes it seem so easy, but much to my chagrin, I discovered this past year that facilitating a DD is no mean feat.  Due to circumstances, Sharyn was unavailable for one of my sections this past semester, and consequently I served as the facilitator.  While it wasn’t a complete disaster, the DD certainly did not go as smoothly as the others that Sharyn led in my other sections.  As Sharyn has mentioned to me when we debriefed this experience, facilitating DDs gets easier as one completes more of them.  Since I plan to keep this pedagogical tool in my kitbag, using Deliberative Dialogues whenever I teach HIST104, I suspect that I’ll get better at it.  I will also continue to advocate for this pedagogy through the entire Core Curriculum at Lasell.  Having witnessed its advantages and listening to the students who have asked for more DDs, I plan to encourage faculty to incorporate them in other hallmark courses at Lasell, like First Year Experience, our Sophomore Multidisciplinary Experience, and our Junior Ethics Experience.  All would be logical places for having students and faculty experience the power of DD.

Conclusion

Hopefully this blog has provided not only a generic framework for introducing Deliberative Dialogues into the classroom, but also a compelling rationale for the power of this pedagogical tool.  By engaging everyone, from the students to the instructors, in a thoughtful conversation about challenging topics with no easy answer, Deliberative Dialogues fulfill the promise of active and collaborative learning.  They effectively empower each individual to take a stake in the issue and to voice their thoughts on that issue, but unlike traditional debates or discussions, the goal is NOT for one particular viewpoint to triumph over any other.  Rather, the goal is to shift everyone’s thinking on the matter, to deepen their understanding, and to connect with each other over it.

Teaching at Lasell College since 2004, Denny Frey currently serves as an Associate Dean of Curricular Innovation.  In this role, he directs the RoseMary B. Fuss Teaching & Learning Center, as well as managing the College’s Core Curriculum, an innovative general education framework that emphasizes inquiry and interdisciplinarity.  Denny regularly teaches a wide-range of history courses as well as courses in the First Year Seminar and Honors programs.  In 2017, the College recognized his teaching and contributions to the core curriculum by presenting him with the President Thomas E.J. de Witt Award in Educational Innovation.