COVID-19. Black Lives Matter. Trump vs. Biden. Mask and Vaccination Mandates. The mere utterance of these words tends to elicit a spectrum of visceral reactions. While controversial topics such as these often feel taboo in the classroom, research suggests that difficult dialogue can actually serve as a catalyst for holistic learning (Jehangir, 2012). This can prove risky for both instructor and student. Conversations can turn combative; comments can reinforce trauma; stereotype threat can impede participation; historically underrepresented students can experience further marginalization. But, where there is great risk, there is great reward. Discussing controversial topics in the class can: 1) promote critical thinking; 2) increase self-awareness; 3) develop appreciation for diverse perspectives; and 4) strengthen interpersonal skills (Souza et al. 2016). How can educators effectively cultivate a safe space to incorporate difficult dialogue into their classroom? What can educators do to frame, facilitate, and follow-up on a difficult dialogue to maximize learning and minimize harm?
Inclusive practices for difficult dialogue:
Frame: create an inclusive environment
From the beginning of the semester:
- Get to know your students and let them get to know you
- Involve students in creating community guidelines
- Facilitate community-building activities
Before the difficult dialogue:
- Establish clear learning goals for the difficult dialogue
- Ask students to gather their thoughts ahead of time
- Introduce the topic sensitively with content advisory
Facilitate: promote inclusive engagement
- Model and provide examples of disciplinary conversation and collegial disagreement (e.g., conversational moves)
- Be aware of your own biases
- Encourage equitable participation
- Provide structured activities (5-minute Rule or “Fishbowl Exercise”)
- Calmly acknowledge and respect feelings of tension or discomfort
- Give students time to process their feelings through writing
- Remind students of objectives and policies
- Ask follow-up questions
- Intervene when necessary (e.g., RAVEN framework)
Follow-Up: provide space for personal reflection
After the difficult dialogue, leave 10 minutes at the end of class to provide space for students to reflect upon their experience during the discussion (especially if it was tense). Students can write their response to the following questions. Depending upon what you think will maximize the learning experience, these reflections can be kept private, shared with the class, or turned into the instructor.
- When were you most engaged as a learner?
- When were you most distanced as a learner?
- What action did someone in the room take that you found most affirming or helpful?
- What action did someone in the room take that you found offensive or hurtful?
- What surprised you most about the discussion?
By providing an inclusive space for difficult dialogue, we create opportunities to help students develop essential skills of empathic listening, mutual respect, critical self-reflection, and open-dialogue. The student is not the only one who reaps the benefits. There is also a reward for the educator. When an educator is willing to navigate the uncertain waters of difficult dialogue in the classroom, “one is not only choosing to implement some of the aforementioned strategies, but to broaden one’s own thinking about diversity, conflict, communication climate, and identity and how these play a role in meaningful classroom dialogues” (Souza et al. 2016). Implementing the practices discussed above will help create the circumstances in which significant learning can occur.
Difficult Conversations, Notre Dame Learning | Kaneb Center of Teaching Excellence, University of Notre Dame.
Difficult Dialogue, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University.
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