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Jill DeTemple: Running Class Discussions on Divisive Topics Is Tricky.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Originally Posted: July 19, 2018

Hello and welcome to Teaching, a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. First, Beckie explores one approach to a common problem: leading substantive classroom discussions on divisive issues. Then we ask for your help finding examples of how colleges encourage professors to try new things in the classroom for an upcoming special issue. Dan shares what one instructor learned from student feedback, and we’ll close out with some new books you may want to read.

One Way to Run Classroom Discussions on Divisive Issues

In these politically polarized times, it can be difficult to meaningfully discuss a hot-button issue in the classroom — or anywhere else. Rather than considering something new, or even really listening, we’re all inclined to shut out the views of those on the opposite side. After all, we already know what they’re going to say.

Jill DeTemple, an associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, has encountered this problem in her courses. So she started using an approach called Reflective Structured Dialogue, which was developed by family therapists in Boston decades ago. DeTemple, who responded to our recent newsletter article about what professors can do when outside forces — including current events — push them to rethink the way they teach a course, says she learned about Reflective Structured Dialogue after reconnecting with a college friend whose organization, Essential Partners, developed the method.

While Reflective Structured Dialogue was initially adapted from tools used in family therapy to help the broader public navigate contentious debates, DeTemple quickly saw how the discipline of religious studies could benefit from it. After all, the discipline considers questions on which many students have deeply held positions.

Family therapists describe the problem that often arises in difficult discussions by saying they get “stuck,” DeTemple said. Research shows that humans go into fight-or-flight mode — in which their ability to think critically is compromised — when they feel threatened. The problem: “Your body,” she said, “can’t tell the difference between a viewpoint threat and a bear.”

The challenge for professors, then, is to help students get unstuck from this instinctive response. That’s what Reflective Structured Dialogue is meant to do.

Here’s how it works. The dialogues have a facilitator — the instructor, in a classroom setting — who guides the conversation along pre-agreed lines. Participants are encouraged to reflect before they speak. The approach hinges on the use of “curious questions,” those meant to let the questioner learn from others, rather than to trap them or convince them that they’re wrong. And it’s highly structured, with people taking set turns to speak and doing so under a time limit, and the facilitator following a script.

Difficult conversations often get off to a bad start, DeTemple said, because they begin with everyone arguing their position. Reflective Structured Dialogue opens instead with the facilitator having participants tell a story that has informed it. So to start off a discussion about guns, for instance, students might share their experiences hunting as a child, or describe an act of gun violence that touched their lives. Next, participants talk about the values that underlie these experiences. Then they talk about any ways in which they feel pulled in competing directions on the issue. That third question, DeTemple says, is meant to bring out empathy. Only after working through the three starting prompts do participants start asking each other questions. The goal is not to have anyone switch sides, she said. It’s to help students change the way they relate to one another, to listen and consider different perspectives. Doing so, it turns out, can enrich students’ understanding of difficult content, DeTemple has found, since they have an opportunity to consider it in context. READ MORE