From debate to dialogue
Updated: Apr 25
Over the last few years, Chris and I have been working together, with a focus on his Grade 8 Social Studies classes. One of the joys of longevity in coaching relationships is the ability to look at data over longer periods of time and make larger changes based on overarching trends in learning and behaviour. One such change came about last year when we stood back and watched students preparing for, and participating in a debate. The task was intended to help students test out their thinking and build upon their ideas in preparation for a culminating writing piece in which students would explain their understanding of the relationships between key concepts by responding to the essential questions of the unit.
But the students weren’t listening to each other at all: they were reaching into an arsenal of argument-tools to win. Now, I’m not saying that the argument tool-box is a bad one to have, but this was not what Chris was hoping the vehicle of debate would achieve.
We began to look beyond the classroom, and think about the forms of ‘discussion’ featured prominently in society. What are our students likely to be using as models of successful speakers and exchanges? We saw loud voices, quick (though not always smart) thinking, and conversations where listening really was about preparing to respond. And often these types of exchanges looked like a power-play, which wasn’t what we were driving for. We asked ourselves: why did we want students to engage in discussion in Social Studies? To Chris, it wasn’t just about working on how we communicate.
“Students need to be principled as academics and people in a society,” he said. “For me, it is important to teach students that they have a responsibility to do justice to various points of view when they are engaged in discussion or writing argument, so when they are presented with new information, they come to a richer, more nuanced understanding of issues and take a well-informed stance. The same can be said for how our society evolves – being open to considering new ideas is how we progress.”
Our question became: how might we help students to openly explore multiple perspectives to enhance understanding, empathy, and make better decisions?
So, we went back to our learning goal.
Chris wanted the students to grow their understanding of the concepts by listening to the perspectives of others. We wanted collaboration, not competition. Right now, we had evidence that the students understood the perspective they had developed, but we had no evidence to suggest that they had considered the perspectives of others. When we looked at the core skills Chris had named in the goal - growing (that is, developing) and listening for deeper understanding, we realised that debate was a mismatch. The skills involved in debate are similar; the intended outcomes are vastly different.
We needed a vehicle which was geared towards listening for understanding. We wanted students to view their peers as resources – collaborators – in the pursuit of deeper understanding. We also knew from our experiences in the classroom that we’d need to help our students develop the language of listening for understanding so that their discussions moved away from refutes and rebuttals, and picking holes in the ideas of others.
The task became a discussion responding to the Essential Questions of the unit. Knowing that old habits die hard, Chris put the Thinking Collaborative’s seven norms of collaboration front and centre of his classroom, and from the beginning of the unit had students focus on one of the norms each week so that they got comfortable with the feel of listening for understanding. Almost immediately, we both saw a shift in the atmosphere of the classroom. And it isn’t surprising: students were pausing before adding on, so those talking felt like they could finish without interruption. Students were paraphrasing, so those talking had confirmation that they were being understood. Students were asking clarifying questions, so that those talking felt supported as they dug deeper into their thinking. Students felt safe to try on perspectives for size, and change if it wasn’t the right fit.
Then came time for the discussion. Students had been researching their own areas of interest, so each came to the table from a different context. They knew that they would need to consider the new perspectives they heard, ensure they had fully understood them, evaluate them against their own beliefs and ideas, and make decisions as to how – or if – they would influence their final stance in relation to the essential questions. It was complex, but they were ready.
As the discussion unfolded, we heard the norms at play. Students remained calm, and invited each other to share. They listened to alternative ideas and made connections with their own ideas, and verbalised how new perspectives were influencing their thinking. Students who lacked confidence were supported by their peers, and their contributions were made to feel valuable.
When we read the students’ final responses to the essential questions, we knew shifting from debate to discussion was worth it. “Their repertoire of ideas had grown significantly and their responses were deeper and more reflective,” said Chris. As we looked back at the process, we realised just how important the shift was.
We show people they are valued by listening to them, and showing we understand. And, as Chris pointed out: “Our society grows - just like our classroom cultures grow – when we are open-minded.” Being open-minded takes practice, and learning how to listen for understanding is one step in the right direction.
Chris is just over half-way through The Bow Tie Challenge, in support of Afrika Tikkun – an organization that supports the education of children in underprivileged communities in South Africa by providing balanced nutrition and skills development to career and job readiness training. In an effort to support local businesses all the bow ties will be designed and made in South Africa. If you'd like to know more or get involved, check out The Travelling Educator, here.