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A teacher-designed discussion protocol helps high school students have productive conversations about their political beliefs. 

By Daniel Sussman 

Jack is making noises again. It’s Meeting for Worship, a weekly gathering time at most Quaker schools, set aside for silent reflection, sharing of thoughts, community building, spiritual exploration, and the furtherance of Quaker values like integrity, equality, and peace. A couple hundred teenagers sit silently in a room together. When someone wants to speak, they stand up and speak, and then the room returns to silence. 

Or at least that’s what is supposed to happen. But Jack keeps making noises. It’s November 2016, and many of Jack’s classmates have been standing up to talk about how they feel judged, hated, scared, and shocked. But many others have not stood up. Some, like Jack, are not Trump supporters but are nonetheless dismayed by what they see as the hypocrisy and intimidating closed-mindedness of their liberal school. Some are indeed Trump supporters, but they have not shared their sense of jubilation, vindication, or hope. A lot of them are silent. Except that Jack isn’t entirely silent: He sighs, chuckles, and mutters to himself on the bench next to me. I’m going to have to say something to him in a moment. 

I teach at a strange school, stranger still in an election year. We’re a private Quaker school near a major East Coast metropolis. As you might expect, the politics of the school lean left. That’s true on a formal, institutional level because of the Quaker affiliation, but it’s also true on an individual level when you look at the aggregate beliefs of the faculty, administration, and staff. The suburbs surrounding us, however, are different. Yes, 55% of our county went for Clinton, but that doesn’t compare to the nearby city that went 82% blue. And that city doesn’t actually send us students. We mostly pull from the suburbs and rural areas farther out, and we’re one of the only private school options around here. Some families choose us not because we’re a Quaker school but in spite of it. 

In the end, then, it seems that we have just as many conservative families as liberal families in our community, even though the school does have something of a liberal identity and culture. And that made for an interesting election year. Conservative students felt silenced. Liberal students felt terrified. And Meeting for Worship, the cornerstone of our community, wasn’t helping. Too many students, like Jack, were neither truly listening nor sharing their own perspectives. 

Despite my own far-left political beliefs, I became a sounding board for many conservative students. I could see that as a school we needed more dialogue. We tried to hold additional meetings and community forums, but they remained one-sided. So, inspired by my recent experiences using protocols for professional development discussions as a member of a Critical Friends Group, I designed a small-group discussion protocol to enable students to share their political beliefs. I was lucky enough to have good relationships with my 11th- and 12th-grade advisees, a group with divergent political views but also a fairly strong rapport, so I piloted the protocol with them. In this article, I’ll share the protocol and try to convince you that it could be an important tool in your own school. But I also want to make a deeper point: In a time of hyper-partisanship, the most important thing to teach our students is not argument. We need to teach them about pluralism, about living with and for the perpetual discomfort of difference. We need to teach them how to listen. 

The animating principle of our protocol is to create a receptive, nonjudgmental audience, one that listens to each person’s political perspective without criticizing or debating it. 

This single-minded focus on listening is an attempt to overcome several specific challenges. First, we need to lower the social-emotional barrier to entry when it comes to divisive conversations in high school. Adolescents silence themselves very, very easily. Maybe it’s the conservative students who silence themselves, but sometimes it’s just the shy kids, or it’s the students who are marginalized in some other way. Focusing on listening creates a conversational space that more students will be willing to enter. Second, we need to avoid activating all the stressful emotional baggage that comes along with adolescent development. Teenage political debates, even when they are structured to be civil, can devolve into nastiness, often insidiously subtle nastiness, with remarkable speed. And that nastiness often feeds off or reinforces preexisting social hierarchies, insecurities, and the like. 

Finally, the kind of listening this protocol calls for is both harder and more interesting than rushing to formulate one’s own arguments. It is radically empathic, cutting against so many of our most ingrained tendencies (as both adolescents and humans more generally, and in both intellectual and political discourse as well as beyond). It’s more than just listening, to be clear. The protocol asks students to focus all of their energy on understanding what another person believes and why they believe it. As the listener, one has to play an active and involved role. 

The protocol 

The animating principle of this protocol is to create a receptive, nonjudgmental audience, one that hears out each person’s political perspective without criticizing or debating it. To begin, a student shares an “I believe. . .” statement, and then everyone else takes turns asking that student probing questions about their belief. But the nature of those questions is key: They must take the form of a genuine effort to learn more about what the person believes and why. The questions can’t be framed in a way that criticizes them, voices skepticism, or subtly advocates a competing view.  

The other key element is a strictly enforced structure, which includes specific steps and time limits: 

#1. The moderator introduces the goals of the discussion. 

#2. The moderator introduces the basic structure and norms (confidentiality, especially). 

#3. A participant has 20 seconds to share a political belief (“I believe . . .”). 

#4. The participant next to them has 20 seconds to ask a probing question about that belief. 

#5. The first participant has 20 seconds to answer. 

#6. The previous two steps repeat as questioning proceeds around the circle (and, if they want, participants can “pass”). 

#7. If time allows, questioning can continue in “popcorn” mode — someone popping up to ask a question — after the circle is completed. 

#8. The moderator asks a new participant to share a political belief, inviting both a new topic and an ideological perspective that contrasts with the previous one. 

#9. The questioning process proceeds as before. 

#10. The moderator stops the activity with at least five minutes left to debrief. 

Note that Step #8 plays a particularly important role in the protocol, in that it requires not that students debate each other, exactly, but that they make a point of introducing new and divergent perspectives. As a student, if all I do is probe someone else’s beliefs for a half  hour, then I’ve missed out on something. Asking questions and listening carefully to a classmate is certainly better than screaming at each other, but hearing a range of views is more valuable, especially when those views range across the spectrum from liberal to conservative. Ideally, these opportunities will be repeated, too, perhaps every week or every month, giving all students the chance not only to share their political beliefs but also to see how their classmates’ views change over time. 

There is no particular reason why each turn should be kept to precisely 20 seconds, but I do think a time limit is useful, pushing students to pare down their questions and ideas to their essence, without allowing them to ramble or to stumble into an inflammatory way of stating their views. They can, however, have plenty of time to think. If the group needs to sit in silence for a minute while someone gathers their thoughts before talking, that’s fine. 

Trying the protocol 

Jack, as I’ve called him here, was eager to get started, and overall, the group seemed fairly interested in what we were going to try. Softening them up with some snacks certainly didn’t hurt. 

Jack stated, “I fundamentally believe that the United States should not be accepting foreign refugees.” 

The student next to him in the circle asked, “Where do you think they should go instead?” 

Jack answered, “I think that it’s not our country’s responsibility to find a place for them to go. I believe that it’s our responsibility as a nation to take care of American citizens and provide for the people who live here in our country.” (In transcribing from an audio recording, I’ve edited and condensed the language a bit throughout.) 

The next probing question was among the simplest, but it was also one of the most incisive: “Why do you feel this way?” 

“Because I feel like in the globalized era, the United States is taking a larger and larger role in trying to be the world’s moderator,” answered Jack, “and we’ve lost some of our core principles, like the fact that we’re a country, and we have a responsibility to take care of the poor people and the struggling families in our country. So it wouldn’t be fair for the people who can’t put a meal together, who depend on tax dollars to get food stamps, to have money go to people who aren’t Americans and aren’t under our jurisdiction.”  

I was the next person sitting in the circle, and I had to decide whether to be both a facilitator and a participant. I decided to participate, and I urge other teachers to do so as well. Probing questions are tremendously difficult, and students, especially when they’re being introduced to this protocol, may need the instructor to lead by example. (I acknowledge that this comes with its own risk since some students might feel intimidated by the teacher’s input.) I asked Jack, “Are there any historical situations that you’d consider an exception to this rule, like a genocide or some such really extreme event?” 

Jack allowed for some exceptions, and the probing continued with a question that contrasted Canada’s attitude toward refugee immigration with that of the United States. “Because Canadians are socialists,” Jack deadpanned in response, and everyone laughed. Further questioning revealed that Jack’s thinking on this issue was influenced by fears about terrorism, a general distrust of government spending, and the assumption that refugees are, by and large, economically unproductive. 

The second round began with a very different kind of statement: “I believe,” said the next student, “that the world, in general, should try to be a lot less violent.” Questioning narrowed the focus to war, military spending, arms races, and the neglected importance of negotiation and diplomacy. 

Several students asked deep, thoughtful questions. For example, one asked, “How can you stop all this violence without using even more violence?” Asked another, “If humans have the instinct and capability to be violent creatures, then how exactly, in our civilized society, do we suppress that?” But at the same time, it struck me that such questions were also, in a sense, arguments in disguise, designed not to probe the classmate’s political belief so much as to undermine its premises. As I pointed out to students (and I would argue that facilitators should provide this kind of explicit coaching), they weren’t intentionally being argumentative, but if the goal is to listen to and try to understand another’s point of view, then they must be careful not to slip their own beliefs (e.g., that violence is innate or that violence can only be curtailed by force) into their questions. 

Nonetheless, the student’s response to that question about humanity’s violent instincts was profound, offering a fitting conclusion to a story about a Quaker school: “I think that instinct has been honed by the current and previous climate of the world. We may have a need for violence, but that’s not necessarily a need ingrained in us. The need that is ingrained is survival, and survival doesn’t necessarily mean violence.” 

Making it OK to disagree 

I saw a weight lift from students when engaging in this protocol. The activity showed them they were capable of talking and listening in this distinctly mature way, without snapping at or silencing each other. Moreover, they learned that it is OK to have deep political disagreements with classmates. And while I expected some pushback from students (for example, from those on the left who likely consider Jack’s beliefs about refugees to be abhorrent), I haven’t seen such resistance yet. 

However, that sort of pushback may come from readers who might ask what I would do, for example, if a student were to state a belief that is patently hateful? Would I expect others in the class to limit themselves to a series of calm, respectful, and brief questions?  

We need to teach students about living with and for the perpetual discomfort of difference. We need to teach them how to listen. 

Let me be clear that I never intended for this protocol to create a forum for absolute freedom of speech. Any classroom has implicit bounds on what is acceptable to share (and there is something to be said for making those boundaries explicit in the future), and no discussion protocol can override those norms. Nor, for that matter, can a protocol itself be responsible for instilling respect or tolerance — it can only be used to strengthen what is already there. In this case, the goal is to help students think about how to live in a world where many others disagree with them, sometimes intensely. It can only strengthen us, I would argue, to learn more about others’ views and what they believe. 

Finally, I can imagine some teachers being left cold by the idea of using such a restricted discussion format. (Why not just let students talk?) For those who have never used such protocols in the classroom, I suppose I’m asking for a leap of faith when I say that protocols make discussions deeper and freer, not the opposite. But in any case, if there is one thing I am quite sure about, it is that all students deserve teachers who experiment and take risks — so give it a try, and let me know how it goes.  

DANIEL SUSSMAN (daniel.sussman@gmail.com) is an English teacher at Moorestown Friends School, Moorestown, N.J. 

Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 50-53. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.