Worlds of Education

Preparing for Difficult Conversations

published 18 July 2017 updated 25 July 2017
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How can educators facilitate difficult conversations in their classrooms?  If we believe that democratic citizenship is linked with engagement in social issues, then undoubtedly these topics also include those that make us feel uncomfortable. Or are complex or even unresolvable. If there are different points of view on a hot topic, is it wiser for a teacher to set these aside and allow learners to resolve their points of view on their own?

The notion that democracy is hard is perhaps more apparent than ever as we witness in Western countries the sundering of middle ground and, in its wake, the fragmenting of civility itself. How do we address the polarization in political culture? Rising xenophobia and fear of “the other?” If our political leaders are not attempting to forge bridges and understanding, what then is the role of the teacher in the midst of such environments?

It’s tempting to disengage from these difficult topic. Yet, issues  not addressed explicitly in the classroom will be relegated to the hidden curriculum in the schools  through omission. A braver position would be to assist learners in navigating the (sometimes toxic) politics of our day – and not just from a position of rationality. In environments when “truth” itself is regularly called into question, educators and their allies have a moral imperative to create safe spaces where not only facts but also feelings and values can be explored.  Our schools and communities are filled with flesh-and-blood humans with a lifetime of experiences and perspectives. Within a classroom we are unlikely to share the same point of view but perhaps we can come closer to understanding where someone else is coming from. Navigation of different attitudes can be assisted through the integration of a human rights perspective. This search for common values includes not only comforting notions of equality and respect for human dignity but also the limitations of the rights framework in providing answers to truly perplexing tensions between, for example, freedom of expression and its limits .  Isn’t this part of the muscle of democracy?

This is a time when training institutions and organizations are called on to share tools for teachers to sort through their own positionality and then to thoughtfully replicate this process with their students.  Several organizations have been facilitating such training and offering supports, including inter-governmental organizations such as UNESCO and the Council of Europe.  A number of NGOs and researchers are also engaged. These materials are readily available online and for free.

Through my conversations with graduate students in education I’ve come to believe that the initial education of every teacher should include developing techniques for facilitating conversations on sensitive topics. With such skills, an educator can proactively shape discursive spaces in their classrooms. Alternatively, or in addition, s/he will be better equipped to guide students spontaneously in reflecting upon their responses to an unexpected, disturbing or confusing issue or event.  Teachers can help students to stay engaged by helping them to make sense of political tensions or random acts of violence, to tolerate complexity, to cherish human rights values, and to find a way forward that is shaped by the understanding that every person can make a positive difference in their community. It is difficult to deny that educators are being called to fulfill these civic roles, regardless of their school level or subject area.  I hope that schools, education systems and teacher preparation institutions will commit themselves to providing every educator with such a training experience. One unit -- five lessons - could assist educators in clarifying and maturing in their own positions on current issues. Through participating as a learner in such activities they’ll have first-hand experience on doable techniques for handling sensitive and controversial topics in the classroom.  In turn, educators can carry these out with their future students.  And our societies will be all the better for it.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.