Supporting Civil Discourse in Classrooms

Preschool teacher and children in classroom
Civil Discourse starts young

Most Americans believe that civility has severely declined over the past two decades. We hear stories daily about ridicule, bullying, and simple rudeness – and these stories are happening in homes, classrooms, on the Internet, and in businesses. There are several reasons for this decline. Some scholars suggest that as society has become more informal and that long agreed-upon rules for respectful behavior have diminished. Television shows, radio programs, and movies exhibit revolutionized norms for polite, appropriate behavior. The internet has produced an easy method for people to post anonymous and uncivil comments with little accountability.

Educators are well positioned to provide a counterweight to this change in civil discourse. Schools and classrooms must strive to be safe places where students can exchange ideas, try out opinions, and receive feedback on their ideas without fear or intimidation. Schools must become places where students learn to communicate respectfully and effectively.

Teaching students to participate in effective civil discourse is more than teaching them to be polite. Polite behavior often dictates that confrontation and disagreement must be avoided. However, good public discourse invites people to share differences of opinion for the benefit of society. Healthy arguments are essential in a democracy. They allow understanding and compromise to develop. In a world with few role models, educators must teach students the rules and norms for civil discourse.

Steps for Teaching Civil Discourse:

1.) Make Ground Rules

Ground rules are helpful for any class or team discussion. Rules are usually most effective when they are generated and agreed upon by the students. These guidelines will govern class discussions and hold students accountable to appropriate behavior.

2.) Teach Students how to Listen

Listening is at least half of civil discourse and it is more important than speaking. Teach students how to listen effectively. Teach active listening with 5 steps:

  • Make eye contact
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Ask questions if needed
  • Repeat back what you think the speaker said.
  • Get clarification for total meaning.

3.) Teach Students how to Speak

Everyone has an opinion and most people like to express their opinions. A task of educators is to teach students how to state and support their opinions for effective argumentation. These skills create an important foundation for persuasive writing and speaking in later years. Teach students the 3 essential elements of an argument (SEE):

  • State (What do you think?)
  • Explain (Why do you think that?)
  • Evidence (Tell me concrete facts that support your reasoning.)

These steps require students to think about their statements during civil discourse and prepare effectively. It highlights the importance of evidence during argumentation. This strategy also encourages students to listen critically and develop strong inquiry skills.

4.) Teach students to reflect on common ground and compromise.

After students have had an opportunity to share by listening and speaking, give them quiet time to reflect on common ground and areas of compromise. Then, share their thoughts.

Using these four strategies for civil discourse builds an environment of respectful, authentic learning. They provide a foundation for effective communication skills for our students. And they are essential to the support of a strong democracy.

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