The past few years have given us much to consider about fostering a sense of civic responsibility in students. We’ve seen an erosion of common decency and respect. The pandemic has magnified the fragility of our democracy and the risks of continued divisiveness. The path to stability and civility isn’t clear or easy, and role models are difficult to find. As educators, we must recognize our critical role of mentorship.
To halt the erosion, we as a society must be willing and able to listen to points of view that differ vastly from our own with interest, acceptance, respect and openness. If we can nurture these four abilities in our youth, we can lay the foundation for change. When we can make this operational in youth, they learn to care about the lives of others, accept people where they are and value dignity for all. They also feel safe enough to re-examine their own beliefs based on meaningful exchanges with those whose views differ from their own, which helps build a civil society and foster well-educated voters.
When we define a process that supports building these four principles in youth, and provide repeated opportunities to use this process in addressing a range of issues, students begin to view the world through this more balanced lens. Consider these six steps:
Articulate your point of view: The first step in the process is to find our own clarity. With students, this means helping them articulate their opinions, identify the beliefs or experiences behind these opinions and discover whether viewpoints are based in truth. We want students to become self-aware and resist parroting others’ belief systems, whether parents, friends or celebrities. Individuals need to develop the ability to define their own belief system based on what they discover.
With interest, ask questions: Once students are conscious of their position, they can ask questions of others for the purpose of understanding various perspectives rather than trying to change someone else’s beliefs. We want students to learn about others’ beliefs and consider the influences that led others to these positions. The goal of this step is to foster a sense of interest in others.
Listen more than you speak: You won’t mend divides by haranguing others to take your point of view. Instead, we as a society need to learn to listen more than we speak. Our collective strength is in building a web with our differing points of view that can be connected and functional, while still respecting differences.
Together, identify historical figures who might be role models in addressing the issue: Encourage students from differing viewpoints to look together for role models who lived in a situation analogous to the one under consideration. How have others handled similar situations? What did people learn in the process? How has history given us examples we can learn from?
What has the other person said that you agree with or can fully understand and support? Look for ways to communicate openly and honestly about what you’re finding. Students can each name something they’ve learned. Then have them each name one thing about the other person’s perspective they can respect or at least understand. If they can find one point of agreement, they have a foundation for building more.
Rate your own openness to allowing something to influence your view: Invite students to rate their openness to changing their own opinion, even just a little. Then ask, “What could allow you to be just one level more open to considering a new or additional perspective?”
This process establishes flexibility in internal thinking and external processing. For classroom use, start with issues that have little emotional charge so students can become familiar with the process. Over time, use this process to address issues of greater importance to your students. You can do this in pairs or small groups, but ensure that if one student is facing the rest of the group who are in agreement, that student doesn’t feel daunted.
For a hands-on activity to reinforce the principles in this article, download the activity worksheet. After using the activity with a low-risk focus, have your students study these concepts to prepare for discussions that may be more likely to be flashpoints:
Role models for optimism
The negotiation procedures used for high-stakes issues in adult circumstances
The Truth and Reconciliation movement in South Africa
Canada’s recent reconciliation work with First Nations
Choose a topic that might have a fair level of consequence but one about which your students don’t have strong feelings. Encourage them to:
Clarify and articulate their own point of view, including seeking the truth
Have an interest in their peers by listening to their point of view, not with the purpose of trying to change someone’s mind but with an interest in their peers’ perspective and the experiences and beliefs behind it
Accept where others are
Operate from a place of mutual respect
Walk away with a willingness to re-examine their own beliefs
Teaching students to be responsible citizens, who are respectful of other people’s viewpoints, goes a long way toward helping them along the road to become responsible adults.
Cheri Lovre is director of Crisis Management Institute. Its 5 Radical Minutes program reinforces these concepts and fosters an enduring moral compass of kindness. Contact her at email@example.com.