Civic Preparedness in an Era Characterized by its Discord More than its Dialogue

By Dana Mitra
January 19, 2018

Political discord is as old as politics. However, disagreement between people with different political perspectives has become entrenched, and often rancorous, in our era. Many choose only to listen to viewpoints similar to their own and opportunities for conversation across political differences are shrinking.

Research indicates that people are (increasingly?) choosing a self-selection of news that affirms, instead of challenges, their beliefs (Epstein & Graham, 2007; Mutz, 2006); the result is an echo chamber instead of shared beliefs (McGuinn & Suppovitz, 2015). Much of the media industry has sought to amplify discord because of the increase in ratings that it can bring (Mutz, 2015). Scholars of the Trump presidency argue that the current administration has utilized strategies that intentionally increase dissonance between groups rather than seeking compromise and accommodation (Martin, 2017).

When considering the importance of civic preparedness—a key outcome that student-centered approaches aim to achieve—its important to recognize that learning to dialogue across difference is a rising challenge for our younger generation. Citizens who have not developed the skillsets and dispositions to engage in democratic discussions and productive deliberations will be ill-prepared to sustain or even protect our democratic institutions. The civic capacity to talk and listen amid diverse perspectives also affects career readiness, since the workplace is often one of the few places where people speak across political differences (Mutz & Mondak, 2006).

In our recent article in Educational Leadership, we discuss the term dialogue as a way to engage in collaborative and generative consideration of how we want to live together. To counter today’s divisive and discordant trends, schools can teach young people the specific skills they need to engage in critical dialogue, both to learn from people with different beliefs and to ensure that all students’ voices (their stories, opinions, or feelings) are heard. With guidance from adults, dialogue can enable young people to talk productively about issues related to living together in pluralistic society.

What should adults prioritize when they work with youth to develop these crucial civic skills? We suggest the following, particularly when learning to discuss contentious issues:


Ask questions about others’ opinions. While learning how to engage in dialogue is a key component of engagement in civic life due to the way it helps us express and consider a range of viewpoints, it is important to recognize that facilitating a rich dialogue can be a difficult pedagogical process. Unlike monologues, dialogues cannot be controlled to arrive at a pre-chosen conclusion. However, dialogues support many intellectual virtues, chief among them the propensity for curiosity. Approaching others with curiosity helps them to elaborate on their feelings and stances and it opens the possibility of richer, more complex elaborations of beliefs so that we can see multiple ways of understanding issues. Staying curious about other’s ideas is a great way to stay engaged in conversations across difference, the kind that leads to collaborations rather than disputes.


Ask what people believe and value. To get underneath partisan rhetoric and canned talking points, we need to understand what is driving the perspective, and rarely can we get there unless we ask. Research, as well as our own classroom practice, points to the value of looking beneath slogans stolen from the headlines to understand the values and beliefs of others (Brown, 2017). Instead of staying at the level of “I support X candidate,” for example, we might ask “What are the values you hold or your concerns about the country that led to voting for that person? What are your hopes and dreams for your children and neighbors? Your community? How do you hope to get there?” By moving beyond divisive rhetoric, we can look for and find common ground. And if/when we reach respectful points of disagreement they will be based on differing goals rather scornful judgments.


Encourage use of research and data to support opinions. Once we move beneath rhetoric, we can explore evidence for opinions and beliefs, forming logical and informed arguments and looking at the sources of data and what the research actually says. While it is possible to share evidence that might initially shut down a conversation, creating a norm of asking for evidence may help to better understand other perspectives and keep the dialogue open.


Allow all opinions to be heard, but allow them to be challenged as well. When teachers provide examples of kindly disagreeing, changing one’s mind, or asking a classmate for clarification on a regular basis, young students are more likely to engage in dialogue that considers and critically engages with new perspectives. This makes the space safer for controversial discussions. We must also acknowledge that issues of equity and status difference can make it riskier for some students to speak than others when working in a diverse environment. Safety is always a work in progress.


Learn from the unique expertise of different perspectives. Teachers can make it clear to the children throughout regular dialogue that each of them is a vital part of the group and that they should listen, seek to understand, and respond to each other’s contributions during the dialogue. In addition, teacher scaffolding includes the use of follow up questions, clarification statements, and helping children to make connections during the course of the dialogue. Teachers may also offer an alternative viewpoint not represented or offered in the dialogue, such as those experiencing a problem or injustice. We also must acknowledge opinions and assertions based on evidence and research often should carry more weight and merit than others. Also, some assertions are meant to directly harm others. Harmful statements – such as those championing White supremacy or homophobia – shut down, as opposed to support, classroom dialogue.


In fostering dialogue with young students, the focal point of the class deliberately shifts from teacher-centered (or “banking”) pedagogy (Freire, 2000) to co-collaboration. Dialogue requires that students – not just teachers – contribute to the discussion and the creation of knowledge, which can support children’s confidence as active agents in the classroom. For example, a productive dialogue around the issue of citizenship and civic preparedness can be facilitated to engage students in a collaborative learning experience. Part of this lesson might include providing information on the Bill of Rights and, in turn, the rights of U.S. citizens. But, following that, additional, value questions can be raised: What does it mean to be a good citizen? What are the obligations of citizens to their country and community? How should communities settle disputes over the exercise of free speech and other rights?

Through opportunities to learn how to discuss difficult topics, we can build on what we know from educational research to encourage productive dialogue across difference within a variety of public spheres. Emerging research on student-centered learning, student voice, and civic action can contribute to our understanding of dialogue.

Dana Mitra is a Students at the Center Distinguished Fellow and Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She has published over 30 papers and two books on the topics of student voice and civic engagement.


Mutz, D. C., & Mondak, J. J. (2006). The workplace as a context for cross‐cutting political discourse. Journal of politics, 68(1), 140-155.

Mutz, D. C. (2006). Hearing the other side: Deliberative versus participatory democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Mutz, D. In-Your-Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Epstein, D. & Graham, J.D.  (2007). Polarized politics and policy consequences. Rand Corporation.

McGuinn, P. & Suppovitz, J. (2016). Parallel Play in the Education Sandbox: The Common Core and the Politics of Transpartisan Coalitions. CPRE Research Reports. Retrieved from

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York, NY: Random House.

Friere, P. “Critical pedagogy.” Notable Selections In Multicultural Education (2000): 171-175.

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