“Dialogues Across Differences” Prepare Students for Life Beyond the Bubble

Our students are much more engaged with the goings-on in the world than, perhaps, at any time in recent memory. There are many reasons why.

For one, independent schools are more globally diverse. Take my school, Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, where students hail from nearly two dozen countries and 17 states. Their daily encounters on campus with various global cultures and values propel them to connect what they’re experiencing “in the bubble” to what’s happening outside of it. Now, not only can they access global information quickly, they can also respond to it, virtually — and anonymously if they choose.

At the same time, we know much of the news today spurs divisive, sometimes hostile, discourse. Quick, shoot-from-the-hip tweets, posts, or stories are not only encouraged, but used by the world’s most powerful people to vent their spleens. Students are not blind to this and, despite our consistent efforts to teach empathy, they know this rhetoric is condoned by some in powerful positions — positions we want students to aspire to hold.

So how do we resolve these concerns? In such a “post-truth” environment, how do teachers give students the tools to filter and discern what information is legitimate, whose views are sound, and the metrics to measure truth?

We have been wrestling with these questions at Middlesex for the past couple of years, and we think we’ve found some answers in a new, six-week course we’re teaching: Dialogues Across Differences.

What made developing this course particularly difficult was figuring out how to navigate the rigid, relative, and polar ideas of truth and the lengths we will go to affirm our truths rather than find commonality among different truths.  

Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein speaks to this phenomenon relative to social media. He notes that much of the information we obtain is distilled or filtered for us. Essentially, we tailor what we read and experience to affirm our cultural, political, social, and, of course, consumerist values. Sunstein reports that when we only consume information that reinforces our worldviews, our catered tunnel-vision allows, even encourages, us to forget about those people and ideas we do not identify with.

To combat this, Sunstein wrote in his 2017 book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media: “People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself. Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating — but that might nevertheless change their lives in fundamental ways. They are important to ensure against fragmentation, polarization, and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which like-minded people speak only with themselves. In any case, truth matters.”

A Course to Build Understanding

Truth does matter; my truth matters but so does understanding that my truth might not be your truth.

The statement above is an essential element of what we aim to achieve in Dialogues Across Differences. Now a graduation requirement, this foundational course in our Global Studies Program teaches students how to have difficult conversations about world topics using compassionate, analytical, and nonjudgmental language. In so doing, we hope students learn to find moments of understanding across differences instead of trying to do the impossible — convincing others of their own truths.

On a practical level, the course begins preparing students for unfamiliar situations, including traveling to other parts of the country and world; speaking with those representing different languages, cultures, identities, or values; and working with people of various backgrounds. To do this, we introduce students to contemporary, global content about conflicts related to race, gender, religion, cultural appropriation, sexuality, class, and more. Each week, we focus on a set of skills, which students learn and apply through readings, role play, closed- and open-ended questions, and discussion. Here’s the weekly breakdown:

Week 1: hearing v. listening
When we hear, we not only hear the words, tones, and intentions of the other party, we also hear our own biases, assumptions, and cultural stereotypes within our own heads. Conversely, when we listen, we acknowledge our own biases and assumptions, but minimize them in favor of actively listening to the story, background, needs, and requests of the other participant.

Week 2: intention v. impact
Even if our intentions are super friendly, that does not mean the impacts will be perceived that way. Our reactions shouldn’t be “I didn’t mean to” but should focus on the needs of the person who’s offended.
Week 3: identifying and separating feelings v. needs
When we’re talking about hate between groups (religions, genders, sexualities, jobs, races, etc.), how does this manifest? Through people’s feelings! If we can understand the inherent needs all humans have, we can move toward finding solutions.

Week 4: tone, body language, and reaction
When we’re the subject of an insult or an attack, it is incumbent upon us to take a moment to breathe, and step away if need be, but ultimately have that difficult conversation with the person who made us uncomfortable.

Week 5: empathy
To be empathetic means understanding that those unlike us may act, speak, worship, or even dance in ways different than we do. Ultimately, we understand that they’re humans who deserve respect and opportunities just as we do.

Week 6: synthesis, application, and reflection
We put the ideas above into practice.

Course Development and Intention

We spent two years developing the content and tools for this course, drawing inspiration from a variety of organizations, including the Center for Nonviolent Communication, the CARE Organization, and Harvard Business School. Our impetus was not only to help students become more empathetic and globally aware but also to broadly promote skills in critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and empathy, which can sometimes seem overlooked amid an emphasis on quantitative skills, credentials, and end-products, including higher education and job selection. Further, we wanted students (and parents) to understand that these skills are not only crucial to develop character but also vital to create inclusive school communities and to thrive in the workforce.

In Students’ Own Words

When we asked students to share feedback about the course, we received a range of critical and encouraging replies. During the class, students filled out 45-second surveys at the end of every week with questions about the appropriateness of the readings, comfort level, and role-playing exercises. We received 30 percent response rates for the weekly surveys, which were part of homework. The entry and exit surveys had 100 percent response rates.

One theme was consistent: Many students quickly figured out they could anticipate what answer (or range of answers) teachers were looking for. Students’ exit surveys reflected this:  

“Many of the concepts taught, are things that seem like common sense.”

“I don't believe that one should engage in difficult conversations in the way that the course showed, I think one should be strong with their points rather than become shy hoping not to offend.”

“Although I am far from perfect, I feel engaging in difficult conversation has never been an issue for me. What to say and how to respond to diversity amongst race and religion has just been common sense, and when presented I know how to respectfully ask questions and make comments. In my opinion, this course was just a reminder of all the issues there are today and did nothing to fix them.”

Some students felt moved to offer watered-down responses to expedite parts of the discussion sections. After reflecting with my colleagues, I realized this might not be a bad thing after all. If students understand what reactions, tone, or language lead to empathetic dialogue, that strikes me as a good thing. But now I want to encourage students to think through why those responses are the most appropriate.

Growing Comfort Levels  

Students offered a promising array of answers to the question of whether they felt more comfortable having difficult conversations after completing the course. Some responses follow:

“I was comfortable before the course and I still am now, however, it prepared me to handle them better.”
“Yes, now I am more aware of what is okay to say and what isn't, and how I should go about saying it to make the person feel comfortable and make me seem approachable.”

“I feel better prepared to participate in difficult conversations while being able to listen, empathize, and ask questions.”

“I think that this class has helped me improve my skills at least a little, and that if I am ever in an uncomfortable situation again, I will know what to do.”

Going on Record

In an article for the school newspaper, one enrolled freshman described the course’s merits and criticisms — and we took the feedback to heart. The part below sums up the course in a nutshell.

...conversations can feel challenging because they refer to ideas or scenarios that don’t always fit with how different people perceive the world. Everyone encounters a time in these conversations when he or she must admit, ‘I don’t know’ a statement that can feel vulnerable, especially in a peer group where everyone else can seem to have far more knowledge. However, because these discussions confront people with ideas and realities that they will inevitably encounter in the real world, the interactions prepare people for life outside the Middlesex bubble. Challenging conversations broaden perspectives, allowing people to move themselves from distortion to clarity. Dialogues forces the start of this type of thinking.”

Teaching Empathy, Seriously

Every day, our students want to talk about any number of hot topics. As educators, we want students to have difficult conversations face-to-face, with both peers and adults. We hope the framework we’ve developed will make these conversations easier and more productive over time, thereby benefiting individuals and our whole community.
Rob Munro and Pascale Musto, director of multicultural and community development, will deliver an abbreviated version of Middlesex School’s Dialogues Across Differences course in a three-hour workshop on Wednesday, March 7 at the 2018 NAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta.
Rob Munro
Rob Munro

Rob Munro is director of global studies at Middlesex School (MA). He also teaches courses in the history department, such as Ancient World History and West African History. In addition, he has taught upper-level seminars in African Philosophy, The Harlem Renaissance, German language, and Global Studies.


Robert Munro
1/4/2018 1:38:09 PM
Dan, your comments hit at the purpose of the course, which is that there are objective truths and values that we, as humans, all have. We take that as a starting point for any dialogue. Your point on moral relativism is a good one; we don't aim to teach that, but instead focus on teaching students that all people make choices and hold beliefs based on satisfying feeling and needs. You're absolutely right that human right to life is not a gray matter. We recognize this but we also recognize that students will find themselves in situations, as we all have at some point, when they are confronted with someone whose values are different than theirs. We ask that they dig in and have that conversation UNLESS the other person's intentions, actions, or values are violent/unsafe. I think we would agree that anyone who does not place value on our equal right to human life to be violent/unsafe. We're not asking kids to entertain those conversations. In that way, even if it's not mentioned explicitly, we are taking a clear position on moral relativism. I appreciate your thoughts, Dan!

Hi Beth. Technological literacy is very important and is something we, in various areas of our academic curriculum address. One of the purposes in developing our course was to try to give students the skills to be more comfortable having difficult face-to-face conversations instead of using social media. We know that students are talking about these big, charged topics, and we would prefer them to talk about them with one another and us openly, with compassion, and with truth. I think your course is an important one and I agree that courses like that only work when they’re integrated more widely into the traditional academic curriculum. Thanks for your thoughts, Beth.

1/4/2018 11:04:29 AM
This sounds like a great effort. However, I wonder how this course and other efforts toward social justice in education really address the "fake news" and "filter bubble" information environment we all now live in and which has a profound impact on how and what information, news, and views people digest and incorporate into their world views (or do not). I am the solo librarian at my high school and I have been given the opportunity here to develop a mini-course called Research & Information Literacy in which I try to teach the students the importance of being critical about their online information environment. This includes examining the limits of the web as an information source, "searching" online and how to evaluate information, political, social, opinion, etc., that they ingest almost exclusively via the web and social media. It's a great start, but I only meet with them eight times; these general research critical thinking skills are essential to and should be explicitly integrated into other courses concerned with the all-important issues we face around civil discourse, social justice and empathy.

Daniel Penengo
1/3/2018 10:15:43 AM
I salute this thorough and consuming coursework. It raises in my mind the questions concerning moral relativism, and brings me back to ancient philosophical queries concern moral truths.

I always am concerned about relativism, especially when life and death are involved, especially in light of regime change politics. Human right to life is not a gray matter, is it?

The concept of difficult discussions is a powerful one and certainly encouraging, yet we should assure we teach to the idea that there are truths, outside of our own personal feelings and beliefs.

All the best in the new year, and thanks for sharing.

Dan Penengo

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