Civil Dialogue: A Key Pedagogical Tool for Teaching about Religion

Posted On 11 Jan 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, PhD Founder and Lead Consultant

In previous blogs, I provided reasons and frameworks for teaching about religion in the classroom. The six-point framework, in particular, provides a strong foundation in which an educator can approach the topic of religion. Discussions in the class on religion should be meaningful. And, as I mentioned in a previous blog, it is one of the concerns of educators that these discussions could become offensive and problematic. Yet, it is precisely these types of conversations for which our students need to be prepared in the global twenty-first century. Educators should equip students with the soft skills they need to engage and learn from one another successfully. These soft skills are the skills of dialogue or civil dialogue. They form part of the communication skills addressed by the C3 Framework, Common Core Standards, Four Domains of Global Competence, and 21st-century skills

So what is dialogue? There are a lot of interactions in the classroom between students and the teacher, including discussions, debates, and deliberations. In contrast to debate, a dialogue is reciprocal upbuilding discourse. Participants acknowledge similarities and differences and, in doing so, learn from each other about themselves and others. 

How can a teacher promote dialogue in the classroom? Foremost, teachers need to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable and respected speaking freely. It is essential to note that this environment of respect does not mean that students need to agree with everything stated. It means students have the skills to listen and disagree appropriately. These developing skills ensure that students will be able to navigate diversity in the future successfully. So here are some tips for educators creating a safe environment for dialogue in the classroom. First, make ground rules which provide clear expectations of behavior. Second, develop trust in the class by practicing dialogues on non-controversial topics. Third, allow students to explore each other’s perspectives in a non-judgmental way. Dialogue is a space where students can challenge each other but in a positive way. For example, “I am not comfortable with x, because of these reasons.” Fourth, be inclusive, offering all students the opportunity to be heard in the dialogue. Fifth and most important, ensure the preservation of a safe and neutral space throughout the dialogue.

What are some of the skills of dialogue that an educator can build upon in the classroom? The first skill is global communication where students speak only for themselves and not on behalf of others. The second skill is active listening in which students show respectful and attentive body language when others are speaking with them. The third skill is critical thinking where students need to able to be open-minded while also being analytical, recognizing the emotional elements of a statement. The fourth skill is positive responses. Students should be able to respond positively to others, showing that they value their ideas, experiences, and beliefs. The fifth and final skill is reflection. Students should be able to reflect on their opinions, experiences, and beliefs, recognizing influences and differences from others. 

Where can an educator get more information on dialogue in the classroom? The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has free classroom resources for educators who want to introduce their students to civil dialogue. The fostering of civil dialogue from the board room to the classroom is the mission of the Institute. Another classroom aid produced by the Institute is Generation Global, which provides moderated spaces online in which students can dialogue globally on challenging topics from a spectrum of perspectives. 

Consequently, teachers should build the skill of civil dialogue in their students. This will help with those dialogues surrounding other faith traditions to which students need exposure. Remember, ignoring religion at this point will not equip students to understand an essential motivator for a majority of the global community or 5.7 out of 7.5 billion people, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. Civil dialogue is a crucial component of recognizing that reality. 

Source: Kristen Farrington and Ian Jamison, “Chapter 10: Educating for Global Citizenship in a World Where Religion Matters,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.