Classroom Deliberations: A Model for Structured Discussion of Contested Political Topics

Deliberations allow teachers to help students cooperatively discuss contested political issues by carefully considering multiple perspectives and searching for consensus. This highly-structured model for conversation is based on Roger T. Johnson and David W. Johnson’s Structured Academic Controversy discussion model.

2012 study of the Deliberation model developed in partnership with the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, and Street Law, Inc., found that Deliberations helped students develop a deeper understanding of the issues, engage in critical thinking, make decisions based on evidence and logic, respect others’ points of view, and identify multiple perspectives associated with the Deliberation topic (Avery, Kundin, Sheldon, & Thompson, 2012).

Students embark on Deliberations feeling safe, supported, and armed with facts, with an eye toward civic engagement and the understanding that by talking about contested political topics across differences, they are a part of building an informed citizenry that ultimately will benefit the larger community.

Deliberations have eight steps that allow teachers to facilitate structured, high-quality conversation about contested political topics in their classrooms.

Step 1: Introduction

In the first step, the teacher helps set the framework and impetus for Deliberation. First, students understand that Deliberation is different from debate. The goal is to cooperatively discuss controversial issues and ultimately search for consensus. This framing of the process is crucial. Teachers do not ask for outright consensus in this process because true consensus can take a long time, which classrooms often do not have, and, from the outset, some students do not want to consider having to let go of strongly-held beliefs. By asking students to search for consensus with one another, we are not asking them to let go of those beliefs, but rather to have the discussion about where they might find some common ground with one another.

Another crucial part of this step is to set and review conversational norms. Much of the Deliberation process involves students discussing controversial topics in small peer groups. Norms are key to creating a welcoming environment for all students, while still allowing for the safe discomfort that can come along with conversations about difficult topics. Safe discomfort asks that teachers and students recognize that sometimes talking about contested topics is not a fully comfortable experience, but that it is possible to have an atmosphere of safety while feeling uncomfortable.

Step 2: Careful Reading

The second step of the Deliberation process is for the entire class to complete a balanced reading about a selected controversial topic.

At times in the course of a school year, it is fruitful to have students comb through resources collected from their own research on these topics. In this Deliberation process, though, it is crucial that students use a common, balanced reading grounded in fact. Too often in collecting our own research, we do not strive for balance, but instead fall victim to confirmation bias. By limiting the reading and initial conversation to commonly known information, we can focus on collaborative discussion.

Step 3: Clarification of Topic and Reading

The next step asks teachers to check for students’ understanding about the topic and the reading, ensuring that all students have a common understanding of key vocabulary and concepts before moving into small group deliberative discussion.

Step 4: Prepare and Present Initial Positions

This step begins the deliberative process. First, teachers divide students into small groups of four to six, then into pairs or trios: Team 1 and Team 2. Team 1 prepares for their presentation, selecting and recording at least two reasons from the common text to say YES to the question. Team 2 does the same, but selects and records at least two reasons to say NO to the question. Then, each team teaches the other team their most compelling reasons for or against the question, as the other team listens and records.

It can be tempting, at the beginning of small group discussion, for students to share their personal opinions on the topic, but it is crucial to the process that students stay in their roles and stick to the information from the common reading. This allows students to build trust, empathy, and relationships with one another.

Step 5: Reverse Positions

Team 1 and Team 2 then flip positions. In their new positions, the pairs select the best reason they heard from the other team and add at least one additional compelling reason from the reading to support their new, reversed positions. When both sides are prepared, they share their new arguments and record notes.

Students gain a better understanding of the multiple perspectives of a controversial issue by stepping into the arguments for both sides of the topic. When we strip the conversation of a winner and loser, the focus becomes much more about weighing arguments from both perspectives.

Step 6: Small Group Free Discussion

At this point, students drop their assigned roles and teams and deliberate the question in small groups. The first aim is for students to attempt to reach a personal decision on the topic using evidence and logic. The next aim is for the small group to search for consensus. It is important to note that groups may search for consensus in areas tangential to the topic. For example, a small group may not come to consensus about whether to ban hate speech, but they might find common ground in the belief that our right to free speech should have limits.

At this step in the process, teachers are encouraged to let students have ample time for discussion, so that they may share their own beliefs and weigh the merits of the arguments in the reading with their own opinions.

Rather than offering their own opinions, or even playing devil’s advocate, teachers should push student groups toward the goals of Deliberation, including the search for consensus. It is also key during this time that teachers work to support Deliberation norms—all students should be encouraged to speak, cooperation should be prioritized, and the reading should remain central to the arguments.

Step 7: Whole Group Discussion

The teacher then brings the whole class back together to gain insight into the Deliberation process, focusing more on process than on content. Teachers might ask students:

  • Did anyone switch sides?
  • Did anyone consider a new argument you hadn’t considered before?
  • Did anyone feel listened to?
  • Imagine that you’re at the Thanksgiving dinner table and the conversation turns to politics. Your teacher is not there and you don’t have a reading in front of you that presents multiple sides of the issue. What is something you’ve learned in our Deliberation today that you can bring to the dinner table to help with that conversation?

These questions push students to think about the process and its impact on their beliefs, along with its impact on the relationships they have built with the people in their small groups. The last question asks students to consider how they can apply lessons learned from the deliberation process to their lives outside of the classroom.
In a time of deep political polarization that confronts us on TV, on social media, and sometimes in our everyday conversations, this debrief is key to helping students build an understanding of what conversation about contested political topics could be.

Step 8: Self-Assessment and Feedback

This final step in the process asks students to quietly self-reflect about the deliberative process and norms. This step highlights that the process is rarely, if ever, perfect, and that participants and facilitators alike should consider areas for growth moving forward.

Deliberations Materials

Find classroom-ready Deliberations materials, as well as supporting lessons plans and materials in Street Law’s Free Resource Library.