How Dialogue Teaches Critical Thinking and Empathy

High school students talking to each other, which teaches critical thinking and empathy

By Dr. Ian Jamison
In an age when students not only socialize online, but also get the majority of their information from the internet, how can we best teach them that not everything someone says on social media is reputable?
How can we help students become critical thinkers and smart consumers of information—and perhaps more importantly, how can we help them develop the ability to shun the vitriolic exchanges that can happen online, and instead learn to engage in true, productive dialogue?
The first step is teaching students the skills they need to evaluate information for themselves. Here are three strategies that can help them:
1) Cross-reference. Encourage students to go to a number of sites and cross-check to avoid relying on a single site for all of their information.
2) Look out for red flags. If a website or person tries to isolate a group and make them seem different, brings up a “golden age” in history and claims it was ruined by a specific group of people, or plays the victim of another group of people, teach students to be wary.
3) Use RAVEN. This mnemonic device helps students remember how to evaluate online content using a series of questions that involve a website’s Reputation, the site or person’s Ability to see both sides of an issue, if the site or author has a Vested interest in a certain point of view, their level of Expertise in the area, and their Neutrality.
A good, informative website should make an effort to acknowledge that there are different points of view on every possible subject. Is there anything that might influence the site, or the writer, to take a particular point of view? Does the person writing know or have any connection to any of the people or issues involved?
These questions are a way to guide students away from false or misleading information, and also to remind them that behind every website or online comment is a person.
To reinforce these critical thinking skills and support a culture of online (and offline) civility, we should guide our students to engage in dialogue with their peers who come from different backgrounds and have different beliefs than their own. Generation Global, a free platform and curriculum that brings together students from all over the world, is one tool that can help. The platform’s teacher training guide helps educators to get started in three steps.
1. Define Dialogue. When teaching students who have grown up immersed in the high-speed, anonymous, potentially contentious world of social media, a crucial first step is differentiating dialogue from debate. Debate is intrinsically competitive and is about establishing difference. In a debate one person wins by putting forward a better argument; the other loses.
In a dialogue there are two winners. I learn from you; you learn from me. It is inherently reciprocal, and acknowledges similarity and difference equally. We may compromise or agree to differ. In our work with schools we describe dialogue (from a student perspective) as the process by which I come to understand others’ lives, values and beliefs better, and others come to understand my life, values and beliefs.
2. Create a Safe Space. Dialogue cannot happen in a classroom unless the teacher has established a safe space. This means a physical safe space, where students feel comfortable and dialogue will not be interrupted, and a psychological safe space, where students feel that they are able to speak freely and without the need to self-censor. A safe space starts with clear ground rules or expectations of behavior for everyone involved. A few simple rules are better than a great many complex ones. We suggest starting with these three:

  • Trust each other. The activities we provide in the Essentials of Dialogue resource give your students a chance to practice their dialogue skills by talking about non-contentious issues. Engaging in this kind of activity is an effective first step in developing trust in one another.
  • Be non-judgmental. Students need to know that they can challenge one another’s deeply held beliefs and values in a positive way. Exploring one another’s points of view leads students to say, “I’m uncomfortable with x, because of y,” rather than saying “You’re wrong!”
  • Be inclusive. It is important that everyone’s voice is heard in dialogue, or at least that everyone has the opportunity to take part (choosing to “pass” is fine, too). Many students are strong speakers, but some lack confidence, have low self-esteem or feel excluded. Their voices are critical to genuine dialogue as well, and teachers should work to cultivate their speaking and listening skills.

3. Provide Trusted Facilitation. Facilitating dialogue for students is a different way to manage classroom discussions than some teachers may be used to. Facilitation requires no special knowledge; it is more about ensuring that the safe space is preserved. A facilitator should:

  • Ensure that one individual or group does not dominate;
  • Try to be neutral;
  • Ensure that many views are heard and encouraged;
  • Ensure that the group members develop their curiosity and ask good questions;
  • Check clarity when people express complex views (“I heard you saying…”); and
  • Ensure that the agreed-upon expectations are observed by everyone.

All of this said, it is crucial that the dialogue belongs to the students. If a teacher’s role is too directive, students may rely on the teacher’s arguments or not participate in the discussion.
The good habits students learn from a facilitated, productive dialogue will follow them throughout life, enabling them to evaluate information with a critical eye while still engaging in peaceful social and professional dialogue.
Dr. Ian Jamison is Head of Education at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, where he trains teachers on Generation Global’s pedagogy of dialogue. Follow Generation Global on Twitter @Gen_Global.

Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment


All the best Cherie Blair!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.