Last semester (Fall 2013), I (Sarah) was asked to redesign and teach the Public Policy Dispute Resolution class at the University of Missouri School of Law which I greatly enjoyed doing. The last third of the semester the students planned and participated in a series of dialogues around the issue of gun violence in the context of developing a policy on guns in schools. The next series of posts will look at how we prepared for these dialogues, and what occurred. Even though this was a classroom exercise, it illustrates many of the points we have discussed on this blog.
At the outset of the semester, the students were asked to write an essay about why they had enrolled and what they hoped to learn. The majority of those essays reflected the students’ deep concerns, as citizens, with the partisan nature of our political discourse and their frustration at how quickly discussions on difficult issues, even with friends and family, turned into name-calling and debate. The students expressed a desire to better understand and address such things as “media-fueled divisiveness”, lack of “nuance in everyday politics”, and “polarization”. They also asked to learn about how points of view form, how policies are made, how to help opposing groups communicate, and how to “explore the area between two extreme views.” These questions were discussed in the first part of the semester when we focused on skills such as conflict mapping, question framing, and use of non-adversarial dialogue patterns. Next we looked at the procedural structures and characteristics of both formal and informal options for working through public policy issues.
Although the final practice exercises involved a hypothetical community, the students were given a clear context, using the demographics of an identified nearby school district and a law that had been recently adopted in Kansas. Class members came into the discussions with a wide range of viewpoints and were also assigned roles as community members. The two students who agreed to serve as (i) a school board member highly supportive of both the law and of allowing more guns in the schools, and (ii) the superintendent responsible for managing budgets, safety, personnel, and overall administration, received more detailed supporting information for their roles. They were instructed to raise or share this additional information as seemed natural or appropriate in the discussions. Although starting from very different places, the students were (to their surprise), over three sessions, able to reach unanimous agreement on an interim policy that could be placed into effect immediately.
This series of classes was designed to allow the students to directly experience how the choice and sequencing of dialogue structures, and dialogue-based phrasing, can change the usual scripts used in discussion of a politicized, highly charged issue like gun violence. Our next few posts will look at these three components – choice of structure, sequence of discussion, and dialogue-based phrasing – and how each contributed to the ultimate outcome.