Learning to Differ: Teaching Students the Art of Civil Discourse

How an app helps business students learn to appreciate opposing viewpoints.

Learning to Differ:  Teaching Students the Art of Civil Discourse

IN THE COURSE Ethical Issues for Managers, Don Lange wants to do more than teach students the nuances of ethical leadership. He wants to help them better understand and engage with people whose views differ radically from their own. Lange, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe, emphasizes the importance of civil discourse before his class even begins. Before students come to the first session, he asks them to complete five online modules in OpenMind, a third-party app that its creators designed "to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences."

Lange started using OpenMind in fall 2017, after he heard a presentation by New York University professor Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a researcher focused on the deep divisions that can form in society and a co-creator of OpenMind. The app models ways for students to engage respectfully without retreating to their ideological camps.

It takes students less than two hours to complete the modules. The first explores the question, "Why talk to people you disagree with?" The next four lay out steps for civil debate, such as "cultivating intellectual humility," "exploring the irrational mind," "breaking free from your moral matrix," and "preparing for constructive disagreement."

In the first class, Lange asks students to put the skills they've learned to use. They break into pairs and identify an issue on which both students strongly disagree. Then, they engage in one-on-one conversations in which they first work to understand the values that drive the other person's viewpoint, before reframing their own views using the other person's preferred moral foundations.

"The module not only teaches the importance of listening to and learning from others who see things differently, but also gives students concrete instruction in how to break down communication barriers with others," says Lange. "The key is to recognize the deeper agreements that often underlie disagreements."

For example, Lange recalls two students who disagreed on whether players in the National Football League should be required to stand for America's national anthem. They determined that authority and sanctity were key moral foundations for the student who believed that players should stand; care and fairness were the moral foundations for the student who believed players had the right to kneel to protest racial inequality.

The students then restated their own views using the other's moral foundations. The individual who believed players should stand said, "I think NFL players should stand for the national anthem because kneeling is hurtful to [military veterans] who have sacrificed so much." The student who believed they should be able to kneel said, "I think NFL players should be allowed to kneel because freedom of expression is a sacred right in our society."

It's rare that either student changes the other's mind, says Lange, "But when they hear the opposing view reframed according to their own strongly held values, it helps each to appreciate and understand the other's view more."

Learn more about the OpenMind app.