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Suffern High School Students Build Long-Term Skills for Constructive Dialogue

The strategies students learned and cultivated in class discussion gave them the confidence to have difficult conversations in and outside of the classroom.


The Challenge

Jessica Minick teaches a Cambridge Assessment International Education® course, “Global Perspectives and Research,” at Suffern High School in which her students often engage in challenging discussions on global issues. When the class size doubled one year, these conversations grew more polarized and mediating them became significantly more difficult.

She reports, “I had 29 students that year, and usually it’s a class of 10 to 15. So it was a lot of voices, and a lot of strong voices sitting on opposite ends of the spectrum.”

Rather than limit or censor these in-class discussions, Ms. Minick sought a solution to help her students communicate more constructively with each other in this course and in dealing with these types of conversations going forward.


Why Constructive Dialogue Institute

Ms. Minick wanted to find a solution that would build a foundation for effective discussion without targeting or alienating any particular group within her class. While exploring Constructive Dialogue Institute, she found herself personally learning from the research-based content and found the approach to be ideologically neutral. In addition, the online learning format made Constructive Dialogue Institute a convenient and accessible platform to roll out to her students.


Key Outcomes

Long-Term Impact

Even though Ms. Minick had students work through the 4-week Constructive Dialogue Institute program at the beginning of the school year, Constructive Dialogue Institute phrases, metaphors, and skills were brought up by the students throughout the 10-month class. At the end of the school year, students were required to create capstone portfolios and many chose to detail their participation in Constructive Dialogue Institute as a highlight of their personal experience.

Strategies for Understanding One Another

One of the most frequently used Constructive Dialogue Institute concepts by the Suffern High School students was an active listening strategy designed to help better understand the viewpoints of others. Students were taking the time to paraphrase what they had just heard and ask specific questions to understand each other correctly before moving forward in conversation. They also reported that they valued being able to hear the other side and voice their own opinion in a constructive way. “I saw a lot of this re-emerge in discussions after the [Constructive Dialogue Institute] program,” Ms. Minick said.

The strategies students learned in Constructive Dialogue Institute and cultivated in class discussion gave them the confidence to have these types of conversations outside of the classroom space as well. Ms. Minick stated, “Students would tell me about engaging in conversations with friends, family members, and others” using these skills.

Resetting Emotions in Charged Conversations

After Constructive Dialogue Institute, the students demonstrated a greater ability to avoid highly-charged, emotional reactions in difficult conversations. Constructive Dialogue Institute helped students to better understand their own worldviews and identify where those emotional moments can arise for them personally. In addition, the Constructive Dialogue Institute program provided specific steps that students utilized to de-escalate heated conversations.

Universal Buy-In from Students

What Ms. Minick found most striking was that each student who took Constructive Dialogue Institute saw the value in it. “I got buy-in from everybody, which I was not expecting. That’s been consistent over the years, too.”

Looking Forward

Constructive Dialogue Institute was launched at Suffern High School in the spring of 2018. “It has become integral to the program, and we use it every year,” Ms. Minick states. She has used the Constructive Dialogue Institute program for 5 different student cohorts of juniors and seniors so far and plans to expand its usage to a younger cohort in the sophomore class.


Try Out Perspectives

CDI's interactive, online program, Perspectives, teaches students how to engage in constructive dialogue across differing backgrounds, beliefs, and viewpoints.

The entire 8-lesson program is free for educators. Try a sample section from the course to see how we present research-based skills in an engaging format that resonates with students.

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