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Civility in the Classroom: A Better Approach

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by Richard K. Olsen, Chair of the Dept. of Communication Studies, University of North Carolina Wilmington
and
 Vernon Cronen, Ph.D., Visiting Faculty, University of North Carolina Wilmington 

Leading controversial discussions that develop communication skills is an enduring teaching challenge. Often a faculty member's assumptions about what communication is inform their approach to these classroom activities. I want to contrast two approaches to communication - and then illustrate how the less common approach can enhance faculty efforts to teach and harness communication in the classroom.

2 Ways of Viewing Communication in the Classroom

The instrumental view. The more common view has several labels, but we will call it the "instrumental view." This view assumes that communication starts with a communicator and terminates in a receiver's accurate or inaccurate perception. This view is focused on control and accuracy, on individuals and on individual acts, and on the present. Within this view, the instructor is the central figure in determining the rules of behavior, and violations of those rules require an immediate response that emphasizes realignment of individual behavior.

The systemic view. The less common view also has several labels, but we will call it the "systemic view." This view assumes that communication is a way of being, and that much of our social world is constituted by communication. This view is focused on creative process, interdependence, and the future. The instructor who takes this view understands the classroom not as a space inhabited by people, but as a habituated set of actions and communication practices that co-create "my class."

Let's look at how an instructor with a systems view of communication can create space in a classroom that allows for the co-creation of classroom civility and fosters civil discussion of controversial ideas. In this article, I'll look at:

  • Steps instructors with a systems view can take in designing the course.
  • 5 specific techniques that instructors (and students!) can take in responding to classroom incivility. These are techniques that advance the larger outcomes for the course and for student development.

Designing the Course

This systems view of communication will likely be new to the student. Therefore, it's critical to build in moments of metacommunication:

  • Talk about the role of communication in the course.
  • Consider articulating or co-creating a declaration of expectations. This can be an informal contract or public agreement that recognizes the need to explore challenging issues, the likelihood of feeling uncomfortable at times, and the need to have a process that allows for both authenticity and civility to flourish. 
  • Design assignments and lesson plans that express this approach.

Invite students to help define civil and productive conversation. For example:

  • Ask students to identify adjectives and verbs that would characterize invigorating and productive discussions.
  • Ask a question such as: "What would need to happen for a discussion to be so amazing that you might even talk about ut with friends later?" This might even be carried out through a "think-pair-share" activity.
  • Ask students to generate metaphors for healthy and unhealthy discussions: "A good discussion is like ______."

Next, discuss together how all participants could behave in order to co-create invigorating and productive discussions. This investment up front will typically foster a healthy sense of co-creation and self-regulation that is then grounded in public agreements, not in compliance to authority. Similar questions can be posed at any time during the semester to improve the classroom.

Responding to Incivility: 5 Techniques

Suppose not only controversy but incivility does arise in the classroom. In these cases, the instructor's responses must be situational, not rigid or prescribed. They will depend on the issues, the individuals in the room, the desired outcomes, and the immediate social context. The instructor also needs to be aware of communication patterns, as they develop, that could become later counter-productive. 

It's crucial to remember that the role of the instructor will often be to ask questions and not simply assert corrective statements. This is a better way to foster long-term growth in students' communication habits and skills.

Here are some likely communicative moves that instructors (and students!) can adopt:

1. Help students identify abilities they can bring into play.
When assessing and responding to student behavior, it can be helpful to teach students to apply abilities that they already use elsewhere. A teacher might ask whether or not they could behave differently in a different situation. If so, that can be used to coach the student in this situation. For example, an athlete who can show restraint/discipline of emotions in a game to avoid penalty may learn to call on that ability during a heated debate, too. Guiding questions for the student could include:

  • "What is an ability you have that could be helpful here?"
  • "If you use(d) that ability here, how might things go differently?”

Such discussions may take place in the group or in private. The goal is to help empower the student rather than simply regulate immediate behavior.

2. Reframe "reactive" behaviors within a "choice" framework.
Unless we are careful, we tend to focus on reactions and motives rather than on choices and goals. Make sure that students use the language of choice. When a student says, "That made me angry!" you might respond with "What was said or done that you felt required you to show your anger?" [or whatever emotion they have said they were "made" to display?].

In class or in a private office visit, an instructor can help the student focus on the future, and how different choices help create a different future. Ask something like, "If you could have responded differently, what might that response have looked like, and what kind of outcomes might that response have brought about?"

Even the class itself becomes a moment of future-based choice: "How can this class work for you, and how can you help make the class work better for everyone?" "What will the class be like (or your status in the class be like) in twAo weeks if this continues?" Such questions help students focus more on the future and on relationships, rather than on the immediacy of emotions and issues.

3. Break counter-productive patterns by reframing emotions in a positive way.
Make efforts to reframe marginal or negative behavior within a positive framework. The anger or intensity that may not be helpful to ongoing dialogue can be understood as a valuable expression of commitment to the issues. Once the response is reframed in that way, the instructor can then shift to the future, to goals: "What are some other ways to express your passion for this issue?"

Reframing is not lying; it recognizes that communication is complex. It is a way of noticing a typically unnoticed feature and focusing on it. When you see the conversation entering a negative pattern, intervening to reframe the most recent comment in a positive way breaks the pattern, because once reframed, the anticipated next response no longer makes sense.

For example, Pat says to Lee, "You are just being dense."

Lee responds, "No! You are just being stubborn!"

You expect that Pat will next respond with something more negative so before this happens, you say to Pat, "You surely feel very strongly about this. It is good for us to know how important this topic is to you both. How did you come to be so committed to your ideas?"

Be careful not to discredit important positive relationships. If a student's father has said, "Stand up for who you are," the reframing must not discredit the father, but rather, include the father's comment in a positive way.

4. Identify a thwarted hope.
Additionally, when an instructor witnesses the expression of a negative emotion, this can be an opportunity to explore a thwarted hope. For example, is the student protecting the hope that she or he will continue to have a place of dignity among peers? Depending on the issues, it may be useful to explore this in a group setting or privately in your office—especially if the thwarted hope is likely a shared concern. Again, situational assessment is key.

5. Explore discontinuity with a view to the future.
This is a move that is often helpful in addressing more challenging patterns of behavior. Like all of us, students often realize that what they say is likely to get just the response they do not want. "I called her an idiot because..." often results in a negative response, rather than the desired response. In such cases we want to raise questions that help the student see the discontinuity:

  • "What would have been the best response you could hear?"
  • "Does that desired outcome likely follow from the choice of action you made?"

The episode can be further explored with follow up questions such as:

  • "What could you have done that would have more likely created that desired outcome?"
  • "What are the larger educational goals of discussing controversial issues?"

Remember, This is About Helping the Student - Not Just the Instructor

We engage students in discussion because we want some sense of content mastery and personal connection. We also want personal growth. Will such growth happen if the instructor is the primary regulator of the communication, emotions, choices, etc. within those class discussions? Likely not, because such an approach reinforces to the student that they need outside regulation.

Reflecting on your own courses and approach:

  • Will the student find his or her own “voice” through your classroom process and experience?
  • Will they begin to get some clarity on which ideas have come from their community, their family, their friendships, their peers, your classroom discussions, and which are truly ones they have made the choice to adopt as their own positions and perspectives?

This outcome requires a more genuine and risky engagement with ideas, but with co-created public agreements that provide the class with shared guidelines and a shared vocabulary, the risks in discussing controversial issues openly can be managed in ways that foster student growth and development.

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