Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied.

Democracy and Higher Education

The connection between democracy and education, in the United States at least, has long been regarded as self-evident. Modern democracies can’t exist without a well-informed electorate, citizens who are able to separate truth from lies, humanists from hucksters. Maybe. But we also know full well that educated people are fully capable of electing hucksters and liars, and that advanced degrees don’t inoculate one from anti-democratic tendencies. (According to exit polls Trump won white men by a 63-31% margin over Clinton; among college-educated whites, he won by 61-39%.) Education can produce engineers whose applications are capable of transporting us across town in the shortest time in rush hour traffic; they can also design algorithms that, in the hands of party operatives, will shave unwanted voters from a toss-up district and pack them into a guaranteed-loss district thereby making a mockery of democratic promises of “one person one vote.”

Is education, then, irrelevant to democracy? Not at all, but, lest we give into outright cynicism, we must push harder to identify what are the crucial interactions between education and democracy that can make a difference in the direction of producing more democracy.

Tony Beltrand, L’Image, Paris, 1897.

We would do well to turn here to those who have written so persuasively about this association: John Dewey and Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Silvia Hurtado. Instead, I’ll round up a less likely suspect, Harry Truman – or, at least, the “Commission on Higher Education” that he appointed in 1947 to study the “principle goals” for higher education. Of the three that the Commission singled out, the first was that education should serve to bring about “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Now, there are endless ways to think about what exactly this means and how those of us in higher education can help bring about a “fuller realization of democracy.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, recently implored “the nation’s colleges [to] join in preparing students to become active and informed citizens,” by providing them with a curriculum in civic education. For Bok, whose thoughts on higher education I have long admired, the issue is both one of instilling students with a sense of responsibility and equipping them to perform their civic functions more effectively. (“If a democracy is to function well, citizens need to be willing to express their preferences by voting…[and to] be reasonably informed and cognizant of arguments for and against important policy questions.”) This, he continues, is best done by offering a modest core of courses in U.S. government, history, and politics, basic economics, political theory, and “Great Books.”

The American Association of Colleges & Universities’ 2012 “National Call to Action” (A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future), also urged institutions of higher learning to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.” But their call went further than Bok’s, and, to my mind, got closer to the crux of the matter.

In addition to designing curricular pathways through general education and through a student’s major or technical specialized field of study, how civic issues are taught and in what venues delineate yet another arena for enhancing civic literacy, inquiry, and collective action (p. 55, emphasis added).

To those who argue that the bus is about to hurtle off the cliff because we have failed to provide our students with a proper civics education, I would counter that you don’t learn to play the piano by reading a book about it; you don’t learn to practice democracy by taking a course on it.

George Du Maurier, Tribly, a Novel (NY: 1895)

This is not an argument against reading books on piano playing (start with Tim Page’s The Glen Gould Reader, Knopf 1984) or against taking courses that explore U.S. history or politics. I am arguing that if the link between education and democracy is to have a more consequential end than informing students how a bill gets to be a law or motivating citizens to vote (where they are as capable of electing scoundrels as saints), than what colleges need to provide is a pedagogy of democratic practice. For, in the end, it is the practice of democracy in our essential laboratories of learning, the classroom, that can best help us reroute the wayward bus.

Deliberative Pedagogy

The AAC&U’s Crucible Moment calls attention to three “civic pedagogies” that research has found to be particularly effective: (1) intergroup and deliberative dialogue, (2) service learning, and (3) collective civic problem solving. The “Article of the Week” has examined service learning (more appropriately termed community-based learning) previously. Oberlin has an outstanding set of community-based learning opportunities convened through the Bonner Center, and I would recommend anyone who is interested in serious, effective community-based learning and research to contact them.

Here, however, I want to focus on the AAC&U’s first point, addressing a specific approach known as “deliberative pedagogy.” My understanding of this pedagogy was informed by a recently published volume on the topic, Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), edited by Timothy J. Shaffer, Nicholas V. Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine S. Thomas.

Deliberative pedagogy – the editors begin – is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh trade-offs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice. Perhaps most important, the work of deliberative pedagogy is about space-making: creating and holding space for authentic and productive dialogue, conversations that can ultimately be not only educational but also transformative (xxi).

When reading about the approach, I identified what I think are its three central theoretical and practical roots. The first derives from the tradition of deliberative theory, an approach that discards both adversarial and expert models of decision making in the context of highly complex (“wicked”) problems. Both approaches are critiqued as being “overly focused on certainty, and both clearly avoid the necessary engagement with values and value dilemmas.”  Instead, deliberative theory supports arriving at decisions through a social process of deliberation characterized by reason giving in which careful consideration of all options and their trade-offs is undertaken in a context in which all are given an equal opportunity to speak and be heard in an environment defined by the mutual respect given all participants.

Adon, “Lays of Modern Oxford” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874).

The next two origins of the process speak quite specifically to its utility within a higher education setting. Deliberative pedagogy involves engaging students as partners in the process of learning and teaching, creating a context in which authority in the classroom is shared and in which both teachers and learners come to a deeper understanding of ways to “make our practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous” [See Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2014)]. These are the principles that underpin our Faculty-Student Partnership program.  Finally, the concept of deliberative pedagogy is closely aligned with theories of “high-impact educational practices” examined by George Kuh and others. These are educational approaches that have been shown to produce significant learning in students (e.g., first-year seminars, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc.) [see, for example, Five High-Impact Practices (AAC&U 2010)].

What ties these three elements together and generates the distinctively democratic quality of deliberative pedagogy is the importance given to group communication and social interactions. The process of addressing highly complex problems can engage students in the act of investigating, deliberating, and deciding, a process whose success depends on the students ability to communicate with one another across difference and in a context where decisions often require trade-offs between competing sets of goods. As such, it is an approach that is designed to address questions that raise competing values or benefits, and not one where available evidence only points in one direction. For example, the deliberative pedagogy methodology wouldn’t be useful when addressing the question: Is climate change happening? This is a question which has largely been answered, and deliberative pedagogy is not an invitation to introduce false equivalences or to pose adversarial approaches “for the sake of argument.” Rather, the approach is ideally situated to approach complex questions where positive values can be in play, for example: How should public policy address the challenges of a changing climate?

Michael Briand put it this way in Practical Politics (University of Illinois Press 1999, p. 42):

Because the things human beings consider good are various and qualitatively distinct; because conflicts between such good things have no absolute, predetermined solution; and because to know what is best requires considering the views of others, we need to engage each other in the sort of exchange that will enable us to form sound personal and public judgments. This process of coming to a public judgment and choosing – together, as a public – is the essence of democratic politics.

Methodology: A Brief Overview

There are three stages to deliberative pedagogy (stay with me, now: don’t let their names turn on your cynicism switch): divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. The best step-by-step introduction to the deliberative pedagogy is in Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass 2014), which is available as an E-book on OBIS or Ohio-link.)

From Sam Kaner, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, p. 13.

  1. Divergent thinking: The process begins by having students generate a wide variety of alternatives to the proposed question (or in the selection of the question to be examined in the first place) based on research, reading, interviews, surveys, and small-scale discussions. Students are cautioned to avoid “false certainties,” practices that lead us to avoid challenges to our way of thinking (selective thinking, confirmation bias, egotism) while questioning and disputing assumptions. Divergent thinking processes require that we become aware of competing sets of values, encourage dissent and question dominant perspectives. To engage this approach in a classroom means insuring that those who are still at a more tentative stage in their reasoning process are given the space to come forward and speak, and that the process not be directed at an early point of its deliberations by those who can command attention and express more certainty in their views.


  1. Working through the “groan zone”: So, now you’ve got a bunch of different propositions, approaches, suggestions, alternatives. How do you develop a meaningful way to pick through the “messiness of multiple competing positions” without either coming to a conclusion quickly or throwing up your hands in frustration, worrying that you’ll never come to any conclusion? The process requires much more than simply setting out positions and then voting to determine the most popular. Working through a set of ideas to come to a decision point requires considering “all the potential consequences to action, whether they are positive or negative, intended or unintended… [it] requires genuine interaction and discussion across perspectives,” which takes time and is, well, messy. The process is best undertaken by framing issues in a way that can foreground central tensions and trade-offs among perspectives, developing viewpoints clearly, and providing space and time for deliberation. Consider some of the major issues dividing U.S. society today: Should there be restrictions on gun sales? What should immigration reform look like? How should free speech issues be handled in educational settings? Imagine each of these debates as they have been carried out in the public sphere (in social media, pubic meetings, on television), and then think about how you would set them up for discussion in the classroom where your goal is understanding the competing perspectives and values involved rather than scoring points.


  1. Convergent thinking: This is where the conversation begins to move towards a decision point, and it involves “clarifying, consolidating, refining, innovating, prioritizing, judging, and choosing among opinions.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is really hard. Students (as well as instructors) can become “paralyzed by analysis.” When faced with too many choices and a desire to remain open to unexplored possibilities, the easiest action could be no action at all, no decision, stasis. Engaged in a process whose main methodology is an openness to competing values, students may be unwilling to accept that decisions emphasize the “ultimate inequality of ideas and potential actions.” But this is also where thinking about deliberative pedagogy in terms of democratic praxis can help. Democracy can be best understood as an ongoing conversation rather than, fundamentally, a way to make decisions, as John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty, 1929) argued. Engagement with civic education can encourage students to vote. Not a bad thing. Deliberative pedagogy and similar methods of democratizing the classroom can help students learn to practice democracy in their lives. Probably better in the long run.

Deliberative Pedagogy on Campus

Martín Carcasson raises some interesting perspectives about the functioning of deliberative pedagogy in liberal arts colleges in his chapter, “Deliberative Pedagogy as Critical Connective: Building Democratic Mind-Sets and Skill Sets for Addressing Wicked Problems” (pp. 3-20). Colleges, he offers, seem to be “doing a nice job of providing opportunities for divergent thinking.”  But he suggests that in many ways they aren’t, as they are often hobbled by two factors. In the first place, “dominant epistemological perspectives” usually favor the search for certainty through scientific methods. It’s not that scientific approaches don’t provide valuable input, but a recourse to “scientific certainty” can close down exploration of different value propositions before different approaches are raised. I would add that they can also sideline other epistemological approaches that retain cultural and historical value. Secondly, he suggests that what is a strength of the liberal arts approach – introducing students to a variety of disciplines, epistemologies, and ways of asking and answering questions – occurs in different classes and departments. The problem, he suggests, is that “divergent perspectives [are] often [only manifest] between classes rather than within them, leaving students disconnected and ill equipped” to understand how to evaluate competing approaches. Biologists may foreground empirical methodologies which don’t take account of the values and histories introduced by critical race theory; artists can define community in a way that frustrates economists.

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

The good news is that we are beginning to develop integrative approaches to address the challenge of epistemological divergence: cluster courses, first-year seminars, community-based learning, and other pedagogical innovations that help students assess divergent values while still understanding the importance of drawing conclusions and taking action. Investigating deliberative pedagogical approaches in our classrooms, thinking about “deliberation across the curriculum,” as some have suggested, and integrating on-going community practices such as those provided by the “Dialogue Center”, add important layers to addressing the challenge of divergence.

Deliberative pedagogical practices, like other educational approaches which emphasize the creation of democratic classroom environments in which students are invited to become co-creators of their own learning, can offer some paths out of the current impasse on college campuses. The potential of these practices rests not on the belief that what is needed is a return to a time when all propositions were rigorously examined in the classroom. We know quite well who was excluded from even entering those classroom, particularly at elite universities, let alone who could participate in the discussions that took place in them during in those so-called “golden” years. Rather, the potential of deliberative pedagogy lies in its ability to create a new democratic praxis in our classes that both responds to current challenges, including the rise of intolerance and bigotry at the national level, and takes advantage of new possibilities created by increased inclusion and a deeper belief in the importance of equity for the future of higher education.

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