Listening to Strangers: Classroom Discussion in Democratic Education

Nov. 10, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 11, (2010), p. 7-8.
The literature on classroom discussion often undercuts itself by treating discussion only as an instructional method, confining its role to the instrumental. Although discussion serves as an effective means to other curricular ends (teaching with discussion), the capable practice of discussion can also be considered a curriculum objective in its own right (teaching for discussion).
The latter is justified on the grounds that listening and speaking to what Danielle Allen called ”strangers” about powerful ideas and public problems is crucial to democratic citizen formation; indeed, it defines democracy, signaling a citizen’s coming of age while at the same time creating the public sphere that democracy requires a space where political argument and action flourish.

Purpose of Study

The author outlines a discursive approach to the cultivation of enlightened political engagement in schools. The author argues that schools are the best available sites for this project because they have the key assets: diverse schoolmates (more or less), problems (both academic and social), strangers (schoolmates who are not friends or family), and curriculum and instruction (schools are intentionally educative places). Ambitious classroom discussion models, for example, seminars and deliberations can mobilize these assets. However, new habits- especially those that build equity and trust- are needed.

Two empirical cases of classroom discussion ground the argument in classroom practice.
In one, high school students deliberate whether physician-assisted suicide should be legalized in their state.

In the other, suburban middle school students conduct a seminar on Howard Fast’s novel of the American revolution, April Morning.


The author concludes that schools in societies with democratic ideals are obligated to cultivate enlightened and engaged citizens. Helping young people form the habits of listening to strangers, at that very public place called school, should advance this work.

Allen, Danielle . Talking to Strangers: anxieties of citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. University of Chicago Press. 2004.

Fast, Howard. April Morning. Originally published 1961. Mass Market Paperback: Bantam, 1983

Updated: Nov. 23, 2010