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Penn State-Abington Students Learn the Power of Dialogue

This article from Penn State Live, at http://live.psu.edu/story/34749/nw7, describes Steve Pyser‘s work at Penn State-Abington. Steve is an active NCDD member; he coordinated (with Janet Fiero) and moderated the Reflective Panel at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin.

Abington students learn the power of dialogue

Monday, September 22, 2008

Lecturer Steve Pyser enlightened many students to the power of dialogue this summer during his Political Science 001 course: “Introduction to American National Government.” Not only did he teach the students about the founding principles and documents of our democratic government, but he also taught them the fundamentals and importance of the dialogue approach of communication in our politically polarized country.

The dialogue approach, in brief, requires participants to suspend their assumptions and judgment and to begin to listen to others. This is different from “debate” where the goal is to voice one’s opinion, period. Pyser taught the students how to work through the process of dialoguing: how to communicate their viewpoints, frame the issues, and finally, to be confident in their beliefs. Students said they felt respected and that their viewpoints were honored.

The students reveled in the freedom and flow of ideas and opinions. All shared their political thoughts and opinions in conversations facilitated by Pyser. Many had never experienced this before; to share who they are, to be able to explain it and not have their ideas dismissed. One student noted that it was the first time that he felt it wasn’t necessary to conform his comments to the beliefs of the faculty member, that he could actually speak from his heart.

Pyser made sure he didn’t reveal his viewpoints throughout the class and prided himself in knowing that no one knew his politics by the end of the course. “My job is to be a facilitator of conversation,” said Pyser, “not to talk about my political viewpoints.”

During the last week of class, as the capstone achievement of the course, the students participated in an actual dialogue titled, “Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role.” Pyser has moderated many public dialogues including: redeveloping Ground Zero after 9/11, determining the future of the San Diego Airport, and citizen voices on the future of Philadelphia and its waterfront development. Pyser has submitted a report on the students’ dialogue to the National Issues Forums (NIF), a nonpartisan, nationwide network of locally sponsored public forums for the consideration of public policy issues. The results of the dialogue should appear on the NIF Web site later this year.

The benefits of the class were enormous. Since many students didn’t know each other before the class, new ideas and insights were had by all. “The class was all about possibilities…the ‘what if’ factor,” Pyser said. “The full value of dialoguing is a community commitment … respect for others’ opinions, an appreciation for difference, and to be responsible for what you say and how you say it. They came away with a lifelong learning experience.”

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