Deliberation Not Debate

This summer a group of eager middle school students came to Morven Park ready to take part in our Kitchen Table program. This program transports participants back to the Progressive Era (c. 1900 – 1918) to become social activists tackling some of the most challenging issues from the period. In this case, they were focused on deliberating early 20th century labor rights and environmental conservation.

As we all sat down around the table ready to start, bowler hats on and primary resources examined, we reminded the group that this would be a deliberation, not a debate, of the issue. The room went quiet and their expressions became confused. They asked, “What is a deliberation?”

It’s a valid question, and one that we think gets lost all too often in the middle of our current political atmosphere of divided camps and one-sided conversations. There are no winners or losers in a deliberation. Instead, deliberations bring together individuals, often with a range of opinions, to address a public issue collaboratively. Facts and evidence are discussed, benefits and costs are examined, and at the end all participants come together to agree on one thing – a solution for moving forward.

These students, ranging in age from 11 to 14, nailed it. It wasn’t easy, but over the course of one hour they dissected the topics, articulated their ideas and concerns, and listened to each other. They key to their success occurred before they even began their conversation – they all agreed up front on a set of rules and goals that they had to follow. The rules were simple, like ‘no interrupting’, and the goal was always the same – while we might not all get what we want, the group must come to a decision that everyone can agree on.

We’ve run this program dozens of times at Morven Park’s Center for Civic Impact and each time the students come up with new ideas to address old but still pressing problems. And we’re thrilled because we’re not looking for a specific answer. Rather, we want to see exactly what happens every time – students learning how to productively talk to each other about tough issues.

These students set a high bar for the rest of us and it’s one that we should all try to meet. How much better would our political and public arenas be if we all chose to deliberate rather than debate every once in a while? The next time you find yourself in a charged conversation about tough issues, take a minute to reset the conversation – move it from a debate to a deliberation and see if you can find common ground like the middle schoolers have done time and again (maybe try wearing bowler hats too – it can’t hurt).

If you’d like to have your students participate in the Kitchen Table program either at Morven Park or in your classroom, please contact us!


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