Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 3

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A Dialogic Process for Exploring Societal Issues


Denise McDonald, University of Houston – Clear Lake


Denise McDonald, Ed.D., is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Teacher Education



Issues for discussions in higher education often present polarizing positions from learners, especially regarding topics that require sharing of individual ideologies, values, belief systems and perspectives.  Jurisprudential Inquiry, a dialogic process which utilizes critical thinking, inherently promotes a trusting climate for authentic student discussions.  This instructional process can prove helpful to elementary through college-level educators for implementation within their own pedagogy as it stimulates genuine dialogue amongst learners.



Educators experience significant challenge in facilitating critical discussion of problematic social and schooling issues.  This paper describes Jurisprudential Inquiry as a teaching model that addresses this challenge.  To anchor explanation of this model, related literature on teaching critical dialogic processes and a general overview of the model are presented.  Next, a brief explanation is provided for how the model has been adapted to broaden its use and generalize its application.  Then, a detailed description and explanation of the strategy applied in practice is presented.  Lastly, general guidelines for implementation of the instructional process are outlined, followed with concluding remarks.  Jurisprudential Inquiry provides a pedagogical platform for dialogic exchanges that honor individual voice, stimulate critical thinking of social issues, raise challenges to existing personal views, and unearth tacit assumptions about social norms that are difficult to generate and facilitate (Nash, LaSha Bradley, & Chickering, 2008).  This dialogical model potentially yields a rich forum for productive discussions where learning occurs; and therefore, warrants explication as an effective instructional strategy in generating genuine critical discourse (Kaufmann, 2010).    


Related Literature

There are many instructional advantages for using critical dialogue to optimize learning when exploring societal issues.  Mousakim (2007) claims critical dialogue promotes active and more meaningful student engagement.  Several researchers add that engagement and meaningfulness of discussion are heightened through relevance of critical issues or adversarial content connected through everyday lives (Byford & Russell, 2006; Hess, 2002; Misco & Patterson, 2007; Moustakim, 2007 Uline, Tschannen-Moran, & Perez, 2003).

Critical dialogic processes are purposeful and promote reciprocal and supportive exchanges among discussants, as well as, collective problem-solving strategies (Alexander, 2004; Little & Horn, 2007).  Additionally, through critical discourse, learners are more likely to utilize self-reflection, deeper thinking, metacognitive processes and therefore will contribute more substantive responses, beyond superficial congenial exchanges, than through a traditional lecture format (Byford & Russell, 2006; Hess, 2002; Moustakim, 2007; Nelson, Deuel, Slavit, & Kennedy, 2010; Swaffield, 2008). Through these types of discussions, learners are presented with counterexamples where they must utilize rational reasoning and suspend judgment during exchanges (Nelson et al., 2008; Wells, 1999).  Learners acquire position-taking skills during dialogue processes where a greater understanding of the “other” beyond a singular narrative is experienced (Kaufmann, 2010; Swaffield, 2008) Thereby, participants learn how to deal with conflict, listen to differing views, clarify their own views, justify opinions, take a stand and develop decision-making skills, sometimes resulting in emergence of a shared meaning of an issue (Byford & Russell, 2006; Nelson et al., 2008).  They acquire a deeper understanding of a specific issue (Nelson et al., 2008) and through exchanges can hone and improve communicative and interpersonal skills (Little & Horn, 2007; Moustakim, 2007; Nash et al., 2008; Nelson et al., 2010)


Although critical dialogic processes are substantive and valued by educators, specific challenges and limitations impact authentic implementation. Critical dialogue presents perceived instructional challenges such as, potential loss of control through student disruptions, behavior or conflict (Byford, Lennon, & Russell, 2009; Byford & Russell, 2006).  Additionally, some educators may be reluctant about presenting controversial issues as they perceive risks or liability which could negatively impact or be detrimental to careers (Byford, Lennon & Russell, 2009; Misco & Patterson, 2007) where school district policies may limit open debate of some issues (Byford & Russell, 2006; Hess, 2002; McDonald, 2007). The most heated topics generally yield the greatest gains during dialogic processes, but perceived consequences, reprisals, retaliations or legal restrictions from employers or the community may temper use of issues such as sexual orientation or religion (Misco & Patterson, 2007).  Teachers may also experience a lack of confidence or teaching effectiveness in presenting some topics or controlling for student reactions to emotional content (Byford & Russell, 2006; Misco & Patterson, 2007).  Lastly, some educators may experience difficulty in refraining from expressing their own opinions or maintaining neutrality when presenting complex or controversial issues in an unbiased manner (Cotton, 2006). 


Model of Teaching

Jurisprudential Inquiry is an instructional model which utilizes critical thinking, an inquiry process, and dialogic exchanges to examine existing social values, beliefs and norms (Oliver & Shaver, 1974; McDonald, 2007).  This instructional activity requires participants to adopt position-taking skills in order to understand others’ views and perspectives. Important to this process is selection of a controversial or polarizing societal issue on which to focus discussion and familiarize learners with the instructional model.  Selection of an appropriate issue is essential to ensuring that discussion is grounded in a social context where differing views or conflicting values of learners become central to dialogic interactions (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2008).  Generally, in the purest form of Jurisprudential Inquiry, an issue is presented through a current court case which portrays a complex societal issue with no clear resolution.  There are six phases of the instructional model through which participants progress (i.e., Phase one - orientation to the case; Phase two - identifying the issue; Phase three - taking a position or stance; Phase four - exploring stances through discussion; Phase five - refining or qualifying positions; and Phase six - testing assumptions). Jurisprudential Inquiry is not limited to use in social sciences or literature (Byford, Lennon, & Russell, 2009; Hess, 2002), but can be easily implemented across content areas such as science and geography (Beck & Czerniak, 2005; Cotton, 2006; Hay & Foley, 1998).


Modification of the Model

For facilitating class discussions comprised of teachers and/or school administrators (i.e., early childhood through community college-level educators, skilled across a range of specializations and content areas) in a graduate Model of Teaching class taught yearly from 2002-2011, I modified the jurisprudential inquiry process where only the first five phases were utilized.  Additionally, a court case was exchanged with a polemic, value-laden “schooling” issue; thereby, the issue provided substantive relevance to discussion with educators because it was contextualized within their pedagogy. Everyday teaching tasks require teachers to make myriad curricular decisions, even within highly-regimented, structured or prescribed school district curriculum guidelines and standards (Kincheloe, Slattery, & Steinberg, 2000); therefore, this modification was valid and appropriate to curriculum and instruction course discussions.   Posed as a hypothetical teaching scenario, educators were challenged to make a decision on the issue based on their teaching assignment or administrative role and the learners in their classroom/school, and then were prompted to share/discuss their rationales with peers.  Ideally, the scenario generates an imbalance, uncertainty or disequilibrium in participants’ thinking, where no easy answer can be attained or quickly applied. 


Implementation of the Model

In illustrating the process, I provide a description of Jurisprudential Inquiry through the “issue” of book selection as this is a common pedagogical decision teachers make on a regular basis.  In each book shared are embedded social issues commonly experienced in schools and relevant to educators (e.g., sexuality, religious freedom, appropriate social interactions, bullying, etc.).  The books discussed here are examples only, as others can be selected based upon course objectives and content focus.  The model is adaptable and generic, where replication of the process can be applied with any book which engenders emphatic views.  For me, the brevity and quick read of picture books serves as appropriate prompts for the activity.  I have often used The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit (Holzwarth, 1993). Although a seemingly innocuous picture book, it depicts a mole with feces on his head that goes around asking other animals who did this to him.  All animals claim and argue their innocence through graphic description and demonstration of the act.  Embedded within the story are issues of social propriety and decorum; conveniently, a common dilemma teachers and administrators tackle and must address on a regular basis.  Asked if they would read this book to students, some educators find the story humorous and share that they would read it to students, where others view it as offensive and would ban it from use in their practice.  But, the issue in this story serves as an introductory, non-threatening topic for dialogic exchanges where learners are acclimated to the process and group trust develops. The objective is not resolution or discovery of some pre-ordained conclusion, but rather practice in active listening and respectful exchanges of views. 


I usually chase and juxtapose the first book reading with The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale (Hunt, 1989) where three trees share wishes of what they aspire to be in the world.  Although it begins as a conventional folktale picture book with traditional illustrations, it quickly becomes clear that the story is about Christ and how the trees become integral to biblical stories (e.g., one tree desires to be carved into a treasure chest and ultimately becomes the feed trough that holds the baby Jesus).  Fundamental to this story is the issue of religion and the expression of religious views in schools.  Educators commonly face religious issues in some fashion, so it is applicable to their pedagogical decision making.  This book is deliberately presented as a follow-up to the first story issue since it ratchets-up discussion through highly-personal opinions with respect to discussion of Christian and non-Christian views in a school setting.  A deeper internalization of the dialogic process is realized that prods participants to more keenly explore their own tacit, unexamined assumptions regarding sociocultural influences and acquire insight to the pluralistic nature of conflicting belief systems, where epistemological shifts from absolutist (static/fixed) to relativist (evolving/changing) views are nudged or realized.


For a more detailed description of implementation, I will discuss use of a third book And Tango Makes Three (Richardson & Parnell, 2005).  The book is based on a true story of two male penguins (Roy and Silo) in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who demonstrate a loving bond in multiple ways, including the building of a nest.  A zoo keeper notices their attachment and efforts to create a family, so he gives them an egg that needs tending.  The egg hatches, the zoo keeper names her Tango, and a special family is formed.  Although not directly stated, intrinsic to the story are issues of normative views of family, as well as, homosexuality.  After reading the story, I ask educators if they would read this book to their students and to explain why or why not considering their own teaching or administrative assignments and their population of learners.  Initial responses present passionate posturing and position jockeying from contrasting perspectives.  Value statements are formulated and normative claims highlighted.  Many teacher identity claims are strongly expressed with efferent emotional statements. Common responses in support of reading the book include (paraphrased): we have same-sex union families in our school, it is a loving story, it presents different perspectives of family, etc.

Frequent responses opposed to reading the book include (paraphrased): it is an inappropriate topic of discussion for young learners, elementary students cannot understand the concept, parents would complain, etc.  Discussants explore different views and opinions through questioning, often reasserting staunch self-proclamations with counterpoints or softening in their stances through active and attentive listening to others’ reasoning and rationales that presented insight to their previous ways of thinking.  As with other book selection issues, heated discussion ensues but a natural progression emerges where discussants demonstrate responsiveness and receptivity to peers’ views and beliefs.  They appear more actively open and flexible in acknowledging, recognizing and validating others’ dissimilar perspectives.  As Mezirow (2000) explains, this type of dialogic exchange is significant as it moves “from self-serving debate to emphatic listening and informed constructive discourse” (p. 12).  The capacity to envision alternative rationales cultivates self-differentiation from others within a space of the collective.


General Guidelines for Implementation

Establish Norms

Prior to discussion, establish norms and expectations for dialogic exchanges in the group (Joyce et al., 2008; Little & Horn, 2007; Nelson et al., 2007).  You cannot control participants’ styles with others, but facilitator modeling of respectful dialogue is often mimicked by the learners (McDonald, 2007). 

Relevancy and Complexity

Whatever the content area of the course or specialization discipline of the learners, present professionally significant or meaningful scenarios related to career decisions.  Those that are rich with complexity and controversy are intrinsically challenging, generate rigorous discussions and will yield opposing perspectives from which critical dialogue can emerge (Nelson et al., 2007; Uline et al., 2003).  Selection of a relevant, complex issue is central to the effectiveness of the Jurisprudential Inquiry process in eliciting potentially transformative discussion, shifts in thinking and individual awareness growth (McDonald, 2007). 

Well Posed Question with Probing and Clarifying Follow-Up Questions

After describing the issue, chase it with an open-ended, simple question (e.g., “Would you use this book with your students? Explain your reasoning.”).  Open-ended questions help problematize the issue since individuals quite naturally project their own values, beliefs, opinions, and perspectives on the situation.  Additionally, open-endedness of the question serves as a catalyst for sharing and presents “a platform to freely express opinions and claim aspects of their identity as teachers/educators” with their peers (McDonald, 2007, p. 35). 

With no “right” or “wrong” expectation of responses, participants are more likely to flesh out multiple alternative solutions where deeper comprehension is achieved.  Probing, follow-up questions help learners clarify their views; thereby, promoting more depth and substantive content to the dialogue (Nelson et al., 2010).

            Non-Evaluative Stance

Challenge learners thinking and reasoning in an objective fashion where they are prodded to clarify responses through relevancy, specificity to context, applicability to issue and generality of their perspective (McDonald, 2007; Nelson et al., 2010).  This facilitative process often involves intent listening, as well as, finessing and tempering forceful questioning with acknowledgements or objective affirmations. 


Many topics give rise to polarizing stances from peers; especially, regarding quandaries with no apparent feasible solution. Learners sometimes need scaffolding in formulating and arguing positions which are self-perceived as uncomfortable to share or confrontational by normative standards. Facilitators of discussion must ease discussants into dialogic dicey or taboo topics.  Discussants that feel threatened with perceived uncomfortable issues or are frustrated with the ambiguity that a definitive answer is not the goal of discussion will reject participation; sometimes in a dire circumstance, sabotage the process.  A fine line exists between challenging and engaging learners with tough questions and shutting down participation due to perceptions of an intimidating topic that disrupts normative thinking patterns (McDonald, 2007). Interestingly, although sharing of intimately personal views can create feelings of vulnerability for some, in a trusting learning environment this often diminishes the distance between others, builds connections, as well as, critical consciousness (Kaufmann, 2010) and allows more openness and immediacy between group discussants (Swaffield, 2008). The goal of engaging educators in the jurisprudential dialogic process is that they will internalize their learning, experience pedagogical empowerment, and act upon their heightened awareness by carrying it forward into their own classroom instruction (Bullough & Gitlin, 1991). 



Facilitating critical dialogue is essential within exemplary pedagogy, but taxes even the most skilled educators. As described in this paper, the jurisprudential inquiry process presents a dialogic strategy for teacher educators to effectively facilitate critical thinking skills, support constructive dialogic exchanges, and stimulate shifts in individual perspectives.  Through this model, authentic dialogic exchanges occur by providing learners an opportunity to share individual beliefs, listen to peers’ views, and critically explore their own and others’ perspectives and values within a trusting learning environment.  Engaged discussions of polemic issues help participants become more acutely aware of their own ideological views and how individual beliefs influence interactions with others; as well as, how personal values impact instructional and curricular decisions.  Ideally through the dialogic process and discourse interactions, participants gain personal insight, are able to validate others’ differing views, and develop finely hone dialogic skills for communicating with students, peers, parents and community members.



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