Our education system has to take some responsibility for the quality of the current political discourse in South Africa, in which there is a lack of willingness to engage the disagreement of others in a productive dialogue. Instead of collaborating to solve development challenges that are critical to the health of our citizens, the education of our children and the growth of our economy, the current political discourse is a sustained antagonism aimed, not at producing the best explanations and solutions possible, but at protecting points of view, identities and positions of power.

Sacred Heart College learners play a game that highlights some of the dynamics of dialogue. Learners are given a controversial and emotionally-loaded topic, but they are not allowed to speak without signalling the ‘voice’ they are speaking in, by holding up a coloured card representing that ‘voice’. They can choose from the voice of emotion, the voice of popular opinion, the voice of creative innovation, the voice of logic and reason, or the voice of humour. If other learners disagree with their choice they can wave the coloured card representing the voice they perceive the speaker to be using. Using this feedback, The speaker can then reflect on the source of their thinking.

Mutually beneficial dialogue

Successful 21st century schools are the ones that see themselves as communities that ‘grow’ or ‘build’ knowledge together. This is different from the past in which schools were the holders of knowledge and could give learners access to knowledge. Our knowledge of reality is changing faster than we can integrate it into curricula. Textbooks are out of date before they are printed. Our learners in any case have unprecedented access to information through digital connectivity, and often in more sensational forms than we present in a classroom. We are no longer in control of the content! The teacher’s role is moving beyond being the holder of prescribed knowledge that needs to be memorised by learners, towards being the holder of a democratic space in which knowledge can be co-created together with learners. This requires a focus on the process rather than the product, on skills rather than content, on how we can learn rather than what we should learn. It requires a mutually beneficial dialogue.

Mutually beneficial dialogue is about working things out together, ensuring the participation of multiple points of view over large time frames. Instead of a battle between contrary, mutually exclusive propositions, mutually beneficial dialogue keeps the conversation focused on common goals that are shared by all. Instead of seeing the other participants as opponents or competitors, they are seen as fellow seekers. This is about learning how to have a conversation in order to understand rather than how to have an argument in order to win. The skills of productive dialogue are vital for non-violent conflict resolution, participation in democratic process and the production of knowledge.

Collective Intelligence

If we are going to enable learners to thrive in an uncertain future we know that we need to equip them with skills that enable them to become producers of knowledge, not just consumers of existing knowledge or uncritical replicators of inherited knowledge.

One of the major obstacles we face when trying to achieve this is our focus on the individual. We affirm the misconception that exceptional ability is individual rather than the product of dynamic collaboration between diverse individuals in dialogue. We tend to teach and assess for individual success and we rank learners against each other according to narrow criteria, reinforcing competition rather than collaboration. We place much less value on collective intelligence. Why do we do this when we already know that the source of most of the innovation that is so valued in the knowledge economy is collaboration? Increasingly organisations are employing people not just because of their individual skill but also because of their ability to participate in the collaborative processes within a particular organisational culture. It could be said that in addition to grappling with the systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia in our schools, we need to recognise that our education system suffers from systemic individualism that devalues productive dialogue and collective intelligence. While the individual learner may still be the unit of analysis, what we should be prioritising in our analysis is that individual’s ability to participate in productive dialogue.

While the skills set of dialogue does include asserting your point of view with confidence, it also includes: giving reasons for what you believe; agreeing with others on an description of the problem you are trying to solve together and on the definition of the words you are using to solve it; building onto each other’s ideas with the purpose of improving a collective understanding of a specific phenomenon; giving and receiving feedback honestly; being vulnerable to points of view different from your own; agreeing on a criteria for mutually beneficial disagreement; grappling with evidence; designing experiments; creating and testing powerful explanations; innovating solutions; and reflecting critically on the process of knowledge production itself.

The moment you embrace the skills of dialogue as one of the key objectives of your education strategy – everything shifts and a teacher’s class (or the entire school) becomes a community of fellow seekers. Matthew Lipman, who started Philosophy for Children, explains the idea of a community of inquiry as:

… a reflective approach to classroom discussion built up over time with a single group of learners. The ‘community’ embodies co-operation, care, respect and safety; and the ‘inquiry’ reaches for understanding, meaning, truth and values supported by reasons. As a community of inquiry develops over time, the children’s questions get deeper and more thoughtful. Their discussions are disciplined and focused, yet, at the same time imaginative. They care about what others say but don’t accept easy answers. A community of inquiry combines critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinking.

Being a community that grows and builds knowledge together is about co-creating the rules of dialogue (and feedback), and holding each other accountable to following them.

Is rational consensus possible?

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas promoted the idea of “the possibility of consensus” (The Theory of Communicative Action Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, 1981) and argued that it is “the unforced force of the better argument” that distinguishes democracy from tyranny. This approach relies on rational rules for dialogue. He appreciated that this imagines an “ideal speech situation” in which includes everyone who is affected by the decisions, everyone is committed to coming to agreement, and everyone is willing to accept the decision that has been reached through the rational process. The voice of authority is not outside the debate, but lies in the nature of productive debate itself.

You become more willing to grapple in the process of dialogue when you believe that a rational consensus is possible. You can believe this if you have had a personal experience of the efficacy of rational thinking. It is a teacher’s job to provide this formative experience. Just as the pleasure of reading has to be modelled, tasted, explored, practised and mastered, so the joy of discovering knowledge creation through critical thinking skills can be modelled, tasted, explored, practiced and mastered.

Let’s assume that we are at the very least trying to solve the same problem, and share solidarity of purpose. Then it should be in everyone’s interests to come up with the best solution possible. This is not about winning a debate, or the victory of one position over another, or protecting an identity, or shaming someone for being politically incorrect, or claiming the status of victim. It is about having a conversation in order to understand, because understanding what is going on is more valued, by all involved, than being right. Our approach to critical thinking in schools needs to move beyond debate (as useful as that is) in which there are winners and losers, to explore what it takes to keep conversation going so that all participate in the process of reaching the best explanations and solutions possible

Working with teachers and learners facilitating critical thinking skills training in schools, we have discovered that there is a common misconception that people have a right to have their opinions respected. Learners are horrified to discover that while our Constitution gives them the right to express their opinions, no one is obliged to respect those opinions, even if they are religious or patriotic or based on personal trauma. In the process of democratic dialogue, other people have the right to publically criticise those opinions. In turn, people have the right to express how offended they are by that criticism, but they do not have the right to limit the freedom of others to disagree with them.

This doesn’t create a totally ‘safe’ classroom. Some learners will be discomforted, challenged and even offended. And that’s OK. The classroom needs to be totally safe, but ‘safe enough’ for learners to feel free to participate, and be heard with respect, even if others disagree with the ideas they have expressed. Learning how to judge ideas without judging the people who express them is an important critical thinking skill. Learners must be able to engage the disagreement of others fully, giving those disagreements their energy, time and attention. It is this commitment, and perhaps this commitment alone, that can ensure respect. This is what makes dialogue robust. It also nurtures perseverance and resilience. This is not about head-banging antagonism, but about believing that it is possible to work together to reach rational consensus, about sharing solidarity of purpose, and about agreeing to the criteria for mutually beneficial disagreement.

Criteria for mutually beneficial disagreement

What are some of the criteria for disagreement that could be taught in school?

  • Clearly communicate the reasons behind what you think you know.

  • Define your terms (because words do not have absolute and unambiguous meanings) and use them consistently.

  • Distinguish clearly between the literal and figurative uses of words.

  • Challenge all generalisations, categories, assumptions and stereotypes in a way that gives us a deeper understanding about the differences and similarities between things.

  • Try to find the historical sources of your ideas, and the chain of ideas that contributed to what you are thinking (through research practices and accurate referencing).

  • Use logical deduction to analyse the internal structure of claims, explanations and arguments – and identify the common errors of reasoning.

  • Criticise the ideas – not the people who expressed them.

  • Avoid jumping to conclusions before you have considered all the available evidence.

  • Understand that an anecdote could offer a clue but is not the same as statistically significant evidence of a pattern or a category.

  • Avoid simplifications that obscure the complexity of what is really going on.

  • Create explanations and models of reality that make predictions, and that can be tested by comparing those predictions with what actually happens next.

  • Construct arguments and design effective experiments to disprove your own hypotheses.

  • Embrace a healthy scepticism that not only helps you question everything, but also helps you to stay open-minded by treating all ideas, especially your own, as potentially flawed.

  • Recognise and make space for a subjective experience that is different from yours.

  • Engage the disagreement of others fully, giving them your attention, energy and time.


MindBurst facilitators start a round of impromptu hip hop performances to explore dialogue. Using a ‘fishbowl’ technique small groups of Sacred Heart College learners learners then engaged topics through their own impromptu performances of hip hop, while other learners observed. After each group completed their performance the observers tried to highlight the dynamics they observed. Discussions focused on the importance of listening, connecting with what the others performers were saying, the use of language, the generation of useful insights, and the role of power in determining inclusion and exclusion.

Grappling with power

If the goals of the participants are perceived as irreconcilable and fundamentally antagonistic, each trying to obliterate the goals of the other, then disagreement obviously cannot be experienced as mutually beneficial. In this case people either walk away or try to manipulate their opponents by bribing, shaming or threatening violence. If a person’s primary objective is to stay in power, their capacity for being vulnerable to criticism, for risking experiment and for actively exploring the growing edges of their knowledge is immediately reduced. An open dialogue is by definition one in which every participant admits that there is a chance they could be wrong and would then need to change their mind.

When issues of power are at the heart of a disagreement we need to be willing to interrogate the legitimacy of that power and discuss who needs to give up what for the dialogue to proceed productively, because productive dialogue is ultimately about sharing power. When issues of power obstacle dialogue we need to stop whatever else we think we are doing and listen, because conclusions that are reached by excluding or ignoring the voices of some of the stakeholders are not rational, sustainable or just. We need to listen (and watch) in a way that makes the process of the dialogue itself more self-reflexive, self-problematizing and open to change. We need to recognise that whatever rational rules we may have agreed to, power dynamics can exclude or distort particular voices and points of view. Our dialogues need to be inclusive and value diverse dispositions, abilities, languages, knowledge systems, interests, and identities – without suspending any rational criteria for assessing claims, explanations, arguments and solutions. No one should be excluded on the basis of some irrational assumption or prejudice. In addition, those who recognise that they were wrong and need to change their minds need to be able to do so with dignity. Our rational rules for dialogue and disagreement need to be complemented by ‘diversity literacy’ that enables us to ‘read’ the power relations between participants. This is itself a critical thinking skill that is necessary for recognising the variables that facilitate or limit the individual’s free and informed participation.

This doesn’t change any of the criteria for disagreement. Agreeing to criteria for disagreement is not intended to exclude anyone, but to create a common ground for evaluating claims, explanations and arguments – and expose fallacious arguments made by the privileged to maintain their positions of power.

Dialogues with the living and the dead

These dialogues are not just with the living, but also with the dead. Learners need to be able to place themselves and their ideas in time, along multiple intellectual journeys of human knowledge production. The things we value, believe and practice were created by someone or some community in the past – through their questions, experiments, accidents, debates, discoveries and inventions. The nature of their journey is the how of learning. In our schools we too often privilege what we have received from our ancestors rather than how they created it. It is by understanding the how that we can enter into dialogue with the dead, questioning and challenging what they have left us, building onto it by growing their legacy, or adapting it to deal with the new challenges we face, and even abandoning it if necessary.

Slow it down

For dialogue to be engaged we have to slow education down. The curriculum is too packed with content pressurising teachers and learners to complete things quickly. Learners need time to practice dialogue, especially about issues that are important to them. Their experience of dialogue with others models dialogue with their own inner voices, enabling reflection and critical self-awareness. The skills of productive dialogue also enable learners to negotiate their place in a social system, in a transaction, or in a relationship. It is through dialogue that they can participate in the creation of the social contracts that allow them to live, learn, work and play together, as our constitution puts it, with dignity, equality and freedom.

We could say that disagreement is more likely to be mutually beneficial (in an ideal speech situation) if the participants:

  • believe that a rational consensus is possible;
  • share a solidarity of purpose;
  • agree on the criteria for disagreement;
  • are aware of the relationships of power and the positions of privilege that distort the dialogue, regardless of the formal rules.