Commentary | Why intergroup dialogue should be part of every K-12 school

Kindergartners during recess at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

Schools should be creating spaces for sustained, thoughtful intergroup dialog because school should be about learning about people, not just subjects.

Is our country seems increasingly polarized, a new study from University of California Berkeley suggests that just getting people from opposite sides to talk to one another is not enough to bridge the gulfs between us.

That’s because one-off conversations are not enough. What we need is sustained, intergroup dialogue that begins early in every child’s education.

Intergroup dialogue is a mediated face-to-face discussion involving members of two or more social identity groups that aims to build new levels of intergroup understanding, connection and action. It involves a four-stage process that starts with building community and ends with the group having tough conversations about the most polarizing issues in society.

Colleges, including UCLA and the University of Michigan, have been conducting intergroup dialogue courses for years. But this should not begin in college. Students should be having these conversations long before they begin to cross the threshold into adulthood. Schools have a duty to help people from diverse backgrounds understand each other. Most importantly, schools should be creating these spaces because school should be about learning about people, not just subjects.

In our work teaching, facilitating and participating in intergroup dialogues, we have seen students recognize bias and acknowledge how they contribute to it for the first time in their lives. And, contrary to what some may fear, conversations in intergroup dialogues do not seek to target one group of students or make them feel guilty or hate themselves. In fact, we have seen intergroup dialogues push students to challenge the conditions and systems that harm them all.

Schools can implement intergroup dialogues in several ways that do not require additional funding, including after-school programs, a series of all-student retreats like the ones conducted by schools in Orange County, or by offering them as elective courses. Intergroup dialogues can also be worked into courses like civics, sociology, or social studies; or even enhance the existing curriculum since they contribute to critical thinking skills. For example, for younger students, teachers could assign or read age-appropriate books about race, class and difference and have students talk through and ask questions about the characters or share their thoughts on the characters’ experiences. With a few alterations, teachers can adapt existing classroom activities to build intergroup understanding. For example, “show and tell,” which we all remember, can be replaced with “cultural chest,” an activity in which students share and discuss an object related to their culture instead of an everyday item.

Furthermore, this responsibility does not have to rest squarely on teachers, whom we know already do plenty of work. For all-student retreats, schools could bring in experts to host. Another option could be to pair the dialogues with colleges and have undergraduates trained to lead the dialogues, a model in use in other parts of the country. Older students (11th/12th-grade students) can be trained to facilitate intergroup dialogues with younger (9th/10th grade) students — in what is called a “near-peer” model — and potentially get course credit for their facilitation. Along with learning the concepts of intergroup dialogue through their training course, students also gain leadership, class management and teaching skills. With a little creativity, there is so much opportunity.

While we have many ideas for how schools can begin implementing intergroup dialogues, we know that it will not be easy. But we believe that it is worth it.

We are not naive enough to think that intergroup dialogue will end America’s racial issues or turn the most racist, sexist and fearful Americans immediately into proponents for equity and equality. But it can be a first step toward pushing people to begin having tough conversations about hate, similarity and difference early enough that we can try to prevent some of the worst things before they start.


Kiana Foxx is a third-year doctoral student in UCLA’s higher education and organizational change program, teaches anti-racism and bias-reduction workshops and has taught intergroup dialogue for over two years.

Ashton Pemberton is a fourth-year doctoral student in UCLA’s higher education and organizational change program and serves as an on-air contributor for racial justice topics.

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