How to Overcome Toxic Polarization in Schools with Peter ColemanCourageous Conversations About Our Schools
Welcome Dr. Peter Coleman, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and a renowned expert in constructive conflict resolution. He is also the author of the book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization. In this conversation, Coleman shares valuable insights about the sharp rise of polarization in America and the divisive culture wars that plague our schools and society.
After decades of political division, Coleman says Americans today are tired of the dysfunction and the toxic conflicts. “The good news,” he says, “is that most Americans – the exhausted majority – are fed up with the craziness…and are ready for something else.”
Coleman believes the culture wars in education are partly a function of America’s deepening polarization but also of deliberate, organized efforts by outsiders to promote conflict and fear and to oversimplify complex educational problems. In addition, people who have no power are frustrated because they spend most of their time listening to others in positions of authority. Those people “really need to be heard in order for their attitudes to shift.” One of the most useful things authority figures can do, Coleman says with a bit of a laugh, “is to shut up and listen.”
Coleman also urges school officials to focus on dialogue rather than debate. “[D]ebate is a game about winning and scoring points and ultimately walking away the winner…Dialogue is the opposite. Dialogue is a process of discovery, of learning, of listening, of hearing the other’s story.” What schools may need, he suggests, “are chief listening officers [whose] role is to respectfully listen and collect information from people and then feed it back to the decision making process.”
Despite the worrisome rise in polarization, Coleman is optimistic about the future. He believes coalitions are emerging to take back schools, workplaces and communities from the extreme voices and the outsiders promoting their political agendas.