Fostering Civil Discourse in a Time of Polarity

“How many of you are voting in the upcoming election for the first time?” This was the first question I asked a group of seniors at Castilleja School (CA) in early February 2020. Nearly all the students’ hands went up.
“Great! What an exciting milestone to celebrate!” I responded. “Now, as future voters, how many of you understand the job description of the president? What do you understand about what you will be voting for?” Not as many hands went up. And that’s been the inspiration for a nonpartisan, issue-agnostic workshop created for the classroom.
Castilleja is among dozens of schools and hundreds of students to use Vote by Design, created in 2019 at the Stanford It asks students to objectively consider what qualifications, attributes, or experiences will help a candidate be most qualified to do the job. Is it important that the president have military, legislative, or executive experience? Would it be useful for the president to have community organizing experience or a strong academic background? Is it important that a president is bold, pragmatic, or empathic? By answering these questions, students are given the opportunity to design their presidential choice.

Voting as a Designed Process

Vote by Design’s inquiry-driven, collaborative approach intrigued Bo Adams, chief learning officer at The Mount Vernon School (GA), which was one of the first NAIS schools to run a session in one of its classrooms. Vote by Design aligned with the school’s philosophy of “inquiry, innovation, and impact.” Adams says: “We have a desire to look at how things are designed, and how they can be designed better. The vote is one of the most important design processes that we have, especially in a democracy.”
In spring 2020, when the school shifted to remote learning, Adams enlisted humanities teacher Ben Potter to bring a digital version of Vote by Design into his “History of Now” classes. “As a humanities teacher, I've always been in search of the immediate applicability of disciplinary knowledge,” Potter says. “A lot of my teaching career has been asking how to make this stuff useful to students.”

Voting as a Deliberate Process

After students deconstruct the qualifications of their perfect candidate, they engage in a productive and collaborative conversation centered on the values and criteria they have selected. This opens opportunities to cultivate an empathetic understanding of each other’s worldviews, which offers a dramatically different approach than trying to convince their peers that one candidate or party is better than another.
In a Vote by Design workshop session, students also listen to past debate clips of both Democrat and Republican primaries to practice careful listening for how the candidates communicate their leadership qualities and past experiences to the voting public. With a deeper understanding of the president’s job and their own opinions, students become informed and active listeners, allowing them to stay ahead of the practiced sound bites. Students start to become more aware of their internal biases, realizing that they may have prejudged a candidate based on their party or name alone.  One student said, “It helped me identify the values that I care about, and how to spot them in a candidate.“
Another said, “I was surprised when I responded so positively to a charismatic candidate, but I didn’t put charisma on my sheet.”
Potter reflects on the importance of teaching specific skills to those preparing to vote. “I think we send mixed messages when it comes to introducing young people to voting and politics. I think it’s odd that we tell young people that they’re too young to have a say for the first 17 years of their lives and then when they turn 18, we flip a switch and we say ‘OK, you’re the future, go vote.’ I think this experience gave the students an immediately accessible way to give them the practice they need to instill and encourage productive engagement.”

Bridging the Future with the Present

Students work in small groups to answer questions like, “As a result of this president’s time in office, I hope the country is ________.” Students reframe the orientation of their vote away from a past analysis of candidates and into a discussion of their desired future for the country. This helps them recognize that their vote is an investment, rather than an episodic box-checking exercise of the moment.
Vote by Design immerses students in future scenarios that might unfold, such as a natural disaster of simultaneous hurricanes and wildfires, a water infrastructure crisis, or election hacking. Students are asked to respond to the scenarios as if they are the president, making a two-minute news briefing that reflects the leadership qualities they prioritized. This experience helps them understand how important communication is for leaders and allows them to think more deeply about the candidates they are considering.     
Carlton Cunningham, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. government at San Diego Jewish Academy (CA), hosted a Vote by Design workshop session in February 2020. “When the students had to think about different scenarios potentially affecting our future, they were not only able to think on their feet and come up with some of the institutional mechanisms that we’ve talked about in class, but they were also able to embody qualities of empathy and leadership that this workshop really focuses on,” he shared.
Margaret Lane, department head of history and social science at the Castilleja, brought Vote by Design into her 10th grade American Political Systems class to help bring lessons from the U.S. government to life. “As educators, we strive not to teach students what to think but how to think and, most important, to think for themselves. In a climate of political polarization, Vote by Design provides teachers with the tools to facilitate a genuine critical thinking process that allows students to express and critically analyze their own beliefs, practice consensus building, and gain confidence in their own voices.”

Igniting Voter Agency

Young voters often get labeled as apathetic because of their recent low turnout numbers. Our experience of running Vote by Design is that they are ready to engage, especially if they are equipped to vote as independent thinkers and decision makers.

Upon completing Vote by Design, one student said, “I used to think our political system had gotten hopeless. And now I think there are many possible ways to return to compassion and integrity.”
Another said, “I used to think that I had no idea about who our president should be and why it matters. And now I think a president should represent all of the people to present a unified front in order for people to trust them with a country.”

Our hope is that Vote by Design doesn’t just help students learn how to engage this November but also ignites a lifetime of active and informed engagement.
If you’d like to learn more about Vote by Design and how you can bring this free, nonpartisan digital curriculum to your school, visit the Vote by Design website or send an email to [email protected]
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Lisa Kay Solomon

Lisa Kay Solomon is an author, educator, and designer in residence at the Stanford She is also the founding chair of Transformational Practices at Singularity University and the co-author of Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change and Design A Better Business.