Embracing the Discussion Lab

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

After GDS started its Open Spaces discussion series in the fall of 2017, Crissy Cáceres, the assistant head of school for equity and social impact at the time, told the Bit, “My dream, my hope, is that we as a high school become really well versed in the practice of having difficult conversations.”

Four years later, administrators have all but acknowledged what many students have long mumbled: that the ambitious aspirations for Open Spaces never completely materialized, hampered by, among other things, tepid participation and poor repute.

So administrators launched the Discussion Lab with a strikingly similar aim. Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Marlo Thomas and Barbara Eghan, the executive director of the school’s new Civic Lab, introduced the initiative in a recent assembly, which students viewed on Zoom from advisory rooms. (Eghan clarified via email that Open Spaces was conceived by a distinct group of administrators and for distinct reasons.) 

Some rebrandings are at best pointless or at worst confusing (take, for instance, the Civic Lab’s own renaming from the Center for Civic Engagement just as students were beginning to hear about it). But this fresh start to a beleaguered project serves a clear, earnest purpose—building more fruitful student-led conversations from the ground up—and it deserves students’ support.

Thomas, Eghan and the other organizers of the Discussion Lab have already done a number of things right. 

Rather than throwing students in the deep end with a thorny, sensitive topic, they began with “low-stakes” prompts to encourage empathetic listening.

Rather than sending seemingly random groups to arbitrary classrooms, they held the initial discussions in the more comfortable setting of advisories. 

Rather than handing certain students, called facilitators, the difficult, if not impossible, task of making those discussions work (and thereby effectively freeing students from responsibility for their own conversations’ success), they left groups of two or three students and teachers to simply talk.

And, crucially, rather than placing on participants’ shoulders the weight of, say, the community’s response to a racist incident, they framed the whole exercise as practice—a means of improving our ability to communicate well with others.

That’s a skill we need. As a high school, we are worse at having substantive conversations than we might want to think—and we do it less frequently than we might think, too. As central as robust student discourse feels to the GDS experience, in reality it comes relatively rarely outside of classes or like-minded friend groups.

We strive to stimulate and amplify an open exchange of diverse ideas among students in the pages of The Augur Bit. Our reported coverage seeks to inform community members about GDS so they can be engaged in their school; our Opinions section offers a platform for students’ stories, perspectives and positions. And anyone is invited to join that conversation by writing a letter to the editor.

The Discussion Lab seems to be another prime opportunity for students to learn to discuss tough but important issues. By all indications, administrators have created the initiative earnestly, so, students, let’s approach it the same way.

It is all too easy for GDS students to enter Open Spaces–like activities cynically, thinking we are too busy or else too sure of our beliefs to have to listen to others’ with genuine openness and curiosity. The Discussion Lab assembly’s bizarre half-Zoom format, coupled with many students’ forgivable inclination to cringe at administrators’ jargon-filled speech, could engender further skepticism.

In the context of a country struggling to achieve effective civic dialogue, however, we must try harder to listen to them—and, ultimately, each other. The next three Discussion Lab sessions are set, denoted as Open Spaces in the Hopper. There will be precious little time for the Discussion Lab’s fate to be decided, so let’s not waste it.

Past attempts at fostering conversation among students may not have earned our trust. But a rebranded and rethought Discussion Lab offers a new chance for that much-needed discourse, if we will only seize it in good faith.