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Dialog macht Schule: taking dialogue into schools

A highly innovative German school programme uses dialogue to move beyond the us versus them of our polarised societies. We find out how well this works. Interview.

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lead Founders and CEOs of Dialog macht Schule, Hassan Asfour and Siamak Ahmadi. Picture by tagesspiegel(TSP). All rights reserved.

Rosemary Bechler: Greetings! I’m sorry I missed you in the World Forum for Democracy 2016 last October in Strasbourg. Did you have a good time at this summit on education, inequality and democracy?

Siamak Ahmadi (SA): Very interesting – the only forum I had been involved in before was the NECE conference here in Europe, initiated by the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany – so going to Strasbourg and seeing how many interesting projects there are all over the world was really interesting.

RB: We are in the middle of Brexit: we are just trying to grapple with the impact and significance of Donald Trump's election, with more distrustful, bitterly fought elections in the pipeline. For the many democratic societies that are undergoing this kind of rapid polarisation of views and value systems, I suppose the first thing I wanted to do was to ask you to help me situate the importance of dialogue as such. How central is this to your work?

SA: Definitely and at many different levels.

RB: OK – so where to start? Maybe you could tell me something about the history behind Dialogue in School?

SA: Hassan Asfour and I used to work for the Federal Agency for Civic Education in a pilot project which had as its aim the creation of new formats of civic education for disadvantaged groups. We worked in schools mostly, schools which had a high percentage of young girls and boys who came from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is the case in Germany and I think many other countries as well, that many of them – in our case 90% – also had a migration background. So they were very diverse school cohorts and the aim was to reach out to those supposedly ‘hard to reach’ students. 

Hassan Asfour (HA): We worked in the seventh and eighth grade, with 13 – 15 years old, and experimented with how best to interest them in democracy and issues of political topicality. A pilot project has a beginning and an end, but it was a success because we realised that what was needed in such schools was in fact a longterm approach, not just a workshop approach. You need to go and become an integrated part of the school system as an external. So to scale up the pilot project, the idea was born to establish our own NGO, and call it ‘Dialog macht Schule – Dialogue at school’. You can read more about this in our book,  “Beyond us vs. them”.

The chaircircle - an essential element of the dialogsessions. Picture by Dialog macht Schule.SA: So now I can begin to answer you with regards to dialogue. We realised that this doesn’t work on a ‘deductive basis’, which means to say, in a school you have topics: ‘ Politics, biology, mathematics’, and within those topics there are targets that have to be reached, and aims that students have to adhere to.

But our approach was on a different, dialogical basis and our aim was to get in touch with the students to build a relationship with them. For us, dialogue is very much based on a relationship that enables you to find out what really interests them. We realised that you don’t find out what really interests students if you just ask them, “What would you like to work on?” If you ask them this, many don’t actually know. So instead, you have to start with their narratives – How do they like to spend their time? What movies do they watch? Gradually, you find out what is specifically of interest to this group, maybe a dominant topic. And then we deepen this topic: and we find a way to connect this everyday issue to a political issue.

For example, we had a group that were talking about the movie Twilight (2008), and they spoke about how they really fancied the actor, Pattinson, but didn’t like the movie. We asked the boys if they had a dream girl, and we worked on this topic until we could start talking about gender equality. Most of these students had a Muslim background, so we asked them how much of a problem it would be getting together with someone not from a Muslim background. There was a lot of discussion, but they decided that if he was as handsome as Pattinson, that would be OK! Then you can say, what if you had a child together, which religion would you raise the child in? The girls argued that since they bore the child, they should decide which religion it was raised in, while the boys said no, they were ‘the men’ and they should decide. So then, we explored how to get a consensus, and this ‘win-win’ skill is of course very much part of the dialogic approach. One girl said: “They should grow up with both religions and then they can decide.” Not everyone was happy with this result, but there were no better arguments in the room, and so this was an important result of their dialogue.

RB: And did this go on every week?

HA: Yes. This scaling-up involves us in training university students to become dialogue moderators. They divide a regular class into two ‘dialogue groups’ with a maximum of 13 – 15 students, and each group is supported or supervised by two dialogue facilitators. They work with the kids on a weekly basis for a period of two years.

In the beginning they have to build trust as I said before, try to establish the topics of interest to the students and try to deepen those topics until they become projects, maybe some oral history work, or they go and do street surveys, or an anti-racism campaign within the school, or they make their own short movies. We always want to motivate the students to do project work, since ‘regaining self-efficacy’ is one of our underlying aims.

RB: How do you cope with a range of languages?

HA: It is a huge challenge, particular after the refugee waves that we had in Germany last year. There are students who don’t really understand German, but we soon realised that when we have such a diverse group of students, there are always those students who just naturally become interpreters for the others.

Most of the students we work with have a migration background, but were born here. So they can speak German. Nevertheless, we still work on their language skills, and this is another level of dialogue that is important, not only on the formal level. If you make contact with the students, we can also transfer language competencies because dialogue is the essence and language is the tool we need to get at the topics and interests of the students. They ask for this help.

RB: But are there instances when languages other than German become a real resource?

HA: German is the main language in our dialogue groups. Other languages such as English have become more important, but it is not our main task to teach them that – that’s what their teachers do. What we also do in this regard is to make them understand that we live in an interdependent world. A lot of the kids from diverse disadvantaged backgrounds are quite nationalistic in their thinking, and to help them understand that nations are now very much mutually dependent is something else that we try to bring to the surface in these dialogue groups. It is necessary for all of us to understand the other person from another country as well.

RB: How are so many dialogue facilitators funded and managed? And how much leeway do you give them over these conversations?

HA:  First of all the funding. We are funded by the Ministry for the Family in Germany, by the Federal Agency for Civic Education which is a unique German institution, and we have a social franchise concept which means that each region in Germany which does Dialogue in School also develops a regional funding network. 

Finally, the good thing about having a longterm engagement with the school system means that we can gain a lot of understanding about the processes involved in reaching out to the ‘hard to reach’, such that this equips us to run workshops on these findings for all sorts of other kinds of pedagogical initiatives, on a commercial basis. So we have many funding pillars, including public, private, foundation funding and also by our own efforts in running specialist workshops.

RB: So it is a fantastic learning opportunity for you and more broadly for any society?

HA:  Most definitely. This is also true for our dialogue facilitators. After two years, they gain a lot of experience in a skill that they can also make available by doing workshops etc. This could become a new kind of informal professional skill, since we can see the demand for it is really increasing rapidly. Sometimes the demand is so high, we can’t cover it. So we don’t know what the future will bring, but it could be very interesting for university graduates with a 9 – 5 job who realise that they would like to do something to contribute. They could say, “Why not go once a week to share what I have learned and give my competencies more meaning?” In the non-formal area I think it has a lot of potential. How it could become a profession, I’m not so sure, because professionals also need economic security.

HA: We work with the teachers also to give them new dialogic skills. As part of their teacher training, they can come and work with Dialogue in School for six months. By sharing with them not exactly our ‘method’ but let’s say our way of doing things, we want to have a longterm impact on the educational system. So if you ask our dialogue facilitators if they see themselves as professional, they do not. But many of them are becoming teachers, and so they are able to take the experience with them into their chosen profession.

SA: Each year we train 100 dialogue facilitators, and we have expanded now into six German cities so that we reach out into more than 35 schools and two thousand students. We have a network at the moment of 170 active dialogue facilitators.

How do we train them? We train them first in an academy. We select university students from it doesn’t matter which academic subject. For us what is important is that we have a very diverse group, with regard to gender and cultural background. We look for a diversity of students facilitators that reflects the diversity of the schools in which they will work and the target group. Our academy trains them for six days in the first instance, and here they learn psychological approaches, our dialogical approaches, and the most recent methods in civic education and education in democracy.

Straight after that they go into the schools, but in this initial period they are supported by experienced dialogue facilitators – we call them ‘school coaches’. They observe their classes and give them feedback sessions to improve their work. One ‘school coach’ will support around ten dialogue groups, which means they support around fifteen dialogue facilitators. Four dialogue facilitators will sit together with one ‘school coach’ to get their feedback on a regular basis. After one year, the second, ‘deepening academy’ takes place over four days. This increases their skills in how to run projects, learn new methods, how to reflect on their work and the motivation of students, and so on. After the second year, they qualify as dialogue facilitators and receive a certificate from us. We are looking into being certified as an organisation, but meanwhile the bodies that fund us are labels of quality, and over the three years we have gained quite a good reputation in Germany and Dialog Macht Schule dialogue facilitators have acquired a name for themselves as well. We of course are eager to increase the value of that name by promoting the function as such.

Celebrating achievements together - opening Vernisage of the Mein Kiez-Exibit at Kreuzbergmuseum made by pupils of a dialogue group. Picture Christian Plähn. All rights reserved.RB: From the school coaches you must also get a lot of information about what is happening in these schools and how to make advances in this area.

HA:  Exactly. This is why we call ourselves a network. We are in six cities and whatever happens in the other cities, we try to gather this data, the report-backs, the topics, what interests the students, the best practise approaches, and we try to evaluate them in Berlin to improve our approach and make those improvements available for everyone in the network. Since 2009, also counting in our pilot, we have four generations of our dialogue programme to learn from.

RB: How unique is this scheme? Do you see yourselves as part of a more general advance of civic educational and democratic initiatives?

HA: Both I would say. We did quite a lot of research to see if anyone else worked on anything like our two-year programmes. But most similar initiatives were based on a few workshops. They might do project weeks and work online. But this two-year commitment on a weekly basis within the regular school schedule – this is pretty unique. Moreover, once the two-year cycle is over, another team is trained to take over in the same school. So it is a very continuous approach.

What is also important is that we work in small groups, so that there is very intensive work done on an inductive level – with the facilitators listening very hard for what interests the students. What we might call the psychotherapeutic aspects, trying to understand what really drives the students on their favourite topics, what motivates them and what does not motivate them – that combines with the civic educational aspects: How do I take a stand? How do I formulate an argument? These needs are well addressed in theory, but rarely in practice, because they need this long term commitment to work. A systemic approach that works with relationships at many different levels.

RB: There must have been so much politics involved in initiating this? Can you tell me about that?

HA: It developed organically in one way, but then it’s also true that we had a rather worked out strategy from the start. I’ve mentioned the Federal Agency for Civic Education before. It is a quite unique body set up after the second world war by the United States actually to de-Nazify the German population. By now, they are a very well-known and respected body that receives a rather substantial budget, millions of euros actually, to promote democracy in Germany.

RB: Wonderful!

SA: Yes it is really wonderful and quite a privilege to be associated with it. I mentioned the pilot where Hassan and I started thinking about our Dialog project. Well, once we had this partner on our side, it gave our approach a legitimacy, and at the same time, it made the project political from the start. But in Germany, educational politics is highly regionalised thanks to the federal system: the educational system in Berlin is quite different from that in Bavaria. So when we began, we first approached political bodies in Berlin and in Stuttgart, to trial somewhere north and south.

When we first introduced the project to them, we knew that because of the increase in students with migration backgrounds, the teachers in these two regions felt quite overwhelmed and daunted by the rising challenge to reach out to all these students. We took advantage of these feelings at the time on the one hand, and on the other, convinced a lot of the politicians to promote our work on a regional level. We asked the politicians to invite the school heads to a presentation of our project, and let’s say out of ten heads, two wanted to try the scheme out.  We asked these two heads to allow us to present our work to their teachers, so that they could follow the project from the start. Out of ten teachers, again, maybe two wanted to try it out with their classes. And gradually, over time, they realised that rather than being an extra effort or completely different, it was quite a considerable support to what they were doing.

So by word of mouth, Dialog macht Schule became rather famous among the school heads and politicians. The school heads in a city will talk to each other and say: “Now we have this great programme we don’t have to set up the administration to run workshops, it’s much easier – they work longterm, also do project weeks, and help us to institute democratic instruments within our school system.” So now we don't have to persuade so much any more, and they come and ask us. It took off by word of mouth because it was built up gradually.

RB: And has a regional or national reputation would you say?

SA: It now has both.

Building trust - the dialogmoderators take their pupils and their stories seriously. Picture by Christian Plähn. All rights reserved.RB: Tell me more about the psychotherapeutic aspect of this way of promoting democracy.

SA: We don’t do psychotherapy per se, but there are core elements of it in our approach. If the core element is building of relationships, then it inevitably has a psychotherapeutic aspect to it. Because in psychotherapy change happens through relationships and not primarily through the methods. And this is very important to us because it emphasises what the famous New Zealand professor, John Hattie’s meta-study confirmed, that the relationship between the teacher and the students is the most important factor in teaching. In therapy, it is the same. Our dialogue facilitators are young role models who are perceived differently from teachers. By asking questions in a non-judgmental way they go on a journey of reflecting a person’s needs, interests, boundaries and finding out their relationship to the world they live in. This is in some way a therapeutic process.

RB: I have been listening to Lynda Stone about what she sees as the horrible practise of ‘silent lunches ‘ in US schools, and I wondered whether different national cultures are more or less conducive to taking dialogue seriously as a key educational and political approach.

SA: It’s a good question. I think because of its past, Germany had to learn quite a tough lesson – that the opposite to war is dialogue. There is no other way if you want peace, and democratic thinking is thinking about how to resolve conflicts peacefully. Germany, I think, has made a lot of advances in this – because of its history, yes – but also in two specific ways.

Particularly when we look at the schools, you see that on the one hand there is a desire to construct safe classrooms for dialogue, but on the other hand, if you look at how the system works, it is often not possible. The will is there, but it is not possible to find the free space for dialogue. This goes back to the idea of PISA on the one hand – the need to improve the competencies of the students with an emphasis on cognitive skills: for example, writing at a high standard to equip the students for finding employment later on, reading and so on. This is a very functional stream within the education system, which aims to get students into the job market.

On the other hand, there is a traditional humanistic approach in German education which goes back to Humboldt, and which tries not to confine itself to this level of functionality.  You go into action with the students to find out, not how to fill an empty cup with water, but how to give them as vessels the ability to fill themselves, in a sense. The former function-based system takes the information, makes the input and hopes for a good output. The latter humanistic stream is very dialogue-based, and Dialog macht Schule belongs here. We have a very open process and we don’t know where the educational process is going to end.

The question of silence in schooling takes us back to these two approaches. If you think there is a set of knowledges that you have to transfer, it can be quite irritating if there is something else coming from the students in the shape of a question for example. You cannot interact because you have to keep your eye on the time and complete your exam syllabus as quickly as possible and so forth. But if you pursue the humanistic approach, it is rather a great thing if students ask you a question, or even say something very irritating!

I can give you an example. In one of our dialogue groups, where we always start off with a check-in including a different question when we begin the class – it’s a ritual – we happened to ask what you would do if you had at your disposal millions of dollars? Students gave us various answers, and there was one student who said, “ If I had so many dollars or euros I would buy as many weapons as I could get my hands on, to destroy Zionism.” So of course, immediately our dialogue facilitators were pretty shocked and struggled. Taking Germany’s past into account this is a very sensitive issue, and in particular for the teachers as well. After such a comment it can be very difficult to continue the conversation at this point: comments like “This is something that you should not say!” – you know?

This response may close doors to further dialogue. From the perspective of the boy one might even ask: Who is hard to reach here? Perhaps the boy wanted to reach out to talk with someone about something he has been dealing with for a long time and finally saw the opportunity to test the waters on this quite controversial issue. For the dialogue facilitators it is key to get into a curious question mode to really understand what is going on here – to reach out. There are many very interesting questions to be asked. Why did he pick out ‘Zionism’ and not ‘Jews’? What does he mean by ‘Zionism’? Is he out to shock or is he serious? What kind of emotions accompany this comment? How can we work with this? And what do the other students think of this? If you silenced him, it would not be worked on and might never reappear.

Here again is the therapeutic aspect. It could be quite emotional, because this was a young boy with a Palestinian background. You don’t know the family history, what has happened and whether anger has been transmitted to him. Where is the space within the school system to really take this boy seriously, beginning with the emotions? And then if you discover that this really was anti-Semitic in intention, you need to take a pause and develop a proper intervention with your fellow dialogue facilitator to work with the whole group. The great thing is that you would have a basis or topic to start off working on principles of human dignity and rights. We can also explore experiences by inviting experts to help us find more perspectives with which to look at it. If young people can get a space in which to be taken seriously – also their feelings and emotions – then you can really do good civic education!

Dialogmoderators in action - empowering pupils to form their own opinion and voice them. Picture by Franquesa Harms.All rights reserved.RB: At the same time you are giving an opportunity to other youngsters in the class to have an exchange with somebody who expresses those views, which is also important for them isn’t it? Across Europe we have a rapid spread of ‘hate speech legislation’, and professionals being encouraged to be on high alert and report any potential extremist statements to the authorities and so on.

This involvement in exploratory dialogue which takes feelings into account and gives the dialogue leaders a protocol, and the confidence to deal with it directly, seems like a very different approach. But these trends must also be affecting the German educational space?

SA: There are different kinds of schools as I was saying and different approaches circulating. Generally in Germany too, we are at a very experimental stage with these questions and a rather alarmist one, I would say. Because a lot of teachers and civic educators are feeling insecure at the moment and fearing doing something wrong.  So there is this sense of alarm: “Oh my god, he said something and he could be a radical!” – when maybe the pupil is just out to provoke a response.

But it must be important to find a way to really understand and this is where dialogue is crucial, what lies behind the statement of the student. Is it really ‘radical’ – or does the student simply want to have your attention or find out where the permissible borders are. These are pedagogical questions that cannot be answered if we fall into a state of alarm.

Words like ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’ are now being debated within the civic education field – questions like, is it different being ‘radical left’ from being ‘radical right’ for example. Or, if we are passionate supporters and promoters say of human rights – are we too ‘radicals’? These questions help us to reflect. But within our project, I would use radical to denote an idea that has become so polarised that the person involved is blinded and finds it impossible to see other perspectives.  The point of reference that we use to orient ourselves on this question is the human level within the promotion of human rights. Something we can all agree on is that we are of the species, homo sapiens, and we have to look out for different perspectives because we do not have the truth. Radicalism begins when people think they have a certain kind of truth and that there is no other truth.

So, there is a lot of discussion but there are also a lot of points that we can agree on.

RB: So the project is really grounded in a humanist, pluralist endeavour at the heart of education?

SA: The example I just put forward is important with regard to the dialogue facilitators who work with the emotions of the students and try to avoid silencing within the classroom. It is always a dilemma, because if we hear something like that, “ I want to kill Zionism” – we really try to work on it, but we also have to inform the teachers. We have to let them know that there is a student who may think in this way. But we say, let us find a way together to work on it.

It’s important that I stress that, because we can only be successful within the school system if we work together with the teachers and with the social workers within the school as well. We keep them informed at the same time that we try to calm them down, so that they don’t get nervous. It is a huge problem that we don’t have ‘teacher teams’ in our schools. Teachers are loners within the school system and they have so much responsibility, and anxiety as well – alone with all those highly political topics. We try to give them a feeling that they are not alone, and that there are others who also work on those same problems. That can ease their tension and help us to avoid alarmism.

RB: You are giving them tools, not just a legal responsibility without any way forward.

SA: Exactly, that’s very important too.

RB: How does an event like the Cologne attacks and its aftermath in terms of public opinion impact on your dialogue facilitators, and how do they rise to this challenge?

SA: There are again different dimensions to this. It makes a big difference that we are really interested in what our students think about something like this. We follow the news and read around it – students’ taste in topics doesn’t confine itself to football and watching movies. ‘Hard to reach’ students are also very interested in the latest news. They may pick up on an item here or there without much sense of nuance. But it really does seem to resonate with these students if we speak about recent events. So it is always a great opportunity for us.

It sounds rather ironic, but we might say, “Oh this is something really awful that has happened on the one hand: but on the other, we can take it into the dialogue groups, try and find out what the students think about it and try to get them to take up positions so that we can get a debate going, for example, around what “freedom” means. What does it mean to you: and what about “gender equality” – why is it important for you ? We try to “elementarise” complex issues, as we say, that is to break it down on a personal level and make it really relevant to the students.

What we know is that many of the students that we work with come from conservative Muslim families with a very traditional world view. Also on gender roles. So we have girls who at a very early age have to take care of their younger sisters, have to be in a sense second mothers, or at least prepared for their role as mothers. Most of them on the other hand also have an aspiration to have a job one day, and to be independent as well. But these two different kinds of narratives – a western narrative of individualisation and quite a conservative narrative of collectivism and gender roles – are often in conflict.

We can use those really extreme events to speak about these very personal aspects that move our students as well. So what happened in Cologne was a very important topic for us. But at the same time we were very careful not to take sensational readings of those events into the groups and inadvertently label our students. It would be a very dangerous, counter-productive way of opening a debate to say: “ You know we have to talk to you about these events because we have to avoid your becoming like that.”  Our approach is much more of a curious one: “What do you think about it?” And if the students want to continue talking about it, we continue down that path. But if they do not want to talk about it, we do not push them.

RB: What about the parents – do they sometimes want to draw the line?

HA:  We are often asked this, and interestingly enough, until now, we haven’t had one intervention from the parents in our dialogue groups over something they didn’t want us to talk about.

There was one occasion when there was a huge discussion in a school we were working in. The parents of one girl didn’t want her to attend a classroom with boys, and then many other girls weren’t permitted either. So there was a huge discussion between the parents and the headmaster and the teachers. We were asked to intervene to moderate the discussion. It was really quite a challenge to get a consensus – what to do? We found agreement in the plan that the girls could go, but one of the mothers would also attend just so that they could feel reassured.

But it was helpful that we could mediate, because we realised that a lot of the parents, particularly those with a Turkish or an Arabic background, do not intervene so much within the school system.  There is the belief that once the student is in school the teacher is responsible, and they don’t take it upon themselves to interfere. German parents without a migration background act quite differently: they feel they also have a responsibility for their sons’ and daughters’ education. And they intervene quite a lot – sometimes too much. It is a different kind of mind set on what it means to educate your children.

RB: You are saying you’d like to have more intervention from your parents maybe?

HA: Yes – of course that would be great. It would be great to speak more with the parents, and indeed it is one of our aims, if we can extend Dialog Macht Schule – we would like to extend on a level which allows us to reach out to parents. But that needs time. We are still consolidating what we do now.

RB: One last question. There is a simmering debate currently about fake stories and post-truth eras. Do you discuss the media with your students? Does it come up in their discussions?

SA: Oh yes. It is one of the dominant themes and topics in our dialogue sessions – media and of course new media, and particularly Facebook and YouTube etc. It’s a very important question that you ask because in my opinion, this is one of the biggest challenges to education and particularly civic education that we have, and we still have to work on this much more.

A lot of students and I would say even a lot of our dialogue facilitators, sometimes do not know the difference between an opinion and a theory, or an article of faith. These are things that really have to be differentiated, because otherwise everything becomes true and everything becomes relative. And so, if you do not stand for anything, in a sense you can also fall for anything. So it is very important for us to try and train our dialogue facilitators in what the difference is between these discourses. Particularly when it comes to the media. Take for example the conspiracy theories that are all over the place. Students will tell you so many different stories – like Israel implemented ISIS, or the twin towers were destroyed by Americans themselves – there are so many conspiracy theories.

There is a huge discussion now about what is the best approach for dealing with conspiracy theories, and one of the most important ways in which we deal with it is in a participative and constructive fashion. We encourage students to develop their own conspiracy theories themselves, and then invite them to try to spread them. They can see how easy it is to develop a conspiracy theory, and how easy it is to make others believe them. Then they work on how easy it is to put together a blog along these lines, and we make them think about what legitimate knowledge is. For us this again is going back to a humanistic approach and this is very important. Evidence-based thinking or scientific literacy in a sense, I think, is not only important for the natural sciences, but it is also important for the social sciences – to take evidence seriously here as well, and to discuss topics and themes based on different evidence-based approaches.

Applied to our work, what is discussed critically on a scientific level should also be discussed critically on a dialogue group level. It is also very important for us within the group interaction to demonstrate the difference between an opinion, an argument and what is basically a fact or a theory. Evolution is another example. If a lot of students think, oh it’s just another opinion, then they have failed to understand what a theory is – theory, in this case Darwinism, is based on falsification. Now of course it is very difficult to teach young students that there is a theory that is more than one hundred and fifty years’ old, and that it is still standing. It is not just an opinion. A lot of work has gone into it. But this is one of the biggest challenges that we have to face within civic education today, to break down these complex aspects of epistemology so that we can really explain what it is that we can know. This is a struggle for us to work on.

RB: It is a challenge. At one level we have to be able to pin down and define the difference between scientific discourse, let's say, and tabloid discourse. But on another level, we dwell in the era of Wikipedia-type authority, where what you do is to encourage more or less informed opinions to pile on side by side and arrive at a provisional working definition that people are willing to live with. The business of entering into a pluralist debate and learning how to listen to other people and maybe change one’s own mind – is also tremendously important, isn’t it?

SA: Oh yes, but these are not opposites – this is not in contradiction with a scientific approach. Look at whatever scientific discipline you choose, and what you will find is a pluralist discourse: some who say this theory is true, and others who say this is not true. And either through experimentation or analysis they will try and arrive at an understanding. I think this is a very modest way of thinking about ‘what we know’. In the end we realise we can’t really know the ultimate truth, but that there are methods, there are ways that we have developed that help us. It is very sad that nowadays science is depicted as itself just another ideology. But rather, science is a method of arriving at an understanding of something.

It is very difficult to teach the school students we work with this. But it is very important for our dialogue facilitators that they have an awareness that only with discussion and discourse analysis can we be sure that we are not dealing with an ideology. Only ideology asserts itself with certitude as truth, and here we are back again to our definition of radicalism. Any theory not open to criticism, up for another opinion, for another perspective, is an ideology in the end.

RB: Thank you very much: that’s a very good place for us to wrap up.

About the authors

Siamak Ahmadi is co-founder and managing director of Dialog macht Schule gGmbH, a NGO that is committed to fostering personality development and democratic competencies in children and young adults from disadvantaged background. The program is integrated within the schools curriculum and works long-term on building a democratic school environment. Ahmadi has a background in psychology and systemic counselling. His current interests are developing democratic and civic education within the context of migration and diversity.

Hassan Asfour is the co-founder and managing director of Dialog macht Schule. He studied Intercultural Communication and International Affairs at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Madrid and at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He also has a background as a systemic counsellor.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.

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