August 29, 2023
Discussion skills are high-stakes, teachable, and uniquely human: Why don’t we explicitly teach them in school today?
A great discussion is a human experience. You think deeply, express yourself intentionally, abide by nuances of others’ reactions, and build relationships in the process. Often, a discussion is dialectical—someone expresses a thesis, someone else an antithesis, and then a synthesis or compromise emerges; made possible because of that contrast in perspectives (and the human courage it took to articulate and engage them). A great discussion is a generative, cognitive, social, and emotional experience all at once.
The ability to engage in a discussion like this is a uniquely human skill. Monkeys are sentient—they have feelings and self-awareness—but they lack language as sophisticated as humans. AI has seemingly infinite language but is not sentient. AI tools like ChatGPT are trained to recognize and mimic human emotion but they will never have the sensory capacity to read body language or hear shifts in the tone of your voice (prosody).
Discussion is how the world works: discussion leads to decision-making in schools, government, business, medicine, law, domestic life, and the list goes on. Talking and listening to each other is how we trust, love, question, and come to know each other. These skills are at the core of society, certainly, but also individual well-being and a sense of connection.
And yet, as we know too well: discussion is a dying art in today’s world. At this point, the headlines are familiar: civility wanes; polarity waxes. Screentime and algorithms tighten our worldview, serving up content to reinforce—rather than challenge—our preferences and opinions. AI makes it so we are less dependent on each other for information, short-circuiting opportunities for developing relationships in the process of data-gathering. Ideological perfectionism abounds: compromise and synthesis have become branded as signs of individual weakness rather than collective strength. The signs of trouble? It’s not just eye-watering polarity destabilizing the government. Adults are lonely; adolescents are sad; and young kids are rulebreaking at astonishing rates.
Teaching kids how to have discussions must be a priority in schools today—their health and our future society depend on it. Short-term: Kids need to learn how to self-regulate, self-express, and listen to each other—even when they disagree or have different experiences. Researchers are still working to pinpoint which social skills kids develop through on-screen communication—during video games, on social…