What seventh graders can teach us about problem-solving – and civility

WIPPS Washington Seminar 2017 was in its second week in the nation’s Capitol when tragedy struck. U.S. Congressman Steve Scalise was shot by an enraged citizen during a baseball practice.

For a brief moment, there was talk about civility – or lack thereof. Our Seminar students saw a show of unity at the Congressional baseball game the next evening and representatives from across the aisle broke bread together. But it didn’t last long. Our mantra during the trip was, “Avoid cynicism, but remain skeptical.” It was difficult for the students to avoid the former after witnessing a return to politics as usual.

Could it be that a seventh grade class in rural Athens, Wisconsin, has come up with a practical way to get the adults back on track? Led by WIPPS dialogue and deliberation expert John Greenwood and supported by an enlightened group of Athens teachers and administrators, a group of 12- and 13-year-old students have been learning how to talk about, prioritize and seek common ground around difficult issues. Using a deliberative inquiry process, students began brainstorming hot topics related to their school, the community and the nation. Two common themes they agreed on:

  • Society’s obsession with personal and political attacks and
  • Its relative inattention to solving important issues.

What they actually chose to work on together is instructive – and may hold some lessons for us all. They intentionally decided NOT to focus on being more civil. Instead, they chose to address a tangible local need, specifically, whether and how to build a new gym for the middle school.

With some guidance, they understood that tackling this issue successfully would require working with teachers, administrators, community leaders and each other. In the process, something magical happened. They managed to engage a variety of stakeholders in a civil and productive effort to address a shared need.

Top take-aways from this experiment

  1. Tackling tough issues requires robust stakeholder input. Listening to learn rather than holding a listening session to punch a checklist is critical.
  2. Process matters. Carefully designed processes that are largely transparent are always in the public interest, even if it takes a little longer to get things done.
  3. Local issues are best tackled locally. Efforts by state government to make sure localities don’t “go astray” should be greeted with skepticism. Obviously, individual and collective rights must be protected, but ideologically based mandates are almost never a good start.
  4. Citizens want to work together and are turned off by ideological sloganeering and outside interests that interfere with local decision-making.
  5. Manufactured crises, whether because of artificial timelines or other imposed hurdles, are detrimental to constructive community problem-solving.
  6. Good information based on evidence and reliable sources is paramount to making good decisions. Although “fact-checking” might be an overused term in our political vocabulary, it is so because “fake news” lays claim as the most overused.

Did the Athens seventh graders learn all of this on their own? No, they needed some sage guidance. They benefited from the expertise of people trained in deliberative inquiry and public dialogue. They also benefited from teachers and community members who also wanted to work constructively together and were not saddled by blind commitments to “appeal to the base” or “repeal and replace.”

We call on wise political leaders to follow the examples of our youth – stand up to extreme partisanship, work across the aisle with your neighbors, seek public input, avoid manufactured crises, commit to evidence-based solutions, and – whenever possible – avoid cynicism. We will believe in you if you let us.


For the past 10 years, WIPPS has been succeeding in its mission to spur civic engagement through public scholarship, nonpartisan public dialogue, student learning and service, and community building initiatives.

Our outreach to communities results in a better-educated citizenry who is more engaged in the issues of the day, and all the while, we’re educating tomorrow’s leaders with our actions of today.

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