7 Activities to Engage Students in Preventing Polarization

In Preventing Polarization, Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters explore ten skills and outline 50 strategies that any teacher could employ in the classroom that promote constructive dialogues, civic-mindedness, and (hopefully) engaged adults who can work together and find consensus to solve the world’s many challenges.

Teach students essential skills like sense-making, asking thoughtful questions about the world and their roles in it, thoughtful media consumption, recognizing complexity, and embracing diversity to help them to understand the world and their roles in it. Explore these seven ideas to prepare students to engage in civics and politics as young people and adults, ultimately preventing polarization. 

Sense-Making Activities: 

Idea #1: Have students make sense of the world with the How It Works activity.

If you ask most people if they understand how their cell phone works, they might say yes. If you ask them for an actual explanation, they may struggle. Give students the opportunity to explore a topic and explain how it works. Have them take an ordinary item or activity and see if they can explain it.

  • The produce in the grocery store. How did it get there? Explain how it works.
  • A car. What allows it to run? Explain how it works.
  • The television. How do programs get paid for? Explain how it works.
  • The shower. How do you get hot running water? Explain how it works.
  • The internet. What makes Google possible? Explain how it works.
  • Choose your own and explain how it works.

Idea #2: Realize how our experiences impact our decisions with the Pack Your Suitcase activity.

Have students pick a destination they would like to go to, then tell them they need to pack a suitcase for their trip. Have them write down all the items they would pack so they have a successful journey. Afterward, ask them to explain to a partner why they picked what they did. How did their experiences guide them to determine the items they would need?

For those with similar destinations, did they pick similar items for their suitcases? Relate this back to sense-making. How do our experiences help us make sense of our world and how we act in it?

Curiosity Activities: 

Idea #3: Encourage further understanding with the Dig for Water game.

This is a game in which students generate new questions by building on other questions. To play: 

  • Put your students in groups of around three kids. Explain that they will each have a turn to develop a question based on another student’s question. The only rule is that the questions they create should tie into the content.
  • Give them a starting question. Example: “Why did World War I start?”
  • The first student will apply knowledge to develop a followup question: “Why was there an arms race?”
  • And then the third student asks a question, and the game continues.
  • Try to reach a total of ten questions.

Idea #4: Ask intentional questions by playing Question Quota

Perhaps it’s not that students don’t have questions but they need us to be more intentional in asking them what questions they have. Encourage students to write down a certain number of questions on a topic or assignment using a Question Quota. This ensures we’re helping students keep the questions coming, and hopefully, they begin generating a healthy habit.

Mindful Media Consumption Activity: 

Idea #5: Teach students to identify credible sources with the Who’s the Expert activity.

Part 1: Encourage students to reflect on the question: “How do you know who to listen to on different topics?”

  • Group your students and ask them to create a chart that separates two groups of people: the credible and the non-credible.
  • Ask them to list in the columns the cues they look for to know if someone is credible or not, based on several topics.
  • These topics are endless but could be things like “Who is a good person to ask questions about home safety tips?” or “Who would be knowledgeable about what is good to feed your pet?” (Of course, make them applicable to your grade and content area.)

  • The cues in this activity could be things like someone’s occupation, life experiences, and educational opportunities that connect them to a particular topic.

  • After the students have reflected on who they feel might be credible or not in the various subjects, you can move the conversation toward media sources.

Part 2: Now encourage students to reflect on this question: “Are the media sources you use credible or not in reporting information?”

  • Ad Fontes Media has an interactive media bias chart that explores bias and truth in the media. Assign your students to study this chart in groups.
  • Next, after your students have explored this chart, encourage them to develop questions about what the diagram suggests. The key will be to use this chart and your students’ questions to hold an open discussion.
  • Hopefully, an honest conversation will emerge on topics like fake news, media bias, and agenda setting and what all this means to us as information consumers. Knowing a source’s reliability will certainly strengthen your students’ awareness of news that may be agenda-oriented and tribal in nature.

Embracing Complexity Activities:

Idea #6: Recognize stereotypes and labels with the Meet in the Middle game.

Too often, it can feel like we have an obsession with labeling everyone and everything. This idea is for you to constantly remind yourself, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As educators, we don’t want to make assumptions or force identity by putting kids into arbitrary boxes. We want to show students that it’s okay to think one way about one issue and another way about another issue.

It’s best to discuss an issue, not label people and then predetermine how they should think based on that label. Here’s a game to help facilitate this conversation. An online version of this game is available at civicsthroughplay.com.
How to Play:

  1. Ask students if they identify as an introvert or an extrovert. Ask them to line up on opposing walls based on their selection.
  2. Tell students that you will ask them five questions. For every question they largely agree with, they should take a step toward the opposing wall. Be sure to pause between questions so students can reflect.
    1. Do you sometimes like to go to parties?
    2. Is there an activity you enjoy doing all by yourself?
    3. Are you comfortable being in large groups?
    4. Do you feel energized after getting some peace and quiet?
    5. Do you enjoy socializing with friends at lunch?
  3. Ask students to observe where everyone is in the room. What do they notice? Where is everyone standing? Do they still feel like they are one thing or another?

  4. Ask students if they’ve heard of an ambivert. Mention that it’s a person who exhibits both introvert and extrovert tendencies. Ask students to think about why they categorized themselves as an extrovert or introvert. Ask a few students to share their answers. Do they still feel that description is accurate?

  5. Ask the following debrief questions:

    1. How did it feel to be on opposing walls?

    2. What happened when we dug a little deeper? Did we have more in common than we initially thought?

    3. Did you find it beneficial to label yourselves as introverts or extroverts? If so, how?

    4. Do you see any dangers in us labeling ourselves? If so, what?

    5. As a society, do we label ourselves in other ways? What are the consequences of such labeling?

Idea #7: Understand others with the Digital Pen Pal activity.

We all know this activity. Growing up, pen pals were often a method our teachers would use to help us get to know other people. So, let’s not get rid of the pen pal effort. It’s easier to diminish an “us versus them” mentality when we can place a face behind the unknown. Bringing in the experiences of someone your students are getting to know more deeply is great for showing there’s more than one way to do things and live life.

Pen pals can broaden our minds and our understanding of others’ minds. Fortunately, it’s become easier than ever to connect our students to others around the country and around the world. Platforms like PenPal Schools offer an opportunity for students to interact with students from other cultures and countries. Try it out.

In Preventing Polarization, you can explore these ideas and more on engaging students in learning about polarization and 50 strategies for teaching kids about empathy, responsibility, and civic duty. Equip students to care about the world and helps them shape their futures today. 

Main post image by Yan Krukau via Pexels

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