Difficult Dialogues Concept

Concept for the University of Louisville’s Difficult Dialogues


Consistent with a vision of the university as the marketplace of ideas, where students can critically examine what they have been formally taught and tacitly socialized to believe, the Difficult Dialogues program seeks to help students develop a sophisticated understanding of social issues through engaged dialogue.  Specifically, the program will allow students to experience didactic content as well as facilitated group dialogue to help build meaning and context for new cognitive understanding. 

Theoretical Foundation

This approach is consistent with student learning theory, specifically John Dewey’s work (1933, 1938) that identified reflective thinking as a process that helps learners who are presented with new information and are not able to immediately reconcile this information with their current understanding of the world.  Further Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Theory (1970, 1974) described how young people develop through a progressive organization and reorganization of mental process, enabled by both biological development and experience within the environment.  Piaget’s model demonstrated how learning could lead to new conceptions of the world in order to integrate emergent lessons.  A final theory in which this work can be anchored is King and Kitchner’s Reflective Judgement Model (2002), which describes how young adults develop reasoning skills.  Within this theory, early stage learners see the world in black and white, with little room for the abstract.  Learners develop through exposure to challenging ideas that are unable to be reconciled with their conception of the world, forcing a comfortable amount of cognitive dissonance that enables the learner to develop a more complex understanding of the world where frequently there are not concrete solutions or universal truths.  This final stage is marked with the ability of the learner to reevaluate and reconsider previously held beliefs in the wake of new information and understanding. 

Developing the University of Louisville Difficult Dialogues

The program that is conceptually being developed involves two initiatives which are mutually supportive.  First, a cadre of students, faculty, and staff will be selected to become Difficult Dialogue Facilitators, which will involve an intensive training program exposing the facilitators to lessons on group dynamics, facilitation, genuine dialogue, and critical theory and pedagogy.  In addition to the benefit of having trained facilitators across campus who have the ability to foster learning in a variety of settings (informal peer conversations, in classrooms, residence halls, etc), the facilitators will be formally used for the second initiative, campus dialogue sessions.  In these sessions, the campus community will be invited to a presentation about a particularly divisive, but important and germane topic.  Following the presentation, the facilitators will work in small groups to help people think critically about the presentation and explore the implications (personally and socially) for what they’ve been exposed to.  Students, faculty, and staff who participate in four of these sessions will be recognized in some way and invited to become a facilitator for the following year.  In this way, the opportunity for critical dialogue is iterative and become part of the culture and fabric of the University of Louisville, where we are reinforcing the academic mission of the institution as well as helping students to be responsible citizens and community members.  


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, MA: Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938). Logic: The theory of inquiry. Troy, MO: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

King, P.M. & Kitchener, K.S. (2002). The reflective judgment model: Twenty years of research on epistemic cognition. In B. K. Hofer and P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing, (pp. 37-61). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Publisher.

Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget's theory. In P.H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael's manual of child psychology. (Vol. 1). New York: Wiley.

Piaget, J. (1974). Stages of intellectual development in the child and adolescent. In J. Piaget, The child and reality (A. Rosin, Trans.). New York: Viking.

Author Contact Information:

Dave McIntosh, PhD, MA
Associate Dean for Urban Health Innovation
Chief Diversity Officer
School of Medicine
University of Louisville