In Brief 

In this lesson, students examine the rules and norms that shape the way citizens in democracies deliberate about concerns that they have in common.


  • Students will identify and evaluate the structures that shape deliberation in representative democracies.
  • Students will understand their own motivations for decision-making.
  • Students will apply the model of decision-making to a matter of public concern.

Thinking Ahead 

If love of neighbor has a political meaning, what does it mean to “represent” our neighbors as much as ourselves? That’s an important question. When they act in the role of citizen, Christians might be called to love their neighbors by giving voice to the basic needs of others, including their right to follow a path in life that Christians might otherwise reject. It’s also not an easy question. Our decisions are never simply a reflection of our desires for ourselves or our neighbors; democracies require that we make decisions with others and that we follow processes in making those decisions. While those processes are generally in some sense “public,” they are not always transparent, and even when they are visible to us, we are often unaware of them or take them for granted. The goals of this and the following two lessons are to surface the ways those processes shape our decisions—even our desires—and to imagine decision-making rules that would foster greater awareness of human motivations and needs across lines of difference. In preparation for this lesson sequence you may find it useful to review the Insights essay on tolerance and hospitality.

Preparing the Activity 

For this lesson you will need:

  • A presentation slide or whiteboard.
  • An openness to giving up at least a small portion of control over grading—perhaps just for this assignment—to students themselves.

Teaching the Activity 

Phase 1 (5-10 minutes)

Show slide 1 or display on the board three options for grading this lesson or unit.

  • 70 percent of the class will receive a B+ or better, but the final average for the class must be no higher than a B.
  • 40 percent of the class will receive an A, but the final average for the class must be no higher than a B.
  • The teacher will decide how you will be graded.

Note: You can vary the letter grades and distributions based on your own expectations. The point is to have (1) a scenario where most students will get a respectable grade but most students are also likely to cluster around the average (scenario A); (2) a scenario where a minority will get an excellent grade but students will have to be more widely distributed in order to hit the average and so some will get very poor grades (scenario B); and (3) a scenario where the students simply defer to an authority to act on their behalf (scenario C). You might make it simpler by using numbers rather than percentages. For example, if you have 20 students in your class, you could say:

  • Fourteen students will be guaranteed a B+ or better, but the final average for the class must be no higher than a B, which means it will be hard to get an A and a few of you will likely receive a grade of a C.
  • Eight students in the class will be guaranteed a straight A, but the final average for the class must be no higher than a B, which means that more of you will receive a lower grade than a B than in scenario A.
  • The teacher will decide how you will be graded.

After showing the students the options and highlighting the tradeoffs (it’s important to highlight only in a factual way with no hint of judgment or preference), communicate that you intend to grade this lesson or unit with one of these three options.
Then say, simply, “You decide,” without specifying who the “you” is or providing any other instruction. Move to a corner of the room and stay silent, even if the moment is awkward for a time.

Phase 2 (15-20 minutes)

While you might need to prompt discussion if silence extends more than a minute, you should use a very light touch. Generally—and ideally—students will start discussion on their own because they have a stake in the outcomes. Once the discussion begins, do not intercede except to answer basic clarifying questions about the scenarios. Your role at this point is observational.

The discussion could take many different twists. Take note of these features of the discussion:

  • Recognition: Who speaks? Who doesn’t? Is there a pattern to the difference? How are voices heard? Do students raise their hand? Simply speak up? Does anyone step up to lead the discussion or mediate disputes? Is anyone dismissed?
  • Process rules: Are rules for deciding proposed? Assumed? How do students get to a point of accepting the legitimacy of the decision rules themselves?
  • Decision rules: Do they fall into familiar patterns—e.g., the majoritarian principle of 50 percent + 1? Does anyone suggest a plurality criterion—that since there are three options, the one with the most votes should win? Unanimity? A preference ranking? Does anyone emerge as an elite authority to whom the students simply defer? Is it assumed that some kind of democratic process rules or is there reference to an authoritative boundary (e.g. a syllabus or school rules, functioning analogously here to a constitution)? And how do they seem to know when they’ve actually made a decision?
  • Motivations: Do some students favor a scenario because they want to be judged on “merit”? Are others more egalitarian? Are they risk-averse? Individualistic? Is one of the solutions felt to be more “fair” and if so what vision of “fairness” (to each their own, the greatest good of the greatest number, etc) is acting as motivation?

Phase 3 (20-25 minutes)

Prompt collective discussion: When it seems they’ve reached a decision, bring them together for collective reflection.

Start with the decision rules themselves. You might start with, “Have you made a decision?” When they seem to suggest affirmatively, respond with, “How do you know?” or something more specific such as, “Your decision was based on over half of you agreeing with scenario X. Why does the majority rule?”

  • Compare and contrast decision rules: Then ask a series of questions about alternatives—unanimity, plurality, etc.—which would also allow “the people” to decide. Ask then, “Does one way reflect what rule by the ‘people’ means better than others?” Push further: “Why, if at all, is rule by the people appropriate in this case?”
  • Probe motivations: Next, use the student deliberations as a springboard into a discussion about motivations. Were they motivated by their own self-interests? What were those interests (e.g., merit, simply a good grade)? What other interests could have motivated them?
  • Voice, equality, and trust: Finally, ask the students to describe the arguments and information that mattered to them in making their decision. Highlight any students who provided an argument or piece of information during deliberations (here the discussion requires some sensitivity to calling out individual students). Then ask them: Would it matter to them if the argument/information came from someone who was not in the class? Use some examples: The principal? A parent? You as the teacher? Why or why not? Are there reasons to trust the arguments of some more than others? Should some voices have more authority than others to shape how we decide, maybe because they have expertise or even wisdom? Or should some voices be heard based on charisma and articulate speech?

Phase 4 (10-15 minutes): Assessment

Try this assignment with students:

Imagine an issue (other than grades) that is important to you and to others. You might consider a policy issue (e.g., abortion, immigration, taxation, school funding, refugee resettlement) or maybe a key concern facing students, parents, and administrators at your school (e.g., whether to wear masks during a pandemic). How would you design a process for deciding what to do about that issue/concern that (1) articulated a clear set of decision rules, and (2) included all the voices that should be heard in making a decision (even those you might disagree with). Then explain why you chose the set of decision rules and why it was important to include those voices that they include, and perhaps not others.

Next Lesson
Spaces for Decision Making

In this lesson, students explore the influence of physical space and framing language on the chances of a discussion remaining hospitable to multiple voices.

View lesson