Published on June 7, 2024


On the way to work this morning, I was listening to ABC Radio National and Patricia Karvelas (PK) and a Greens’ MP discussing the War in Gaza and Australia’s response. The discussion was a heated and impassioned one, which is understandable, and the interview was set up in response to debates in Parliament about the Greens’ response to university protests. As I did a quick Google search for media reports on these debates, photos and videos from all sides of Parliament appeared depicting angry and agitated faces.  
In this space, emotions are running high as we bear witness to human suffering in Gaza and the suffering of those families who have loved ones held hostage by Hamas. Watching the videos from Parliament and the shouting across the floor, though, I wondered about how we can help our young people engage in civil discourse about highly emotive issues when our political leaders seem to struggle to model this for the next generation. 
I have the great privilege of working with our aspiring leaders in Year 11 and my role is to help them develop their capacity as leaders. We use a model called the Social Change Model of Leadership. It is a values-based model that looks at the interdependence of our individual, group and community values in leading change for the betterment of society. It is also a service-based model that has at its heart the belief that leadership for enduring social change can only be realised by a team comprised of individuals who have a deep connection to their own values and a willingness to learn from and work with those who might be different to themselves. The model begins with an exploration of individual values: consciousness of self, congruence and commitment. The idea is that a person needs to know themselves first and foremost, be willing to act in congruence with their values, and understand that commitment is about more than just getting things done. Commitment involves acting with conviction, taking responsibility and embracing shared ownership, staying dedicated, engaging in work that is sustainable and being persistence in the face of adversity. 
These individual values, though, mean little without a shared commitment to group values. The leadership team must have a shared purpose and work collaboratively to develop this shared purpose and realise it in practice. Authentic collaboration involves deep listening – not talking over others as many of our politicians are prone to do – and a willingness to engage and hold space for the values of others that might be different to our own.  
In order to do the latter, the social change model of leadership advocates for Controversy with Civility. It was this to which I returned this morning as I was listened to the radio and our politicians argue with each other.  
Engaging in civil discourse is powerful, and probably one of the most important competencies we can help our children/students to develop. It is complicated and hard to enact, most especially when we feel passionate about an issue. Controversy with Civility involves making a distinction between dialogue and debate (sometimes I think we focus too much on debating at the expense of dialogue in schools). Below is a table that outlines the difference between the two: 

Dimensions Dialogue Debate
Premise  Multiple points of view are valid There are right and wrong arguments 
Purpose To explore different perspectives and develop a shared understanding of the issue. To win the argument by challenging and ultimately defeating the opposition, defending one’s position as the best. 
Environment  Collaborative and characterised by trust and an appreciation of difference. Combative, characterised by opposing sides trying to prove the other one is wrong.  
Behaviours Listening to learn about and find value in others’ perspectives, seeking commonalities, identifying and evaluating assumptions.  Critiquing the other side hearing only for opportunities to discredit or find flaws in other arguments, treating assumptions as truth. 
Outcome  New, informed understanding rather than resolution of the issue.  Ends with the best or most strongly argued side declared the winner. 


(Source: Komives, S. Wagner, W. et al. (2017). Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. Josey-Bass: San Francisco.p. 164) 

As I reflect on political discourse in Australia, there is no doubt that it leans heavily towards debate. This is logical as political parties are set up in opposition to each other and they must “stay true” to their political messages. However, the public nature of political debate makes it even more important that we find ways of modelling for our young people dialogue in action. We also need to build their capacity to think critically about the impact of ferocious debate on the evolution of ideas and the ability for leaders to create meaningful social change in their communities. 

The Social Change Model of Leadership has a mastery rubric for all values that outlines the behaviours linked to each along a continuum from “needs improvement” to “excelling”. In the case of Controversy with Civility, it is broken down into six dimensions. These are: “respect for and courtesy to others”, “ability to work cooperatively”, trust, dialogue skills, “controversy versus conflict”, and “awareness of worldviews” (p. 168). The latter involves sharing one’s “own values fully” as well as deeply valuing “others’ world views and perceptions”. We demonstrate this act of deeply valuing others by actively listening, engaging in dialogue, and welcoming diverse perspectives into our teams and change processes. 
A key element of schooling is to provide a safe and trusting environment in which students can be exposed to world views and perceptions that are different to their own or that of their families. As parents this can be worrying as you don’t necessarily what your children exposed to ways of thinking that are different to those you hold dear. This is why I like the Social Change Model of Leadership: at its heart is embracing one’s own values and history, and championing this, while also learning how to work with and champion those whose values might be different to one’s own. This is where shared purpose is critical: if we are working towards shared goals then this provides the common ground. Because people are unique, then we can leverage our diverse talents and beliefs to achieve the change we are seeking in a way that is inclusive of this diversity. 
To return to political discourse in Australia, my idealistic hope for the future is that we can get to a place where our shared humanity remains first and foremost and our political agendas secondary. That is highly unlikely, of course, hence the importance of helping our young people embrace their shared humanity and their shared purpose to work together to create a better and more peaceful world for all.   

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.