Perfect Circles

In many cultures around the world, circles have been used as images of harmony, completion, perfection.

I have a vague recollection of a teacher once telling my that this is because circles are so sweetly symmetrical, though I honestly don’t have the expertise to tell you why the circle is so revered.

Perhaps, though, what I find most beautiful about circles can be seen in a force-diagram.

That is to say, what I find beautiful is the answer to the question, why does something travel in a circle?

Circular motion, you see, is the result of two perpendicular forces. One force, inertia, pushes an object in motion to continue in a straight line. Another force, say, gravity or the tension on a string, pulls the object inwards.

One force points towards the center of the circle, the other points tangential to the circle. And it is the conflict and synergy between these perpendicular forces which causes the circular motion to form.

It’s important to note these forces aren’t opposing. An object affected by a force pointing in one direction and an equal force pointing in the opposite direction would go nowhere. It would appear static despite the two very real forces pushing on it.

But circles form from perpendicular forces. At each moment, the object moves a little bit this way and a little bit that way, at the whim of two forces which, perhaps, seem to have little in common at all.

But the object in question traces out a beautiful, perfect arc.

Symmetry from different forces.


Workshop on Facilitation Under Fire from PCP, Nov. 11-12

We hope that NCDD members will take advantage of a great training on handling challenging moments in facilitating being offered from our partners with the Public Conversations Project. Also be sure to note that there is a 15% discount for dues-paying NCDD members, so make sure to learn more below and register before the Nov. 3rd deadline if you’re interested!

Public Conversations ProjectDid you attend the workshop at the NCDD 2014 conference on “Facilitating with Grace Under Fire” with Public Conversations Project’s Bob Stains and Maggie Herzig? And did you wish there could be more? As it turns out, Bob and Maggie are teaming up again in just a couple weeks for a two-day iteration of that workshop entitled “Facilitating With Purpose and Poise – Even When Things Get Hot.”

This workshop, which will take place just outside of Boston from November 11-12, will prepare facilitators for handling difficult moments while facilitating. In this workshop, you will:

  • Develop deeper awareness of the personal, social, and cultural attributes you bring to the facilitator role that may help or hinder you in “staying grounded” when working with people whose views, styles, or identities differ from yours
  • Take away core questions you can ask yourself that will help you see through the fog of confusion in difficult moments
  • Gain clarity about resources at your disposal when a clear response or direction is not obvious
  • Build skills through role-play for deciding when and how to address difficulties
  • Learn preventive strategies that can be employed before people are in the room together or in the opening phase of the meeting

The workshop at NCDD 2014 required us to bring in extra chairs, so as we thought of people who would be interested in our two-day workshop, of course NCDD came to mind first! You can find out more about the workshop here, and, if you’d like, you can register directly here.

We are asking people to register by November 3 to confirm their spot, but if you register with a friend, both of you will receive 20% off with our Bring A Friend rate.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email Katie Hyten, Program Manager at Public Conversations, at

radical voters?

Two Berkeley graduate students, David E. Broockman and Douglas J. Ahler have conducted research that is already influential enough to become the subject of a column by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times. Based on their own large survey of Americans, Broockman and Ahler argue against the widespread premise that voters are more moderate than elected officials are. Instead, they argue, many voters hold ideologically inconsistent preferences. For example, someone may strongly oppose abortion (generally seen as a conservative stance) while favoring single-payer health insurance (coded as liberal). If you average that person’s preferences, she looks moderate, but she actually favors policies both too liberal and too conservative to get through Congress. Thus, if politicians shift to more moderate policies (e.g., partial restrictions on abortion and a mixed health care system, like the ACA) they will not increase their support. The unpopularity of Congress reflects its failure to satisfy a population that holds diverse, unpredictable, and often “radical” views:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom rooted in the ideological perspective, most citizens do not seem to wish the Senate were composed of 100 Olympia Snowes and Max Baucuses, the noted Senate moderates. But this does not mean that Americans are satisfied with the politicians who represent them either. Rather, because each citizen’s pattern of views across issues appears unique, each citizen is likely to be “disconnected” from the positions their representatives take in his or her own way, a situation which the election of more moderates—or more of any other one particular kind of politician—could not broadly resolve.

I would argue that ideological consistency is a problematic concept. It is highly debatable whether any given position on abortion or foreign policy fits better with a favorable or critical stance toward welfare programs. In a multiparty democracy, we would see a menu of many ideologies that could not all be arrayed on a single scale. For instance, we would probably have a viable libertarian party that seemed “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic ones, and a statist conservative party that was willing to use instruments like welfare to strengthen traditional values. Instead, our two-party system imposes a single spectrum that does not fit the variation in individuals’ views.

I would further argue that despite all the vituperation and philosophical posturing in today’s politics, the real policy options being considered by Congress all fall within a narrow range. For instance, the party that is supposedly socialist and deaf to limits on government would actually like to raise federal spending by a couple of points of GDP, at most. And the party that regards freedom as threatened by runaway government would really like to trim federal spending by a couple of points. Many perfectly reasonable policy ideas are considered untouchable in Congress.

As one of their methods, Broockman and Ahler show people seven options on each policy topic that ostensibly range from radically liberal to radically conservative (or vice-versa; they randomize the order). Thus to pick the first or the last choice shows that you are radical. But these are some of the ideas that they code as falling at an extreme end of the spectrum:

  • The government should institute a carbon tax or cap and trade system that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions over the next several decades
  • The United States should move to a system like Great Britain’s, where the government employs doctors instead of private companies and all Americans are entitled to visit government doctors in government hospitals free of charge.
  • The United States should have open borders and allow further immigration on an unlimited basis.
  • The education system should be fully privatized, with government playing no role in paying for families’ education expenses. However, private school tuition should be tax deductible.
  • Social security should be abolished entirely or made semi-voluntary, with the government potentially providing incentives for retirement saving but not managing individuals retirement funds.

These are indeed ideas that aren’t going anywhere in Congress (although the first one passed the House in 2009.) But they are also ideas that have intelligent proponents, that we would encourage students to debate, and that we might expect to be seriously considered in our legislatures.

In short, I don’t think the problem is that voters are “radical.” I wouldn’t want to see them become more “moderate,” if that meant that they entertained even fewer policy options or always preferred candidates who fell at the center of a simplistic left/right spectrum. I think Americans display a reasonable heterogeneity of views (although I abhor some of the popular ideas), and the main problem is our political process, which seriously considers only a narrow range of options and places them all on a simplistic left/right spectrum.

[See also "if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution"; ideology: pros and cons"]

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Implicit Bias

I had the opportunity today to learn from two impressive Tufts faculty members, Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers. Both social psychologists, Maddox and Sommers specialize in issues of implicit bias, stereotyping, and group interactions.

If you’ve never done it before, I highly encourage you to visit Harvard’s Project Implicit to take an implicit bias test. Through a series of categorizing tasks, the test will show you what biases you have on a number of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality.

I say, “what biases you have” rather than “whether you have biases,” because, unless you are dead, you will have biases.

People need to use short cuts, heuristics, in order to make sense of the complex stimuli we are constantly inundated with. This is a helpful, and often good mechanism. If we could only ever work from complete information, we’d find ourselves practically paralyzed by the enormity of information flooding our way. We literally could not function without these heuristics.

But these snap judgements can also be dangerous. Studies have shown, for example, that we typically form opinions within seconds of meeting someone, and those impressions tend to vary little after being formed.

That might not be a problem if our first impressions were always surprisingly accurate, but in a society with deep preferences favoring people who look a certain way or act a certain way, our heuristic judgements devolve into damaging stereotypes.

So, what is a person to do?

We can’t – and shouldn’t want to – cleanse our minds of all heuristic processes. But neither can we rely on our mental shortcuts to always present us with accurate, unbiased information.

Well, first, you should take the tests. Find out what biases you have. It will be hard. You may not like the results. After all, three quarter of white people and half of black people show a bias favoring Whiteness.

And if you are not biased on that, you are likely biased on something else. But have no doubts that you are biased.

Of course, knowing is half the battle, so get to know what biases you have. Face them. Accept them. The reality is your brain does things that you have little control over, and while we might wish it didn’t…ignoring our biases won’t make them go away.

So recognize your biases and commit to questioning your actions accordingly. Notice when your bias jumps in and push yourself to question your judgements, assumptions, opinions and the actions which flow from those views.

Never settle with the answer that it’s okay, “in this case.” Your brain will always come up with extenuation circumstances to explain why your bias is okay.

This is a critical first step, but in my view it is still not enough. Privilege and power are deeply ingrained to the benefit of some and the determinant of others. Overcoming bias is more than learning not to judge someone by the color of their skin – it is learning to accept them for who they are. It is understanding and expressing that the White way is not intrinsically the right way.

There is no gold star for the 25% of white people who don’t favor Whiteness. There is no person who doesn’t need to be concerned about implicit bias or the very real ways it skews and damages our society.

We are all us members of this society and we each have an obligation to work every day at uncovering our own biases undoing the harm that has haunted us for generations.


CIRCLE resources on the election

As we approach the 2014 Election, CIRCLE at Tisch College has a wealth of relevant information. Our 2014 Election Center is the go-to place for data in the form of interactive maps and trends. In addition, we have recently released five more specialized studies:

Stay tuned for rapid analysis on Election Night, the day after, and beyond.

The post CIRCLE resources on the election appeared first on Peter Levine.

Institute for Civility in Gov’t Offers New “Civility Training”

We want to make sure that NCDD hears about a great new training on civility being offered by the Institute for Civility in Government – an NCDD organizational member. We all know our nation’s civic life needs more civility, so please learn more about their training below or contact ICG to sign up.

InstituteForCivilityInGov-logoThe Institute for Civility in Government is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, grassroots non-profit organization founded in 1998, and is a member of NCDD. The Institute works to reduce the polarization of our political and legislative processes by facilitating dialogue, teaching respect, and building civility in both the public and private spheres. Our programs are a laboratory of civility, creating a model and setting a tone for each generation to experience and adopt as their own.

Maintaining civility makes life easier and more pleasant for everyone, but sometimes it can be a challenge. In response to popular demand, the Institute has developed and now offers online Civility Training based on our book, Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square – 10 Rules That Work.

The online course is divided into two sections. The first section teaches the ten rules. The second section provides real-life scenarios and then asks which of the ten rules are illustrated in the example given.

This short course helps people to not only be able to identify ten essential civility skills, but also to reflect on their application in daily life. The course has a wide range of applications, and is available for a small fee through the Institute’s website at and/or at

For more information, contact Cassandra Dahnke at 713-444-1254 or Tomas Spath at 281-782-4454, or email us at

False Barriers of Practicality

As an individual, it can be hard to say no. Or, at least, taking on too much seems to be a staple of modern life.

But as an institution, even an institution made up of people, it is easy to say no.

There is always too much work to be done. Always too many demands to be met, and too many stakeholders too please. No matter what type of institution operating in what sector, a functional, sustainable institution needs to say no.

And often this is good. A successful institution will only take on those efforts which most closely align with its mission and vision. A successful institution will see more opportunities than it has the capacity to take on. A successful institution will project an air of efficiency and mask the true chaos of the process from the rest of the world.

The problem is the best things, the most important things, aren’t always the easiest.

It is no minor task to build diverse institutions where people of all backgrounds can voice their opinions and engage in rigorous, civil dialogue. The rewards may well be worth it, but the energy and resources needed for this effort often seem monstrous in the face a process that works well enough already.

And well enough is the death knell of these more noble pursuits.

Because in the face of so many opportunities and so little time, well enough is typically the best you can hope for. And adding complications to the process – even in the name of better ends – is generally not taken seriously as a suggestion.

To be fair, I am as guilty of the trap of practicality as anyone. I like things to run simply and smoothly, and my internal voice decries when any complicating factors arise. It’s not that I’m opposed to change, but truth be told…I just want it to work.

It takes a lot just to make things go in the first place, and frankly I often just don’t have the energy to face what it will really take to bring something from well enough to ideal.

But while I can appreciate this reaction in people and institutions, we should none of us settle for that response.

It may be too much to push for ideal all of the time, but neither should we settle for well enough all of the time. As individuals and institutions, we have to push ourselves to take the hard path, the better path. We have to seek to be our best selves and to create the best institutions we can.

It will take a lot of hard, difficult, constant work. But despite the challenges, despite the seeming impracticality, that is the right work to undertake.


the monumental task that confronts a high-stakes testing state

Let’s say you don’t especially trust teachers to assess their own students, because their ratings can be inconsistent and biased. So you want to use validated and standardized assessments to evaluate students, schools, and teachers. Let’s say, furthermore, that your state authorizes about 4,000 different courses, from kindergarten through 12th grade. (A subject like science in 3rd grade counts as a “course,” by the way.) Each course encompasses many different content areas; for instance, an American history course covers the Revolution, the Civil War, civil rights, and so on. For each topic in each course, you need assessment “items” (questions or prompts of various kinds). You need more than a few items for each topic; one question does not yield a valid score. You can’t repeat items without allowing kids to cheat by looking at old tests. And you will be testing frequently–more than once per year in each course if you consider the need for make-up tests and practice tests.

The upshot is that you will need at least several hundred thousand assessment items to make the whole system work. See Florida’s Race to the Top Assessments page for some of the documents on which my estimate is based. Thus …

  1. You face an expensive undertaking, and if you skimp, you will get poor items, written by people who are not sophisticated about the content or well trained in writing assessments. Pilot-testing items costs even more money.
  2. Even if you spend enough money, writing several hundred thousand items is a human enterprise. Error is inevitable. Some proportion of your items will be flatly incorrect or invalid in other ways. Many will be too easy or too hard, or inadequate to assess the desired skills and knowledge.

On its own, this is not an argument against high-stakes testing. The best argument in favor is that measuring pretty well is better than not measuring at all. But the cost and frailty of the whole system must certainly be taken into consideration. After all, the power of the state stands behind these assessments. If a kid cannot move on to 8th grade, or if a teacher loses his job because of test scores, that is a state decision. I think people may reasonably view it as almost a juridical process.

In the corporate context, employers are always assessing employees, and vice-versa. It is not OK if an employer’s assessments are biased or arbitrary, but using standardized measures may at least reduce inevitable bias, and the market does offer a theoretical solution to injustice (the employee finds a different job). In contrast, if a state moves from not making high-stakes assessments at all to doing so badly, it’s like imposing a new juridical regime that makes arbitrary decisions. I see a serious threat to justice.

The post the monumental task that confronts a high-stakes testing state appeared first on Peter Levine.

NCDD Membership Rates Increasing Nov. 5th – Join or Renew Today!

As many of you know, NCDD is a lean organization with a small staff, and we rely on the active support of NCDD members to continue our efforts and raise awareness of the innovations in engagement, dialogue and community-building taking place across the country. It is our strong and growing membership that enables us to add even more to what we can offer our members to support their work.

As part of our effort to step up the support we can offer to our members, we are planning to increase our membership dues on November 5th, the day after Election Day. That means that if you haven’t joined NCDD or renewed your membership, you need to do so today to lock in the lower rates!

Through November 4th (election day!), annual membership dues will stay at their current levels:

  • $25 for Student Membership
  • $50 for Individual Membership
  • $125 for Sustaining Membership
  • $150 for Organizational Membership

Starting November 5th, we will be using a new membership dues scale, and annual membership rates will be as follows:

  • $30 for Student/Young Professional Membership
  • $75 for Individual Membership
  • $150 for Sustaining Membership
  • $200 for Organizational Membership

But we are offering a great deal for those who join NCDD or renew their memberships between now and the 4th: if you join or renew before the new dues scale goes into place, you can lock in your dues at current membership levels for two years! Through November 4th, members will be allowed to prepay their dues at current rates and can avoid paying the new, higher dues for two years. It’s a great deal, so make sure to take advantage before it’s gone by visiting to join, renew, or upgrade your membership.

You can check what membership level you are currently by looking yourself up in the directory at or on this chart (which shows all members’ renewal dates and member types). If you’re still not convinced that it’s worth it, then we encourage you to check out our member benefits page to get a sense of all of the great things your NCDD membership does for you. We think you’ll see why we are already over 2,100 members strong!

In these weeks leading up to the election, we have an opportunity to share what we know is not only possible, but is working, to reclaim our democracy. We hope you’ll take a few moments now to join or renew your membership and to help us spread the word and express your support for NCDD.

Practicality and Government

I had the pleasure today of listening to Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of Health and Human Services. Former Governor of Kansas, Secretary Sebelius is perhaps best known for overseeing the implementing the Affordable Care Act.

She spoke about many things, including the infamous “eight weeks” of her service while there were problems with the Health Exchange Portal.

But perhaps most interesting was her take on dysfunction in national government.

States, she said, have a more practical approach. There is dissent and disagreement and knock down political fights. But at the end of the day, things get done. Things have to get done.

For one thing, states are mandated to annually pass a budget. So there’s only so far you can kick the can down the road.

That’s not the same at the federal level. In addition to raising issues of gerrymandering and money in politics, Sebelius argued that there’s a growing number of people elected to congress who think that nothing good comes from government.

For four of the five years she was Secretary, the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t have a budget. The government shut down three times.

States, she argued, have to be practical. But for Congress – they can pass the buck indefinitely.