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The Toolbox Dialogue Initiative

What Does TDI Do?

TDI’s principal work involves developing and running Toolbox workshops with partners and then evaluating these workshops based on collected data. A process-focused intervention, the Toolbox workshop engages participants in structured dialogue designed to achieve three learning outcomes: (1) identify core beliefs and values that guide the research or practice of the collaborators, influencing it in ways that reflect differences in training and experience; (2) share core beliefs and values by articulating them—perhaps for the first time—and subsequently enabling the collaborators to learn more about how each other operates; and (3) coordinate core beliefs and values through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. The duration of a Toolbox workshop is, on average, three hours and includes a brief introduction, 60-90 minutes of dialogue structured by a surveylike instrument, a co-creation activity, and debriefing.

The “Toolbox” instrument, a survey-like tool completed both before and after the dialogue, structures the dialogue by introducing the topics for discussion in the form of “core questions” and “prompts.” Core questions are open-ended questions that introduce a theme for discussion (e.g., Do values negatively influence scientific research?) and prime participants for the 6-8 rating response prompts (agree = 5, disagree =1) that follow and develop the theme. The prompts are probing statements written to provoke individual reflection and group dialogue (e.g., Objectivity implies an absence of values by the researcher). A core question and its associated prompts constitute what we call a module. A Toolbox instrument comprises 3-6 thematic modules that represent topics of importance to the participants.

Since the overall goal of structured Toolbox dialogue is enhanced mutual understanding of a team’s core beliefs and values, it is crucial that the instrument structuring the dialogue highlights themes that are relevant to that team. The teams we work with have addressed a range of academic and non-academic problems and typically include heterogeneous perspectives that reflect different historical, socioeconomic, epistemic, and material relationships with their specific problem. A team’s problem functions as a lens, bringing into focus aspects of the different perspectives that should be discussed in a Toolbox workshop, which can differ dramatically from team to team. In light of this reality, we have designed several versions of the Toolbox instrument and work closely with partners to design instruments that meet their needs, which can include tailoring existing instruments or creating them entirely from scratch.

Participants in Toolbox workshops typically have had little exposure to philosophy, so we ask that they prepare for a workshop by reading about the Toolbox approach to familiarize themselves with its philosophical dimensions (e.g., Eigenbrode et al. 2007; O’Rourke and Crowley 2013). The workshop opens with a brief overview of TDI and logistics for the session. Ground rules are established at the outset to ensure that all participants are afforded opportunities to contribute to the dialogue and feel comfortable in doing so. Participants then complete the Toolbox instrument for the first time before being invited by the facilitator to begin the dialogue from any point in the instrument. Because the dialogue is meant to focus on participant interests, our approach does not mandate that participants start at the beginning or even discuss every prompt in the instrument. Participants often start with a prompt about which they have a strong view or are curious about the views of others. The instrument facilitates much of the discussion, with the facilitator only stepping in if the discussion stalls or gets too far off track, or if the discussion ground rules have been violated.

After the dialogue has come to a close, participants complete the instrument for a second time before being led through a co-creation activity. A co-creation activity is an interactive activity that builds on Toolbox dialogue by expanding on the themes discussed through brainstorming, mind-mapping, drawing, etc. These activities are often designed to create a product, such as drafting a team glossary, a group mission/vision/goals statement, or a “next steps” document. If desired by the partner, TDI writes a report that combines data from the Toolbox instrument, the recorded dialogue, and the co-creation activity. The report highlights themes from the dialogue and makes recommendations based on partner goals for the workshop. TDI also meets with partners after the workshop to discuss the report and reflect on the experience, and, in some cases, to plan for future workshops.

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