Many years ago, after completing my college degree, I discovered that I was teaching tenth grade geography in a largely religious and conservative rural town in Nova Scotia, Canada.
In an effort to make the topic interesting for a group of 15-year-olds, I read “Spaceship Meaning!” Made the subject of the lesson. We were learning about the rare elements that allow life to grow on Earth and comparing it to the large number of possible planets in the Milky Way.
The class began by asking if they believed I had life on other planets. One of the “pro-planet” students responded enthusiastically and began by saying, “We all know that there is no God who created the earth, so…” The whole class derailed. Emotions were aroused by the religious students in the class, which made non-religious students feel defensive. As a first year teacher, I felt helpless to burn my beautiful lesson on the ground at my feet.
The next day in class, I had to face a choice; Either I can pretend that the event did not happen, or I can skip an important course in geography and deal with the subject. I chose the latter. I dug deep into the background of my philosophy and gave lessons on how to discuss sensitive topics, as we had done the day before by mistake. It went amazingly well. The kids were all involved, and by the end of the lesson, we all agreed that most of the time disagreements aren’t born out of the actual content of the arguments, but the way they are written.
This was a watershed moment in my teaching career. It revealed to me the need to teach adolescents basic critical thinking. If one of our main goals as a teacher is to help students become responsible citizens, then educational institutions should become the basis for free thinking and open discourse. However, we also need to strike a balance in student safety. If students don’t feel protected or feel that their votes aren’t worth it, there won’t be a real education for them. It is a challenge for many teachers to decide which controversial topics to discuss in their classroom.
At my current school, an international high school in New York, we have developed a skills-based critical thinking course that we call the Foundations of Learning and Knowledge, or “FOLK” for short. After refining this course over the years, I have learned one or two things, many of which can be shared and applied in other schools and settings. Specifically, I include a three-step process with all my high school students in the first week of class so that they have to prioritize some challenging topics and we will handle them together.
Good faith is a necessary agreement
This is a dialogue I use on the first day of my classes. I use to use the concept that everyone should share the same goal: truth.
“Have you ever argued with someone and halfway realized you were wrong?” I ask. “Maybe an innocuous thing, like talking to a family member where you realized you had misunderstood an incident?”
Learning to say yes and laugh out loud from more than a few students in the class.
“What do you do when you get there? Do you stop and tell the person in front that you are wrong, or are you moving forward, determined to ‘win’ the argument?
The familiar smiles catch the sheep’s smiles and the laughter from some of the students.
“So what is your goal in arguing: getting closer to the truth or winning?”
Almost every day, our students see and engage in a world of online discourses, meme-based arguments, and “dunking” on people who disagree with them. For most students, this experience destroys the principle of “goodwill.”
“Goodwill” means that we start all our differences with the person we disagree with. We do not assume that anyone is attacking us personally, and we agree to refrain from knowingly lying. Instead, when we encounter a point of disagreement, we should try to make it as strong as possible. This is a great opportunity to help us achieve our goal of getting closer to the truth.
Making goodwill an essential agreement not only sets the tone for the class, but also allows teachers to come to the entire course inevitably. Old habits die hard, so being able to remind the class that we all have the same goal is an effective way to ensure that everyone knows they are on the same team despite differences.
Once we agree on a point of goodwill with each other, we can start looking inwards and move on to the next step.
Clearly distinguish faith from identity
We live in an age of tense political divisions, where clear lines have been drawn on many issues, from gun control and climate change to abortion and hate speech. We are So dividedIn fact, the issue of masking the global epidemic can also be seen as a political statement.
On social media, we present a manicure version of our identity, letting everyone know what we like, what we believe and what reasons we support. In turn, these preferences are used to determine what medium is shown to us and who we can “friend”. Then, no wonder we associate our beliefs with our identity. So, when those beliefs are challenged, we often take it as a personal attack when it is not intended (i.e. we do not take it in good faith).
Another of my early discussions with my classmates is the difference between who we are and what we believe. I present the mantra that people deserve respect while ideas deserve scrutiny. As people, each of us has a right to be respected. However, ideas have no such rights and only through scrutiny can we refine our ideas into strong arguments. Scrutiny is necessary to respect good ideas.
In order to feel protected in the classroom, students need to make this distinction so that they are less likely to argue personally.
Metacognition is the main thing. Start practicing early.
There is a big difference between knowing and doing. Only students can agree that they should treat each other in good faith and not take things personally, not guaranteeing that this will always happen. That is why we need to find the source of our objections in order to determine whether we have valid objections. Observing our reactions step-by-step through arguments is also a great way to help break it down into its logical parts.
One way I would like to start this process is to ask students: “Who considers themselves ‘open-minded’?” Most hands will be on it. Then we do some work to create a definition of the word “open minded”.
Always, the initial definition includes words like “tolerance” and “acceptance” of other approaches. It opens the door to think of concepts like “naive” and “cynical”. When someone is naive, they accept almost anything without considering it. When there is a cynic, they reject almost anything without considering it. We try to land on an open-minded definition that balances these differences so that we are considering the evidence without having already decided what the answer would be.
With this operating definition, students then spend time discussing topics and in journals that make them feel a little closed-minded and why. They think about where and why their own judgment can be clouded by factors other than evidence. In my experience, students work well with this introspection and are often more honest with themselves than most adults.
Lay the foundation before construction
As our students navigate in their early years, they want to talk about difficult things – no doubt about it. The question is whether they will only talk about it with friends and hear about it only from social media influencers and YouTube “experts” or whether they will get a chance to explore it with a trusted adult. As teachers, avoiding difficult topics in the classroom may seem easy and certainly safe, but in the long run, our students need guidance on how to think seriously and how to argue impartially in order to sort out unreliable information.
The three-step process described above is a great way to start the first week of class, even if you haven’t taught a course of serious thinking. Subjects provide ample opportunities for our students to get to know them better and bring them together as a team. Also each student may feel that they are contributing to the whole class learning by listening, changing their opinions, and focusing on their shared goal of finding the truth.