Developing Nuanced Thinkers in a Polarized World

Brian Oger

Brian Oger

In the last 60 years, there have been exactly 2,843 instances of graduation commencement speeches that used some variation on this phrase:
“The goal of education is not to teach students what to think, but to teach them how to think.”

If your education taught you to think, you probably thought to yourself, “Wait, there’s no way to prove that.” Well done! You passed the test. At the same time, you also proved that learning to think will prevent you from believing everything you read on a blog.

Even this one.

Learning how to think has become acutely important in the current social and political climate, where wildly different interpretations of events can be reported on different TV channels or social media feeds. Learning to be a discerning thinker in this environment is a vital competency. Quality education in the 21st century requires teachers to help develop nuanced and discerning thinkers.

But how can we help students develop their thinking competencies, and can this be done without yielding to the temptation of trying to turn our students into ideological copies of ourselves?

Leave Your Ideology At The Door

An important first step in developing critical thinkers in your classroom is to leave your own ideology at the door. You might be absolutely committed to a particular political, social, or philosophical ideology, but your students should not be able to clearly identify what it is. For example, you might have very strong opinions about your subject area, but with controversial topics, remaining as neutral as possible — even when it is hard to do so — is important to allow students to form their own opinions.

This does not mean that you should ignore basic facts: Earth is round, two plus two does equal four, and many historical facts are verifiable and can be relied on to be true.

However, if you want students to learn how to think for themselves, the process of arriving at their own conclusions is an important part of that. As tempting as it may be to argue against an idea a student presents that you disagree with, I have usually found that this leads to students entrenching themselves further in their own ideas.

You might be 100% right, but you will rarely win an argument with a passionate 15-year-old.

You can still present your ideas on a topic, but there are ways to present these ideas from a neutral stance and avoid speaking about them as if they were your own. Introduce multiple perspectives on the same issue, but do not let students know which of those perspectives is yours; encourage other students in the class to question potentially false narratives; encourage constructive dialogue between students. We need to equip students with the tools to discern the truth, trusting that eventually they will get there, even if they don’t get there right away.

Leave your own opinions out of it though, because they will not learn how to think if you do all the thinking for them.

Dropping Debates

I teach high school English Literature, History, and Political Studies, and a few years ago I made a decision that I think some readers of this blog might disagree with: I decided not to do debates anymore. I was finding that at the age of 15, 16, or 17, students would become very invested in their position. The focus became winning their arguments, which led to greater polarization in my classes.

For example, I used to do a debate about whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were justified. This is a worthy topic of discussion, and one which can yield some very passionate responses on either side. What I found, though, was that students would end up entrenching themselves into whatever position they were assigned to. They were becoming more polarized rather than nuanced in their thinking.

In reality, I wanted my students to be able to look at arguments on both sides of the debate and consider the merits of both positions. I wanted them to recognize that there is a lot of grey in a challenging question like this, rather than landing on the black-and-white extremes of the discussion.

In reality, the truth is probably almost always somewhere between the polar extremes of any discussion.

I am concerned that overemphasizing competitive debate is actually part of what is driving polarization in our society, particularly in politics. What if our leaders are people who got really good at winning arguments in high school and now are unable to listen to alternative opinions without immediately coming up with a counterargument?

So, I have replaced debates with a different kind of activity. I have students work in groups and find what they believe are the three strongest arguments on both sides of a challenging question. Then, I ask them to come up with a consensus statement that everyone in their group can agree on. Regarding Hiroshima, they might say, “Using nuclear bombs on a civilian population is troubling morally, but given the desire to end a prolonged war that could cause millions more deaths, Truman’s decision was understandable.” Or, they might say, “Civilian death in war should always be avoided if possible; while the bombing of Japan might have been necessary, non-civilian targets could have been chosen.”

What if we taught all students to build consensus rather than teaching them to win arguments? Would we have a little more consensus and a little less arguing in our world?

Equipping Thinkers

I teach StudyForge’s Political Studies 12 course online, and I recently had a “Wahoo!” moment with one of my students. The course has a Political Polarization and Media unit, and several lessons focus on conspiracy theories and how to avoid being caught up in them. As we were developing this course, we realized that if we told students that certain present-day conspiracy theories were false, we would lose credibility with anyone who thought that those conspiracy theories were true. Therefore, we only used very obvious examples as case studies: The Holocaust, the moon landing, and flat-Earth.

Then, we created a series of questions that would allow students to examine conspiracy theories on their own. Here is the second video about this:

After learning some specific questions, students have an opportunity to examine a conspiracy theory on their own using a series of questions. While the online course uses an automated quiz tool, the activity can be done with a worksheet as well. Here is a printable copy of this worksheet, which is free to use for educational purposes.

My “Wahoo!” moment came when one of my students used this tool to examine her belief that the moon landing was faked. She had believed this for a while, but after she used the tool, she realized that the faked moon landing theory was very unlikely. The tool helped her to ask good questions, and as a result, she came to a more reasonable conclusion about this historical event.

I call that a win.

We will never be able to help every individual student examine every questionable belief they encounter, but if we teach them to ask good questions and point them toward helpful tools that will enable them to be more discerning, we are giving them a great gift.

The ability to figure things out on their own.

Do you want to learn more about StudyForge’s curriculum? You can request a preview of any of our courses within your LMS by contacting our Client Success Manager, Toni Lyons at info@studyforge.net.

About the Author

Brian Oger, B.A., MDiv

HUMANITIES CURRICULUM SPECIALIST

Brian lives in White Rock, British Columbia with his wife, four children, a dog, and three chickens. Don’t worry — the chickens stay in the backyard. He has been teaching for slightly less than half of his life, including several years in a blended classroom, but still has not achieved his professional ambition of having his class stand on their desks at the end of the year and say, “Oh captain, my captain.” He currently spends much of his working life writing online courses that he hopes will inspire the younger generation to love literature, language, history, and philosophy.

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