If teaching students how to think is more important than teaching them what to think, how can we, as educators, improve our students’ nuanced thinking abilities? And, could we as educators potentially be part of the solution to the problem of polarization in our society? Check out Part 1 – “Developing Nuanced Thinkers: In a Polarized World.”
Determine the Truthiness
One activity that I do to develop nuanced thinking is called, “Determine the Truthiness.” This is an activity that can be done in an online course, in a Zoom room class, or in a physical classroom.
In a classroom setting, I will show a series of statements on the screen. The very front of the room represents a “5,” meaning the student should stand there if they are in total agreement with the statement. The very back of the room represents a “1,” meaning the student should stand there if they are in total disagreement with a statement. If I’ve designed the statements well, hopefully they will end up somewhere in the middle for many of the statements, recognizing that there is some grey.
Here is an example of a series of statements that I have used for a “Determine the Truthiness” activity that introduces a Political Studies unit:
- The most important goal of any society is to be tolerant and accepting of all people in spite of their differences.
- The most important goal of any society is to make sure all people are equal.
- The most important goal of any society is to limit the infringement on the freedoms of the citizens.
- The most important goal of any society is to care for its most vulnerable members.
- The most important goal of any society is to maintain social stability, family values, and the safety of the people.
Examining these statements can easily fill an hour, as students begin to ask what terms like “vulnerable” or “freedom” or “stability” mean. Every question can turn into a ten-minute discussion, and if I facilitate that discussion well, I often have students edging one way or the other in the room as they listen to one another.
I try to teach them that changing your mind can be healthy, and that allowing other people’s perspectives to influence your own is important. “Keep moving,” I say. “It shows me that you’re thinking.”
Start with the easier ones
There are some really contentious debates in society right now which cause intense polarization. Should we be trying to tackle these difficult topics in our high school classes? There’s room for discussion here, but for the most part, I have become shy of trying to broach these topics. Too often, I have seen these debates result in fractured relationships.
There are hot-button topics that are currently dividing families, communities, and nations, so these might not be the best topics to discuss during the first week of school. Metaphorically, it would be like trying to bench press 200 pounds on your first trip to the gym. Somebody’s probably going to get hurt.
If a student brings up a contentious topic, I am absolutely willing to discuss these more difficult issues. Student passion, after all, can be the difference between an impactful lesson and a lesson that flops. But I would rather not discuss them at the beginning of the year, as I would rather wait until I feel they are ready to have a respectful conversation that will not fracture our classroom community. I want them to care about each other more than they care about the debate.
So instead of jumping right into the most controversial and divisive topic du jour, I try to develop the students’ thinking competencies on questions that do not have the emotional volume quite so high. In a history class this might mean examining a historical debate; in a literature class it might mean discussing an aspect of a literary character or a key theme.
Start with smaller weights, though, equipping students with the thinking tools they need before diving into the deep end.
And, mix metaphors frequently to see who’s paying attention.
Learning to listen well
Another way to improve nuanced thinking is to emphasize listening over argumentation. Something I repeat in my classes over and over is this statement:
If you want to love people well, listen to them well.
I spend a lot of my time in my class teaching my students to listen well to each other. I also say, “Listening well to someone does not mean quietly waiting for your turn to tell them what you think. It means working hard to figure out what they think and why they think it.” I believe that learning to listen well to one another is a vital part of decreasing polarization in our world.
Listening well to one another is also a key element of developing nuanced and charitable thinkers. I do not want my students listening so that they can destroy another person’s arguments and prove them wrong; I want them listening so they can understand and grow. It is not enough to teach our students to be critical thinkers; we have to teach them to be charitable thinkers too.
- Charitable thinkers begin with the presumption that the person they are listening to has something worthwhile to say.
- Charitable thinkers seek to understand rather than win an argument.
- Charitable thinkers are open to nuance and changing their opinions based on new information.
- Charitable thinkers treat conversation as opportunities for growth and learning rather than opportunities for intellectual domination.
- Charitable thinkers are willing to admit that they have been wrong and have changed their minds.
The only way we can teach our students to think like this is to model it in our classrooms. As educators, we need to be humble in our approach to challenging topics and debates. We need to listen well to students, asking follow-up questions to make sure we understand where they are coming from. We need to be willing to admit that we do not have all the answers. We need to be willing to admit when we are wrong.
Determine the truthiness: The most important goal of any society to educate its citizens to be charitable, nuanced thinkers.
I’m moving to the front of the room on that one.