It's back-to-school season, which means, among other things, that we're back to talking about classroom dynamics. I’ve often found myself grappling with this question, so when a friend of mine told me about his classroom’s discussion policy, I was all ears.
His teacher had instated a “step up, step back” policy which works like this: If you are white, male, or heterosexual, step back, because your point of view is more commonly disseminated. If, on the other hand, you are a racial minority, female, or non-heterosexual, step up, because your opinion is one that generally gets overlooked.
I understand what the professor was attempting to do. However, while the problem deserves consideration and innovative solutions, this particular solution was a bit heavy-handed.
With that in mind, here are a few guidelines that I think would be useful for creating an open discussion space, compiled from my personal experience. I didn’t create any of these guidelines, I’ve simply taken what I think work best, and fit them together.
Keep the personal attacks out of the classroom, and try not to say “you.” It may be tempting, or instinctive, to lash out against an unfamiliar idea by putting down the person who voices it. Try, instead, to focus on yourself—how does this idea affect you? Why do you find it uncomfortable? There are always legitimate reasons for why you feel the way you do, and they deserve to be examined and questioned. Moving past this, if you’re challenging an idea, keep it neutral. “I feel like this idea disregards…” vs. “I feel like you disregard…” will keep the conversation friendlier and going on for longer, and at a higher level.
And more than disagree, feel free to bring up something that you think isn’t already in play. This is probably what the professor with the “Step up, Step back” policy was trying to achieve. Oftentimes, it’s easy to disregard your own opinion if you don’t hear it being brought up by anyone else. Rather than realize what a unique and worthwhile experience you have, you think that it’s so fringe that it doesn’t apply to anyone else. These are the voices that often go missing, and are difficult to draw out. Rather than devaluing one group’s opinions for another’s, however, I think it’s more important to create a classroom environment where debate and disagreement is commonplace. When disagreeing, remember rule #1: don’t make it personal, but do keep up a lively debate.
This one is directly stolen from a program I did a few years back, called the Summer Leadership Initiative. Our weekly sessions were almost always about sensitive topics: race relations, sexuality, identity, generational gaps, politics, the economy…the list goes on and on. One thing that I think really helped keep the conversation civil was the idea of trusting intent—the idea that nobody is trying to offend anyone else. Perhaps some of the things we say come across as offensive, or ignorant, but oftentimes, that’s because of a lack of exposure and forethought, and not out of intentional malice. In that instance, anyone from the group can point out the error, or simply mention how the comment makes them uncomfortable. If done correctly, this can bring the conversation to a higher level, and allow us to address overarching assumptions.
Sometimes, a class is so in sync that everyone shares the same opinion, or variations of the same opinion. This can be true both for majority and minority opinions; I’ve personally found that the more specialized a class is, especially for electives, the more likely opinions will align. While it’s great for everyone to know they’re on the same page, it isn’t really a learning environment.
In this scenario, it might be helpful to encourage a few students to play Devil’s Advocate. Even if they don’t actually believe in what they’re saying, the classroom will learn by gaining a better understanding of the opposing arguments, and gain a deeper understanding of their own opinions and ideas by defending it against the opposition.
I think that, as a species, many of us like the idea of an easy answer, or even the idea of any answer at all. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are. Truths that seemed undeniable years ago are now laughable, and there are, no doubt, similar truths that we hold to be sacred now, that will seem backwards and archaic in a few years. Therefore, it’s important to walk into a conversation or discussion with the expectation that there is no single right answer—that’s why you discuss it. Conversations become much more meaningful when there is a mutual desire to reach an answer, rather than two opinions butting heads, never compromising. Never think anything is above questioning.
We’ve already seen the damage that generalizations can do. As overdone as it may be, the idea that each and every person is a “special little snowflake” isn’t entirely misplaced; perhaps we aren’t special so much as infinitely varied. The factors of our lives that have affected our decision-making processes and value systems today are different from person to person, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Because of that, any generalization about a group of people will not be fair to all members of that group, nor is it conducive towards a good discussion. Therefore, try to be as specific as possible about what you’re talking about.
These guidelines are by no means absolute or perfect, but they’re the ones that I have found have worked well. As you no doubt can tell by now, I think that a classroom is at its peak performance when opinions and ideas are challenged, and we can work together to reach a conclusion. Hopefully, when we achieve this, we’ll be able to come up with unique ideas and solutions together, and work towards a more open community outside the classroom.
Ta-ta for now~