Saturday, January 19, 2013

A variety of opinions

What are the official Hawketalke-sanctioned opinions on contentious issues?

No, this is not a collection of my opinions. If you want those, I'm generally not very shy about sharing them - just ask. Or don't, and wait, and I'll probably share anyway.
[Spoiler alert: I share them below.]

This is a post about the value of seeking a variety of opinions, which could avoid a lot of shock and lead to better decision making in general.* However, we should be careful not to take the balancing of opinions too far, particularly in education, when we are responsible for helping young children come to a view of the world that will help them to have incredible lives. There has to come a point when you say, "look, I know there are a lot of opinions about this, but some of them are very dangerous."

Aunt Lila's Question

The other day, my aunt Lila posted on facebook:
Hello friends: I would like to hear from any of you a dispassionate, reasoned argument that will explain to me why a citizen of the United States either needs or should have an assault weapon, armor piercing bullets, or a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds. I am serious about this, and will appreciate no name calling, no sound bites, no sarcasm, but an attempt to help me understand what seems incomprehensible to me. "Because the second amendment says so" will not fulfill this request. Thank you.
This is a well-reasoned request that, absent the disclaimers at the end, could have well ended in a one-sided tirade against advocates of gun rights. Gun rights, along with abortion rights, gay rights, the role of government and, in education, the "reform" movement, are among the most contentious issues right now. When something is contentious, it tends to be extremely polarizing, putting people squarely on one side or another. There just aren't a lot of people who say, "I don't care one way or another whether Americans should be allowed to walk around with assault weapons; whatever the majority decides, I'm OK with it." And just to remove the sense that I am somehow above this and I have perfectly balanced opinions, I'll go ahead and name my opinions on the above: No, yes, hell yes and I'm embarrassed that this is still an issue in 2013, generally more, and in favor but worried about hubris and testing and politics. When I think about these issues, like most people, I don't think about them in terms of my side being equal to the other side; I think there is my side and the wrong side. Those on the wrong side must be some misunderstanding or misinformation, because how could a person reasonably disagree with me? Except the role of government; I get that one.

So we tend to dismiss people who disagree with our opinions, and tend to gravitate towards people who agree with us. We engage in dialogue about the issues primarily with people who share our viewpoints, which leads us to inadvertently (and unnecessarily) gathering confirming evidence for what we already thought (see here for my previous post on the dangers of confirming evidence in the classroom)

The Problems

The problem with this is two-fold: It affects us as individuals, and it affects society on the whole.

On the individual level, our opinions become more and more entrenched, and we are less understanding of others. We limit our circle of friends based on what would normally not be an important issue. In conversation with people we don't know well, we condition ourselves to stay away from certain topics, lest we disagree. This limits the scope of what we can discuss, the quality of our relationships, and, ultimately, our own understanding of the issues. We read news stories from outlets that share our views and bring this bias into their reporting, and we avoid the outlets that we disagree with.

For society, the effects are worse. Instead of individuals choosing to spend time with other individuals, now we have groups choosing whether to engage in dialogue with other groups. We accuse politicians of this, but politicians are just a highly visible subset of the population as a whole. We're just not talking to each other and, when we are, we're not really listening to each other.

The solutions:

If you're aiming to balance your thoughts on any particular issue, here's how you can start:

1. Acknowledge that there are other valid opinions out there. You may change your mind at some point, and that's OK. If you don't take this first step, you'll have trouble truly listening to the other side.

2. Ask questions like my aunt Lila's. Actively seek out people who will disagree with you and help you understand their viewpoint. One way I have found to get people's opinions and hear their evidence is to simply tell them that you disagree with them. Most people are happy to oblige with their explanations and evidence, to convince you that they are right, which has the benefit of giving you a window into their way of seeing the world.

3. Expose yourself to multiple sources of news, and understand that what you are seeing is someone's reality. I like to read what the Schoolsmatter blog, the most extreme and scathing critic of education reform, has to say (despite the fact that I disagree with most of it and sometimes have trouble trusting that they are truly interested in what's best for kids). Nonetheless, there are some valid concerns about education reform, and they offer some evidence to refute what I sometimes take to be an absolute truth.

4. On twitter, follow people who disagree with you. Most of the people I follow on twitter are great math teachers, many of whom are very forthcoming about their objections to the education reform movement. I also follow Alfie Kohn, who is about as opposed to standards as you can get, because some of his ideas make a lot of sense any push my thinking about teaching.

The limits of balance

As teachers, we want to present a balanced view of the world, but there are also times when overthinking this step can have a negative impact on students. Many rookie teachers, for example, tend to over-balance their viewpoints when talking to kids, leading to less authority in the classroom and a sense among kids that everything is negotiable. Beyond this, we risk teaching kids that maybe treating others with kindness matters but, hey, that's just my opinion; maybe it doesn't. This moral relativism can spark a lot of deep thought in college philosophy majors, but can easily lead a middle schooler to validate his own self-centered view of the world (says someone who named his blog after himself.) The consequences of this can be disastrous for a classroom full of kids who need to put up with this student, and for the student himself, who can spend several years not necessarily becoming a better person. At some point, you'll encourage them to look for opposing views - just not right now, when you are telling them to stop punching people in the face.

*In a future post, we'll look at how expanding your sources of information and opinions, in addition to encouraging better decision making, can actually lead to more original and creative thought.

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