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Like fingerprints, each student comes with their own unique perspective; and on top of that, their perspective will also be influenced by social, cultural and political practices. It is this diversity that makes our lives interesting. When we accept that these differences occur, it gives us the ability to learn, to develop our own ideas and solidify our beliefs through dialog.
Ask your students what it means to argue and many of them will think of the emotional exchanges they have with parents, siblings or friends. You may even witness a physical reaction when they think about their last argument, but as educators, we know that arguments can be so much more than this visceral exchange. Arguments are the driving force behind progress, change, and learning.
Before Google and the vast expanse of knowledge at our fingertips, Plato, Socrates, and other philosophical greats used dialog to come to the truth. “Notice first that most of the works of Plato which are accepted as genuine take the form of dialogues” (Ronald Ferguson, 2006). It is this investigative technique that was used to debunk myths and uncover knowledge that we now know as “science.” Early biology can be linked to critical thinking and questioning from as early as 300 BCE when men such as Aristotle began to observe the world around them and classify living things (DK, 2017).
However, this “simple” method of discovery known to the philosophical greats as observational dialog is becoming a lost art in our 21st Century classrooms. True of all issues worth discussing; especially today's controversial topics, proper dialog, and debates take preparation and are a skill that needs to be learned. Students need to learn how to listen and respond; an art that is diminishing partially due to social media sites such as Facebook. 81% of the American population has a social media account as of 2017 and 239 million North Americans have an active Facebook account according to Facebook (The Statistic Portal, 2018). Facebook is a platform where anyone can share anything and over the past decade has gone from primarily a personal life sharing a website to a leader in distribution and sharing of news sources. Through the mass sharing of news and information on an online platform people are becoming increasingly good at sharing their opinions without evidence and argumentation, and from behind a keyboard true dialog is suffering.
Aside from preparation, one of the key elements to good debate is listening. One cannot truly debate if they have not first heard, because if we don’t hear, then we cannot judge, summarize, analyze and think critically about the issues and topics which are worth debating, to begin with. All too often, social media presents a topic for debate, which leads too quickly to personal attack. For example,
This was a discussion posted about a New York Times article on Masculinity. It took all of 3 comments before someone disagreed and proceeded to assault an individual because they had an opinion and argument from reading the article. If this were a debate in the classroom, no teacher would find it appropriate or productive to have this type of response. So how do we, as educators, discourage this type of visceral response and encourage students to keep the debate on the topic, even if they disagree with their peers?
First, it is our job as educators to create a classroom environment that facilitates both comfort and respect, so that students can truly experience the art of conversation. Tackling controversial topics through debate in the classroom encourages critical thinking and analysis skills that are so desperately important in today’s changing world. Students should feel comfortable to have a position and should feel comfortable in defending their position. Secondly, we need to teach our students to listen; to truly listen, before making judgments. “Hearing is the physical ability, while listening is a skill” (Moulesong, 2010). If our students are not adept at listening it leads to misunderstandings and petty squabbles. Finally, teachers need to inspire respect. Respect for diversity, respect for differing opinions and respect for others and themselves.Respect for diversity, respect for differing opinions and respect for others and themselves. Click To Tweet
Maybe the art of dialog as Plato, Aristotle and Socrates knew it is lost, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t endorse discussion and debate in person when we have the opportunity and the means for proper facilitation. Maybe if people are subject to these conversations more often, it might help them to acquire these skills that we seem to be losing in the age of technology.