Many years ago, fresh off completing my college degree, I found myself teaching grade 10 geography in a fairly religious and conservative rural town in Nova Scotia, Canada.
In an attempt to make the subject matter interesting to a group of 15-year-olds, I made the topic of the lesson “Spaceship Earth!” We were learning about the rare factors that have allowed life to flourish on Earth and comparing that with the vast number of potential planets in the galaxy.
I kicked off the lesson by asking the class whether they believed there is life on other planets. One of the “pro-alien” students replied enthusiastically and began by saying, “We all know there is not really a God who created Earth, so…” The entire class was derailed. Emotions flared from the religious students in the class which, in turn, caused the non-religious students to get defensive. As a first-year teacher, I felt helpless as my beautiful lesson burned to the ground at my feet.
The next day in class, I was faced with a choice; either I could pretend the incident didn’t happen, or I could forego the ever-important geography curriculum and address the topic head-on. I chose the latter. I dug deep into my philosophy background and led a lesson on how to discuss sensitive topics, as we’d accidentally done the day before. It went wonderfully. The kids were all engaged, and by the end of the lesson, we all agreed that often disagreements are born not of the actual content of the arguments, but rather by the way they are phrased.
This was a watershed moment in my teaching career. It made manifest for me the need to teach fundamental critical thinking principles to adolescents. If one of our main goals as educators is to help students become responsible citizens, then educational institutions should be bastions of free thought and open discourse. However, we also need to balance that with student safety. If students do not feel protected or if they feel their opinions are not valued, then no real learning will occur for them. That is the challenge facing many teachers when considering what controversial topics to address in their classes.
At my current school, an international high school in New York, we have designed a skills-based critical thinking course we call Foundations of Learning and Knowledge, or “FOLK” for short. After years of refining this course, I’ve learned a thing or two, much of which can be shared with and applied to other schools and settings. In particular, I cover a three-step process with all of my high school students in the first week of class to prime them for some of the challenging topics they will encounter and that we will tackle together.
Good faith is an essential agreement
Here’s an interaction I often use on the very first day of my classes. I use it to introduce the concept that we should all share the same goal: the truth.
“Have you ever been in an argument with someone, and halfway through, you realize you are wrong?” I ask. “Maybe something innocuous, like talking with a family member where you realize that you misremembered an incident?”
Cue vigorous nods and knowing smiles from more than a few students in the classroom.
“What do you do when you reach that point? Do you stop and tell the other person that you were wrong, or do you carry on, determined to ‘win’ the argument?”
Knowing smiles turn into sheepish grins and laughs from more than a few students.
“So what is your goal when making an argument: coming closer to the truth or winning?”
Near-daily, our students observe and engage with a world of online discourse, meme-based arguments and “dunking” on people they disagree with. For many students, this experience has eroded the principle of “good faith.”
“Good faith” means that we begin all disagreements with charity toward the person we disagree with. We do not assume anyone is attacking us personally, and we also agree to refrain from knowingly committing fallacies. Instead, when confronted by a viewpoint with which we disagree, we should endeavor to frame it in the strongest possible form. That way it has the best chance of helping us achieve our goal of coming closer to the truth.
Making good faith an essential agreement not only sets the tone for the class, but it also allows the teacher to address breaches when they inevitably come up throughout the course. Old habits die hard, so being able to remind the class that we all have the same goal is an effective way to make sure everyone knows they’re on the same team despite differences of opinions.
Once we have agreed on a good faith approach to each other, we can begin to look inward and move to step two.
Clearly distinguish beliefs from identities
We live in an age of tense political divide, where clear lines have been drawn on a number of topics, from gun control and climate change to abortion and hate speech. We are so divided, in fact, that even the matter of wearing a mask in a global pandemic can be seen as a political statement.
On social media, we present a manicured version of our identities, letting everyone know what we like, what we believe and what causes we support. In turn, these preferences are used to determine what media we are shown and who we may want to “friend.” It is no wonder, then, that we conflate our beliefs with our identity. So, when those beliefs become challenged, we often take it as a personal attack when it is not intended as such (i.e. we don’t take it in good faith).
Another early discussion I have with my classes is the distinction between who we are and what we believe. I present the mantra that people deserve respect while ideas deserve scrutiny. As people, every one of us has the right to be respected. However, ideas have no such rights, and only through scrutiny are we able to refine our ideas into stronger arguments. Scrutiny is actually essential for honing good ideas.
In order to feel protected in class, students need to draw this distinction so they will be less likely to take arguments personally.
Metacognition is key. Start practicing early.
There is a big difference between knowing and doing. Just because students may agree that they should operate in good faith toward one another and not take things personally, does not ensure that will always happen. This is why we also need to trace the source of our objections to determine if we have valid counterpoints or not. Monitoring our reactions step-by-step through an argument is also a good way to help us break it down to its logical parts.
One way that I like to begin this process is by asking students: “Who considers themselves to be ‘open-minded’?” Most will raise their hands at this. Then we do some activities to create a definition of the term “open-minded.”
Always, the initial definitions include words like “tolerance” and “acceptance” of other perspectives. This opens the door to consider concepts like “naivete” and “cynicism.” When one is naive, they will accept almost anything without considering it. When one is cynical, they will reject almost anything without considering it. We try to land on a definition of open-mindedness that balances this distinction so that we are considering evidence without predetermining what the answer will be.
With this operating definition, students then spend time discussing and journaling about topics they feel a bit closed-minded about and why. They consider where and why their own judgement may be clouded by factors other than evidence. In my experience, students do quite well with this introspection and are often much more honest with themselves than many adults would be.
Lay the foundation before building
As our students navigate their formative years, they want to talk about the hard stuff—there’s no doubt about that. The question is whether they’ll talk about it only with friends and hear about it only from social media influencers and YouTube “experts,” or if they’ll have the chance to explore it with a trusted adult. As teachers, it can seem like the easier—and certainly safer—choice to avoid difficult topics in class, but long-term, our students need guidance on how to think critically and argue fairly, to sort the reliable information from the unreliable.
The three-step process outlined above is a great way to start the first week of class, even if you don’t teach a course on critical thinking. The topics provide ample opportunity to get to know your students better and for them to pull together as a team. It also lays the foundation upon which each student can feel like they are contributing to the learning of the whole class by listening, changing their opinions, and focusing on our shared goal of seeking truth.