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+Constructive Disagreement+Teaching

Both Sides Now: From Debate to Dialogue

I've looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It's cloud's illusions I recall I really don't know clouds at all

- Joni Mitchell

We often hear that the United States is anything but united – we are a “divided country,” framed dualistically by journalists who present “both sides” of disagreements and by media that air those disagreements as “pro/con” debates. This duality frame, however, falls short of what is needed to advance solutions to urgent, complex social problems. One of the contributions of Heterodox Academy is going beyond this familiar two-sided approach by focusing on the need for multiple voices and views – in our public life generally and in academic settings specifically.

Pro/con debates hold a special place in the hearts of many teachers and students. Beginning as early as middle school, competitive debate clubs help students develop the habits of mind necessary to take down opponents in the arena of narrowly framed salvos. The debate stage remains a steady presence in high school and college settings, not to mention in our two-party political process, especially as candidates face off against one another in the final phase of a campaign.

Traditional Oxford-style debates—highly structured sequences of staking out opposing positions, making opening remarks, each side responding to questions—offer useful experience to individual debaters, who must develop fluency and agility with complex material, often on a range of topics. Students who participate in debate clubs develop skills in research, analysis, synthesis, reason, organization, and public speaking. They learn how to think under pressure, evaluate the quality of evidence, and respond with quick wit.

To the audience, traditional debates afford opportunities to encounter new evidence, as well as reasoning about that evidence. And debates can be highly entertaining given the competition baked into the format: there’s a winner and loser, ideally determined by swings in audience members’ positions from before to after the debate. Debates excite the mind. It’s no wonder students enjoy in-class debates.

The two-sided debate, however, falls short when it comes to advancing real solutions. First, the goal of winning points shifts attention away from the far more important goal of solving problems. Second, serious matters are complex and many-sided. Views about them and strategies for solving them resist the tidy array of two opposing columns. And, real problems are highly interconnected. Taking a single position on a single problem pulled from this interconnected context means issues must be simplified. Realities must be flattened.

Dialogue among people with differing points of view is required to get good thinking done about significant issues. The Greek roots of the term bring together dia (“through” or “by way of”) with logos (“speech” “meaning”). It is through conversation, through both speaking and listening, that learning takes place. And it takes place over time, with patience.

Those in dialogue make use of the best available evidence and reason clearly. They bring in multiple perspectives, drawn from a range of disciplines, ways of knowing, and experiences. They engage in deep, nuanced conversation around a focused question, ask tough questions of each other, and try sincerely to answer them. Those in dialogue identify assumptions, make clear the limits of the evidence, and engage with humility and curiosity.

It is highly desirable – necessary, even – that we adopt forms of teaching that offer the multi-sided complexity of dialogue. And it is advantageous if these pedagogies retain the particular forms of skill-building and excitement found in debates.

One pedagogy that effectively features multiple perspectives and depth of dialogue while retaining the excitement generated by debate is Reacting to the Past (“Reacting”), a set of courses in which students play games set at significant turning points in history.

According to Reactor creator Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College and author of Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College, this approach “sets minds on fire,” a bold claim supported by the fact that the approach, which originated at Barnard, has since spread to over 500 colleges and universities of all kinds and also to some secondary schools.

Of particular interest in our current political context are those Reacting games set at points in history when members of a society have faced the task of rebuilding their government: for example, Athens in 403 BCE at the close of the Peloponnesian War; Paris at the time of the French Revolution; Ming China during a 16th century imperial succession conflict; India in 1945 as the British prepare to depart; South Africa in 1973 as Nelson Mandela leaves jail and apartheid is falling apart.

Some of the student players are divided into several factions with differing interests. Others do not belong to any of the factions; they have their individual histories and goals, and factions complete for their support. Students encounter – and must wrestle with-- a multiplicity of views and interests. Each student has an interest in winning by achieving their faction’s or their personal goals. As the game proceeds, some will engage in debates where they square off against individual opponents.

When the game itself concludes, students shed their roles and meet in seminar mode to explore what occurred. They discuss the readings for the course. Some are the classic texts one finds in a core curriculum (for example, Rousseau and Burke in the French Revolution game). Others are by historians and initiate students into the complexities of past events. Reacting games needn’t conclude in accordance with the historical record; post-game debriefing and analysis provide that actual historical information while offering students appreciation for the place of contingency in history and what that means for planning the future.

Getting beyond dualistic thinking is not an easy task. We might reflect, for example, on the oppositional symmetries of our very bodies (left/right, two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs) and in the simplicity of prominent moral frames (good/bad, right/wrong, heaven/hell). Yet it is neither the only nor the best frame to deepen and enhance understanding of our world, our history, and possible solutions to the problems we face.


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