The following activity occurred in the context of an English as a Second Language (ESL) writing class for international students hoping to matriculate in US universities. This particular class was evenly split between students from China and students from Saudi Arabia, a detail that will become important shortly. Students in this class are at a high-intermediate level of English proficiency and are learning to write short essays in genres common to introductory university classes.

In this case, we were working on argumentative essays. The theme for the unit was “nonviolent social change.” I provided the following essay prompt:

We have been reading about and discussing nonviolent resistance. Think about a group who is upset about an important conflict. Try to understand and explain the circumstances of this conflict, why people are upset, and why they might believe that violence or nonviolence is the way to confront the problem.

Students were asked to argue specifically, in an essay with two arguments and a counterargument:

  1. to adopt nonviolent resistance as a better, more effective way to resolve the conflict you have chosen; OR
  2. to recognize that nonviolent resistance will not work in the conflict you have chosen, and that the only way to resolve the conflict is by using violence.

It became apparent after some in-class discussion of the essay prompt that: (a) all students from a single country wanted to talk about the same conflict, and (b) there was very little variation among students in their views on the conflict in their home region.

Looking for a way to help students broaden their knowledge base and be prepared to describe and address possible counterarguments in their essays, I settled on a lesson plan based on the ‘jigsaw’ approach common in language classrooms. In a jigsaw activity students are split into groups and each group is given a different task that is one piece of a larger activity. After having time to work on their part, groups are mixed and the larger task is assigned (so if the first grouping is 111-222-333, the second grouping is 123-123-123). In this way each member of the second grouping is the “expert” on one aspect of the task and students scaffold each other in the process of completing the activity.

For homework, I assigned the Chinese students several background readings on the conflict in Syria, while the Saudi students received background readings on the Korean conflict. During the next class period, to complete the first part of the jigsaw, I grouped students who had read the same articles together and gave them time to discuss their reading. In ESL classrooms it is generally frowned upon to allow students to use their first language. However, for this teaching assistants, I thought that breaking this rule would be worthwhile, as I wanted to make sure that all students had a full understanding of the material and access to help with the vocabulary they needed.

The group discussions were vigorous and flowed smoothly back and forth, both in Mandarin-English and Arabic-English. The pattern tended to be first-language debate on a term or idea from the readings, followed by consensus building on how to clearly explain the concept in English. After everyone had a pretty solid grasp of the material they needed, I regrouped students into pairs, one each from both original groups, and gave them the following set of questions to ask their partner:

Tell me about the conflict you read about:

  • When did it begin?
  • Why did it begin?
  • Who is involved?
  • Why are they fighting?
  • Who are the oppressors?
  • Who are the oppressed?
  • What methods are being used to resolve the conflict?
  • Is the method being used the best one available?
  • How can/should the conflict be resolved?

Thus, the Saudi students with more background knowledge (and preconceptions) about the Syria conflict were able to hear the perspective of the Chinese students’ research on, and understanding of, events in Syria, and vice-versa.

Although I didn’t hear any students change their minds entirely, the conversations were broadly interesting and respectful and led to more nuanced and complete essays.

The following paragraph is the concluding paragraph of one of the more well-argued essays I received. I think it is a fair representation of actual thoughtful engagement with a counterargument to the students’ argued position. Please note that this is a direct quote from an intermediate English learner, so it contains some grammar irregularities.

“In conclusion, the violent action should be taken in Syria’s case because war is last resort, fighters should have equal power, and war is justifiable. First, because of the useless nonviolent action, violent action must be taken which is waging war. Alasad regime did not take the nonviolent negotiation seriously, so the violent action will achieve the protesters’ aims. Second, as I mentioned, the matter in Syria is a civil war. Alasad regime has been supported with advanced weapons, while the freedom fighters have been fighting with regular weapons. In order to have just war those two fighters who are Alasad regime and freedom fighters must have equal power. Third, waging war in Syria is reasonable because it has an aim, which is establishing peace. If the international community helps Syria by waging war, they will overcome Alasad regime and end injustice. I refer the readers that nonviolent action has cost 93,000 civilians casualties. The nonviolence could not be applied in Syria’s situation because the result is not what the protesters want. It becomes more harmful not just for Syrians but the whole globe by watching the civilians die on news every day.”

It’s difficult to teach not only the importance, but also the formation, of counterarguments to novice academic writers. It takes practice, as well as a flexibility of mind— with which many students entering college may not yet be equipped— to truly and fairly represent and rebut your “opponents’” arguments. The opportunity to hear a new perspective on an old issue from classmates with whom you have a good rapport can be (and was in this case) a valuable learning tool in considering and understanding alternate viewpoints. It also helps set up students for success when they move into a professional setting post-graduation.

I am very happy to be able to contribute to the Teaching Heterodoxy series by sharing this activity, which I see as aligning with the mission of Heterodox Academy in two ways; First, as a regular class activity on relatively straightforward topics, students are able to gain comfort and familiarity with looking at ideas from multiple perspectives. My particular class situation was, admittedly, ideally set up to make this lesson work, with a small group size and students evenly split in their knowledge and opinion on the issue at hand, but this type of activity is still doable, and valuable, outside of language classrooms and with a larger or less balanced group.

Second, building on the skills gained with discussion of less controversial topics students can move towards constructive discussion of difficult topics, including those with more orthodox ideologies. As an example, I could address the issue of gender differences in technology in the following way:

1. Split the class into six evenly distributed groups each of whom will be assigned readings on a different piece of the topic.

2. Split the topic into three broad ideas and each of those ideas into two contrasting perspectives, such as:

  • Abilities: research on differences in scores on math and verbal tests
    • research generally supporting gender equality in abilities
    • research finding significant differences in abilities by gender
  • Preferences: research on preferences in major and career type
    • research generally supporting gender equality in preferences
    • research finding significant differences in preferences by gender
  • Personality traits: research on different personality traits and on thing vs. people orientation
    • research generally supporting gender equality in traits
    • research finding significant differences in traits by gender

3. Have students discuss their readings in the following groupings, supported by instructor provided discussion questions:

  • First, students should discuss their readings with others who shared the same assignment
  • Next, students should discuss within their topic group (ie. ai & aii, bi & bii, and ci & cii)
  • Finally, groups should be formed with at least one member of each sub-group

4. Give a summative assignment as a wrap-up, depending on the class anywhere from an informal in class paragraph, to a formal paper.

In this way, students are able to build their understanding of a controversial topic based on evidence, and may be able to see how other viewpoints from their own could be evidence-based and rational. The keys to making this work are framing the activity as a discussion rather than a debate, and the small-group face-to-face format.