I lie to my students on purpose. I have been doing this for many semesters and, as a result, my conversations with my students, and their debates with each other, have become more respectful and educational.
In looking at how academics can promote viewpoint diversity, the idea of psychological safety is one that deserves further attention. Psychological safety is a climate construct from the management literature that represents a group’s feeling that failure is viewed as learning, that unexpected ideas are encouraged, and that nobody will be punished for an honest effort that goes wrong. Psychological safety is a meaningful predicator to learning – that is, when groups feel that they are safe to speak up and voice their true opinions, they tend to learn more, and more effectively. Beyond the moral and normative reasons to promote and protect viewpoint diversity, psychological safety provides an instrumental rationale: when students are empowered to speak their minds and put forth ideas – even those which their instructors or peers might think are ludicrous – they learn better.
Heterodox Academy offers several resources for instructors wanting to build this psychologically safe climate where everyone feels free to share their opinions, such as the OpenMind Platform and Campus Expression Survey. One of my own most effective strategies I’ve encountered has been what I call the “Announced Lie.” Here’s how it works:
On the first day of the semester, near the end of class, I present some brief information about viewpoint diversity and the importance of critical thinking. I tell my class that universities were not originally intended to be places where students sit quietly and listen to lectures. Rather, they were meant to be environments for robust, critical, but respectful debate, where people argue the merits of different points to determine what is true. I ask them how often they’ve wondered if what their book said, or what their professor said, was really accurate. Perhaps it challenged some of their moral, religious, or political convictions. Perhaps it conflicted with something another instructor or teacher said. Perhaps they simply believed it was wrong, from their own experiences and knowledge.
Whatever the case, did they raise their hand and state their concern? Did they feel free to speak up immediately and defend their viewpoint? They should engage in this kind of critical but respectful debate, I argue, because that’s one of the best ways for all of us to learn, including myself as the professor. Of course, it’s easy to say that you should speak up and debate the things you disagree with. It’s another thing to really provide an opening, to encourage you to do that – to encourage you (as the student) to question me (as the teacher). In an attempt to create that opportunity, I announce the lie.
I inform my students that over the course of the semester, I will be sharing with them findings generated through the scientific method: results that, 99% of the time, are rigorously theorized, robustly analyzed, and replicated whenever possible. I won’t be telling them things that we think are true; rather, 99% of the time I’ll be sharing with them conclusions that are truly evidence-based. There’s science behind them, qualitative and quantitative analysis backed by strong theory, 99% of the time. This kind of science- and evidence-based learning will position them well to succeed in the ‘real world.’ But, what about the other one percent of the time?
One percent of the time – in a single but major topic in the class – I will lie to them. I will fabricate a topic or finding from the depths of my imagination, and I will even provide veiled clues that this couldn’t possibly be true. I will deviate completely from the research in an attempt to fool them, to make them believe something that is false. Their job, as critical students in a psychologically safe classroom, is to catch me in the lie. And I offer them bonus credit if they can respectfully and logically debate me to identify that lie.
My hope is that this serves to make clear that all opinions are welcome, and that students will be rewarded for speaking their mind. In most classes, it seems to work quite well, as students start debating me on points within the first ten minutes of the very next class! Of course, I don’t lie in that class (that would be too quick and too easy so I save it for the middle of the semester), but by having these debates during the second day of the class, we establish habits and mutual expectations for the remainder of the semester. By thinking through the logical arguments by which I or one of their peers might be wrong, students engage in the kind of cognitive reflection and evaluation that precipitates meaningful learning.
I’m somewhat good at acting, so I’ve never been caught in the lie. But what I have experienced is a classroom dynamic of open, entertaining, and insightful debate. In 2016, I had students in headscarves respectfully debating with students with Make America Great Again hats. In other courses we’ve briefly and effectively touched on topics such as workplace racism and culture while discussing politically charged aspects, and we’ve done it in such a way that everybody listened, nobody attacked, and some minds may have even been changed.
The key is building this culture of psychological safety from the very beginning. And ironically, I’ve found that one of the best ways to get your students to freely tell the truth as they see it, is to warn them that you will be untruthful.