Although concerns about a lack of heterodox thought tend to focus on university campuses, viewpoint diversity (and tolerance of it) is at least as important to develop in high school classes – perhaps even more so. These classes develop and shape students’ academic expectations before they go to college. Moreover, for those students who do not continue to college or university, high school is often their best opportunity to focus on learning and cultivating skills for information evaluation.
Diversity of thought and appreciation of diverse perspectives can be difficult to develop in high school classrooms for a variety of reasons. Overprotective parents are more careful than ever to shield their children from things that might cause them difficulty or harm. Administrators are overly anxious to protect students’ feelings and restrict controversial curriculum accordingly. And, as university vernacular has trickled down, the shameful stigma surrounding anxiety has faded, and students now proudly proclaim that they are anxious and find certain topics “triggering” to avoid them – which, ironically enough, leads to students feeling more anxious.
It is therefore critical to incorporate classroom activities that allow students to broaden their perspectives, but that are also sufficiently credible and noncontroversial as to be beyond reproach by the many interested parties – parents, administrators, and students.
One such activity that has worked wonders in my classroom – and could be adapted to college and university classrooms as well – is to ask students to choose a sensitive topic with weighty consequences, find someone who disagrees soundly with their own opinion, and have a conversation with that person wherein the student mostly asks questions and listens, taking notes. Students then write up a summary of the conversation that answers questions such as how the conversation made them feel, and whether or not they changed their mind on the topic.
I gave students these guidelines as they worked on this project:
- Students need to choose a topic they feel strongly about – one that has substantial social or political implications. They may not choose subjects like whether pineapple belongs on pizza or which Dungeons and Dragons character is the best. (I had students run their topics by me before they moved forward because several of them chose highly personal or inconsequential topics.)
- Students then need to pick a person whose views are the polar opposite of their own. Ideally, this is a person with whom students are familiar enough to have a potentially difficult conversation with, but not so familiar that the conversation can be silly and devoid of real content. Best friends are discouraged. Parents, grandparents, coaches, and teachers are welcome.
- Next, students will write a list of questions they would like to know about the opposing perspective – some of which are required. Required questions include things like, “What evidence have you based your belief on?” “Why do you think my perspective is incorrect?” and, “What personal experiences have you had that have led you to your beliefs?”
- Students will take notes during this conversation, including notes about how students felt listening to their interviewee speak, and whether or not the student was tempted to argue. Critically, students are not to interject their own opinion – they must either ask questions or listen. Students will use the direction of the conversation to guide unscripted questions during the conversation to further understand their interviewee’s perspective.
- After the conversation is over, students will write a 500-word summary of the conversation, addressing the following questions: Did this person’s perspective make sense? How did I feel as I listened to the opposite perspective? Does their perspective seem less radical or ridiculous than it did before the conversation happened? Have I changed my mind in any way?
Some of my students chose standard controversies like abortion, whether racism is a problem in modern America, whether religion is a force for good irrespective of the truth of its claims. Others chose more topical issues such as kneeling during the national anthem. And others chose conspiracy theories such as whether 9/11 was a legitimate attack or a hoax perpetrated by the American government on its own people. I could not have selected more interesting or significant topics for them if I had tried. Many students picked topics that were sincerely troubling to them or that they were genuinely curious about. Many also reported struggling not to argue during the interview.
To my amazement, nearly all students wrote that the perspective they interviewed seemed less radical or unfounded than they had previously assumed. They were surprised to discover that the people who disagreed with them had good reasons for doing so. About half of the students reported changing their minds just a little – not enough to completely change their perspective, but enough to grant understanding of the rationale behind the other viewpoint. A few students did change their minds in a major way. Touchingly, several students reported having wonderful conversations with their parents or grandparents and discovering a repository of wisdom that they didn’t know existed.
It’s difficult to criticize an assignment that allows students to hear new perspectives while practicing their listening and writing skills. I received positive feedback from students, parents, and even other teachers who found this to be a great assignment that they wanted to bring into their own classrooms.
Assignments like this will promote greater viewpoint diversity while simultaneously showing students that they can be exposed to disagreement and difference without suffering – and indeed, that doing so provides them a great benefit to their relationships and their understanding of the world around them.
Elizabeth Emery is an English instructor at Cooper Hills High School in West Jordan, Utah.