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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are We Too Secure in Our Opinions or Not Secure Enough?

By Peter DeWitt — December 06, 2012 4 min read
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As much as we seem to be a society that wants to share our opinions with others, we don’t seem to be a society that wants others to share their opinions with us.

There are some great quotations about opinions, but most of them are not appropriate for this blog. If you turn on television and watch a few moments of reality t.v. you probably notice that everyone has a strong opinion about one thing or another. As much as we seem to be a society that wants to share our opinions with others, we don’t seem to be a society that wants others to share their opinions with us.

Recently, I had to sit in the hot seat in front of a very intimidating group of stakeholders. As a school principal, I am often in meetings that begin uncomfortably. I mostly look at those moments as an opportunity for growth...if both parties can come to some sort of resolution. On this particular day I had to sit in front of a class filled with fifth graders and I was in awe of their composure.

They asked me to sit in their class because they wanted to persuade me to allow pen-pal letters between fifth graders and a local group home to continue after they left the school to move to the middle school. One by one they stood up to read one or two sentences explaining why they felt that the program should continue.

“These students are alone on the holidays,” the first student read. “They hardly get to see their families and they are lonely. Yes, they made mistakes but they don’t deserve to be alone,” another one read. By the end of the discussion I had agreed to continue the program after they left our elementary school. It was good to see fifth graders expressing their opinions.

Too Many Filters
The next day our staff met at our regularly scheduled faculty meeting to discuss two different topics. One was the Common Core and the other was algorithms that control our choices. It’s a topic I wrote about before, after I saw Eli Pariser’s enlightening Ted Talk but I realized I may never have shared it with staff so we watched it together and had a great discussion after it ended.

Our students are growing up in a very different world than we did when we were young. Even in the days when the internet was new, it seemed to open up a whole new world for us. Now, because of complicated algorithms, we are at risk of getting only the news we want to see which will offer us a very narrow view of the world.

• What changed?
• Why does everything we read need to be streamlined?
• Is this really a good thing?

Are we so insecure in our own opinions that we have become a society that only wants to read or hear the news that we think is important? Are we too secure in our opinions that we don’t think the contrary opinions of others matter? If we don’t go one step further to check our sources or listen to other opinions, we are at risk of having a one-sided look at life and our students are even more risk of doing the same. This is not good for them.

Our students need to learn how to be accepting of other views, but if they are not exposed to them in the first place, they will never learn how to work with colleagues who think differently than they do. As adults, we see arguments and fights ensue all the time because people do not take the time to understand where the other is coming from.

The fifth graders who approached me about continuing a program after they leave, come to us every day with opinions. All students enter school with opinions, whether they express them or not, they are in there and should be allowed to share those opinions even if they are different from our own. Too often, adults and children do not express their opinions because they are afraid of confrontation or that they may get in trouble. Confrontation isn’t a bad thing if it leads to a better place. It encourages risk taking rather than rule following.

How Secure Are You?
As we approach our fiscal cliff I wonder why one political party doesn’t listen to the other. One side has to win and they do not meet in the middle or listen to the other side. They fight to prove that they are right and in the process there is collateral damage all around. That does not help anyone and it teaches our students that they have to be right with their opinions, no matter the outcome. Our students are learning at a young age that working it out with others is important but not if you’re an adult.

Now, because of streamlined choices that happen because of complicated algorithms, our students are at risk of shaping an opinion and not listening to others. They grow up to be adults who do the same thing. In my own life, I have seen friends have very one-sided opinions who have chastised others for having a different view. I have been at dinner parties where those who are conservative can’t share their opinions because very liberal people won’t allow them to. I have also seen it the other way around.

It seems that people aren’t tolerant of other views that might challenge the ones they have, and as great and useful as the internet is, it is helping to further the wedge. We need to not only surround ourselves with likeminded friends, we need to expand our views or we are severely missing out. When we ignore diverse views we are not doing ourselves any favors.

• Use multiple search engines when researching information
• Encourage your students not to take the first opinion they read
• If you are liberal, watch a conservative news show from time to time. If you’re conservative, watch something a bit more liberal from time to time.
• Be aware that the news you are getting may not be the full story.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.