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Social Studies Opinion

The Art of Disagreement in Social Studies Class

By Brendan Bell — August 29, 2018 5 min read
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Wrapping up this round of guest bloggers is Brendan Bell, my uber-talented research assistant. Before coming to AEI, Brendan served in the Alliance for Catholic Education and taught US history and government at Cristo Rey High School. He’ll be writing about some of the debates surrounding social studies curriculum and teaching methods, drawing on his experiences working in Catholic education.

On Monday, I raised a series of tensions that states, schools, and practitioners face when it comes to effectively implementing civics instruction. Notions of good citizenship—and thus good civics classrooms—can look different depending on personal values and priors. But one frequently floated idea is that schools must better equip students with the necessary skills and dispositions for civil discourse. To me, this makes good sense; schools have a responsibility to help form citizens who can engage in messy and complex political and economic discussions. And meanwhile, the perceived lack of such skills is often connected to the country’s larger ails—its fractiousness, polarization, and incivility.

But how can we actually address this? AEI’s president, Arthur Brooks, offers one way to think about this problem. He argues that this is a question not of how we can disagree less, but how we can disagree better.

Now, I won’t proffer any thoughts on how to do this in DC or nationwide, but I will share a bit about how I saw this art of disagreement work in classrooms while teaching and working with other social studies educators across the country. During my school years at Cristo Rey High School in Sacramento, and summers as part of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, I learned from veteran social studies instructors who gave early career teachers a number of useful methods and resources to use in our classrooms.

Here, I’ll share three teaching methods (with an eye toward high school, but certainly adaptable to earlier grades) that helped model the art of disagreement, and then offer a few reflections on how these classroom activities typically unfolded.

  1. Structured academic conversations. In this method, teachers first ask a multifaceted question like, “Was the New Deal a success or a failure?” While the number of students in a discussion, the amount of preparation time, and other particulars may vary, the conversations always have at least three parts. First, students are assigned a side of the debate. Second, to stick with the New Deal example, the side set to argue that “the New Deal was a success” presents their series of arguments in totality, before moving on to any arguments for why “the New Deal was a failure.” Third, students are asked to restate the arguments that the other team has made until that team is satisfied with the characterizations of its arguments. Only after these three phases do students take off the “hats” of their designated sides, and offer their preferred arguments on the issue. As one would expect, after an extended process of engaging with both sides of a conversation, students offer closing arguments with noticeable nuance and complexity.
  2. Jigsaws. While there are variations to this method, a popular version proceeds as follows: Each student receives his or her own passage to read, and answers a set of questions specific to that passage. The students—each with related but different prompts and questions (and eventually knowledge)—later come together to answer a set of questions that require the knowledge that both students bring to the conversation. Questions like, “What were the main points of tension between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists?” are answered by putting the skills and insights of both sides together.
  3. Silent debates. Students start with a writing prompt, such as, “‘Representative democracy is a better system of government than direct democracy.’ Evaluate the merits of such a claim.” Students have 2-4 minutes to respond to the prompt, and write as much of their argument down as they can in the allotted time. Then, students pass their papers to a peer, and in return receive another student’s paper. In this round, the teacher puts twice the amount of time on the clock—the first half dedicated solely to reading and digesting the classmate’s written argument, and the second half to responding. This silent conversation can continue for a number of iterations, and is open to many variations (giving different prompts to different students, or challenging students to offer the alternative side to the one posited by their classmates).

In both observing and using these methods myself, I consistently saw a handful of positive things happen in classrooms:

First, students were stretched to genuinely consider issues from different perspectives. Each method required students to explore the underlying logic of a position different than their own. None of these activities were structured with the primary goal of playing a role for the role’s sake. Instead, when done well, they involved serious prep-work and studying of a position. This challenged students to come away with a deeper knowledge of “the other.”

Second, these activities developed the skill of active listening. This was refreshing to practice. After all, we’ve all fallen into the trap of thinking ahead to what we’ll say, rather than truly listening to the person across from us talking. Relatedly, these methods demanded that students didn’t create straw-man arguments or caricatures of the other side’s position.

Third, none of this was about “winning” debates. Instead, much was about trying to listen and learn in a community. These methods reminded us that the pursuit of truth is much more important than Oxford-style (not to mention CNN-style) debates that can seem more focused on tallying points.

Now, none of these methods are designed to avoid having students discuss or wrestle with contentious topics. In fact, they allowed for the opposite—more in-depth, difficult content could be discussed because the methods forced students to avoid making assumptions, jumping to conclusions hastily, or thinking about issues while in a defensive crouch and with a desire to outsmart the other side.

Obviously all of this gets harder in the “real world” and without the arbitrary assignments, roles, and reading that serve as scaffolding. Yet there are kernels of wisdom to be extracted from good social studies classrooms which can be brought into the world of public policy. And if we genuinely believe that civics education is the way toward a more productive civil discourse, we should consider how we prepare future generations to engage.

—Brendan Bell

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