Arguing for Social Impact

This quote from Elie Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, displayed in the window of our local JCC, gave me pause this past Fall. At the time, the rising crescendo of anti-45ism had reached one of a multitude of peak moments following the neo-Nazi uprising in Charlottesville, the mosque bombing in Minnesota, and ongoing feud between football players and certain of their owners as part of the growing take-a-knee movement. It was cacophonous.


Everyone I knew was taking sides against, had been taking sides against, and was never on the side of Donald Trump. Of course they were. So was I. But it was all starting to sound like a broken record, and there was just so much noise. At that moment, reading these wise words, I started thinking about neutrality, and whether sometimes it might sometimes be worthwhile to remain neutral even in the face of issues of such magnitude, the correct positions on which seemed obvious to me.


  • There is no place for Nazis in a civil society.

  • A place of worship should be a safe haven.

  • Kneeling during the national anthem is not disrespectful. And the flag really has zero to do with the GAME of football.


These things seemed pretty straightforward to me, and I was so tired of having to hear all the arguing about them. Why wouldn’t it stop? Should it stop? Should we stop arguing?


Fast forward a few months to two readings that provide the basis for some very clear thinking on this dilemma and that surprisingly connect my own thinking on how we approach political discourse, everyday conversation, and discussions about education nowadays.


Toxic Conversations


A January 2nd article in Scientific American with the hefty title Are Toxic Political Conversations Changing How We Feel about Objective Truth? discusses recent research into the impact of different modes of argument on our understanding of the issues.


The research reveals how an objectivist perspective only allows for one point of view (to be correct), while a relativist will accept that there is no one right answer. In the study, when the participants were advised to argue to win, their thinking was much more objectivist; while those who were told to argue to learn were more open to hearing different perspectives.


This has tremendous implication for how the candidates may have been perceived during the campaign and for how the issues continue to be evaluated on a daily basis. Think of your Facebook feed, television news panels, and comments on any potentially divisive article.


If we were just more thoughtful in our approach and tried to teach people about the issues rather than compete with one another in an eternal power struggle, we might not only elevate the rhetoric, but we might make actual progress in resolving some of the actual issues being (re)debated.


A (Hope for) Return to Democracy (in Our Schools)


Another great read that was brought to my attention this week was an excerpt from “These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools” by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi (Beacon Press, 2017). In an excerpt written by Deborah Meier on “Fostering a Culture of Trust,” she discusses the challenges to creating an openly democratic school: mainly accountability measures in the form of standardized testing and all of the attendant data, policy, and punitive measures associated with it.


Meier proposes that for a democratic culture to thrive, teachers and administrators need to model an open and constructively “argumentative” culture. For new ideas to be introduced, people need to be able to feel free to speak their minds.


Let’s consider this further. These ideas, once introduced, need to be openly debated, tried out, perhaps adopted, adapted, maybe thrown out, revised, etc. How much room is there for that now? How safe can we feel doing that now?


Let’s look at an example on one school where experimentation is part of the school design. About one year ago, I wrote about the Khan Lab School in Palo Alto, a private alternative school charging $23,000 tuition. From that article:


With the Khan Lab School, the spirit of experimentation seems strong and the willingness to adapt almost extreme. As Khan noted in a recent NPR interview, “It’s an engineering mentality,” Khan says. “You start with a solid baseline, but then you’re always willing to observe, measure, and iterate, and through those improvements you come up with something amazing. It worked for the car industry, computers, software. Can we do that with the school?”

Sal Khan has done great things for learning, opening the door for new thinking and new conversations about how kids learn. The ideas inherent in the Khan Lab School are ones we wish could be applied elsewhere as well.


For kids and teachers to feel that they are openly contributing, and comfortable about experimentation, they would need fewer tests to prepare for and fewer hoops to jump through (my words, not Meier’s) so as to creatively convene and develop these ideas.

Meier’s conclusion, in this section of her book, is a sad one, but it does provide us with some goals:


How can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?

Arguing to Learn

This concept of arguing to learn rather than arguing to win has implications beyond the political landscape. Surely we would all be a lot better off if political debates were highlighted with quips such as these imagined by the team at Scientific American (for purely illustrative purposes) when Clinton might have said:


“Are you suggesting that the aggressive approach I propose would actually fail to deter Russian expansionism?”


To which Trump might have responded, “No, I certainly agree that it would deter Russian expansionism; it’s just that it would also serve to destabilize the ...”


Instead of what really happened:


Clinton really said, “Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” To which Trump retorted, “You’re the puppet!”


When was the last time you actually heard two politicians maintain a debate around actual ideas rather than simply attacking one another? When was the last time you learned something during a political debate?


Has competition impacted the democratic rhetoric in our educational system?


Whatever the politics of the school buildings themselves, I don’t see the challenges to a democratic culture embedded in the relationships between the teachers themselves but rather between the very structure of our educational system and those charged with running it.


In the schools, the concept of winning may not come from a competition between two people or two parties, but rather from fear over the PISA rankings and a genuine desire for our children to “do well” that has been misinterpreted by a myriad of well-wishers in the guise of school reform, Common Core implementers, and an overabundance of undertested EdTech.


According to research released by the Learning Policy Institute this summer, there is a correlation between these new pressures and the number of teachers leaving the profession:

The most frequently cited reasons for leaving in 2012-13 were dissatisfactions with testing and accountability pressures (listed by 25% of those who left the profession); lack of administrative support; dissatisfactions with the teaching career, including lack of opportunities for advancement; and dissatisfaction with working conditions. These kinds of dissatisfactions were noted by 55% of those who left the profession and 66% of those who left their school to go to another school.

This level of competition has resulted, as Meier and others point out, not only in an exodos of teachers from the schools, but as the recent and misguided New York Times article “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” points out, an unapparelled level of anxiety amongst our kids.


When a student becomes so anxious about attending school because of a fear of failing or not getting into the school of her choice, it’s time to re-examine our conversations around college and college prep. We just can’t continue to blame it all on cell phone usage, discussions around which are highly charged right now. While there is quite a bit of evidence being shared as to dopamine levels and the impact of social media on our youth, there are so many factors at play in terms of teenage anxiety that make this particular rhetoric an interesting one to examine in the light of the objectivist/relativist analysis.


Show me a model


Democratically run schools can result in more positive teaching experiences and better learning experiences. Accepting them is a matter of letting go of preconceived notions of what education should be (Taking a relativist stance? Busting the paradigm?) and engaging in thoughtful dialog as part of the process. I may be predisposed to this type of model.


My own journey as an educator began in a teaching department at Columbia University where a model of “team teaching” and self-governance fostered the values I believe Meier promotes. With three teachers to a team assigned to 20 hours of classes per week, we met for one hour per week to plan for the following week, discussing skills to be covered, materials to be used and any issues that might have come up that (or the previous) week.


With teams made up of senior and more novice teachers, experience was shared, critiques offered, accepted, etc. Faculty and department meetings kept everyone aware of more system-wide news and events and provided an arena for discussion. While no single department at any university has absolute autonomy, and while there are always top-down directives and external pressures in any academic environment, I share this as a working model, albeit at a tertiary level, that I have experienced personally and which set the stage for a great deal of learning and growth at an early phase in my own career.


For interesting examples of democratically-run K-12 schools, as pertains to a more open rhetoric amongst faculty, families, and students, certainly read more of Meier’s work. The Sudbury models have long been examples of schools run as participatory democracies, where students and staff share in decision-making and where students are largely responsible for the direction of their own education.


All of the students and staff (together known as the School Meeting) are part of the democracy and all of the students have an equal voice in discussions and an equal vote in decisions.


One other example of such a model can be seen in what have been labeled “alternative” models, but which really should be one of a variety, in this case a school-within-a-school program where students more or less independently pursue group and individual projects.


One such program that I’ve admired for a while is the Independent Project, started by Sam Levin a student at Monument Mountain High School in 2010.


The breaking point for me was where it seemed that everyone around me was unhappy. I realized that my friends were spending six hours a day 180 days a year being unhappy. I came home and told my mom ‘I just can’t watch everyone being unhappy.’ And she said ‘Why don’t you start your own school?’


Not too many mothers would make this suggestion, not too many sons would follow through, and not too many teachers and administrators would support the effort. But there was a confluence of factors that made the Independence project possible, including an open-minded Superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional Hills School District, who was quoted at the time as saying:

The foundation of a strong democracy, a chance for people of all different backgrounds to come together and learn together, engage in meaningful ideas and grow from that. When schools and districts get that right, it’s tremendously powerful; when schools and districts get that wrong, it’s enfeebling and horrible.

We land again on this concept of allowing different viewpoints, sharing these viewpoints, and benefiting from them.


Go ahead and take your side, but make it a teachable moment.


As a lover of words, I find it particularly abhorrent when words are wasted and thrown about nonsensically. However, I am aware that even productive argument can get messy at times and that even political debate can be useful. In the schools, I definitely do encourage more discussion, from multiple points of view, particularly that which includes students about the direction of their own learning. I also would not shut school off to the outside world, as external experts and EdTec have a great deal of value to add when working in concert with teachers and school authorities in just the type of conversations I’m advocating here.


Some very simple guidelines for healthy discussion of any kind, ranging from the candidate

you support, the new principal you'd like to bring in, or that new expensive vacuum cleaner or television set.

  1. Prepare for any discussion with a minimum of research.

  2. Don't be afraid to take handwritten notes to help you remember you remember your facts.

  3. Or use an effective online tool such as OneNote, EverNote, etc.

  4. You don't need to be neutral, but practice the art of silence by actually listening to the other person's argument.

  5. Don't be afraid to change your position. Sometimes (rarely;-), the other person may have a good point!

We can all benefit from more effective discourse. If we are to prepare our kids for a future that we cannot clearly define, then we’d better start helping them learn to think for themselves. That starts with the gift of their own voice.


#politics #politicalargument #education #studentvoice #discourse #studentinput


Thank you, Diana Scopelliti Leo for sharing the Scientific American article and Mark Barnes for sharing the Meier Gasoi excerpt. A version of this article appeared as "Future Discourse for Politics, Education, and Everyday Conversation" on LinkedIn.


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