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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and author of Meditation in the College Classroom: A Pedagogical Tool to Help Students De-Stress, Focus,...
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Teaching Students to Agree to Disagree

A recent political campaign ad went viral, in which two Utah gubernatorial candidates created a video together. “We can debate without degrading each other,” said one of the candidates.

The creative ad, at least in my eyes, was a refreshing change from the intensely volatile culture we have created around political issues and just about anything that we disagree. The gesture demonstrated that two individuals from opposing parties, with opposite ideologies, can intelligently debate each other on the grounds of mutual respect.

Teachers: if we are to change this culture of call outs and bullying when people disagree or have different views, it needs to occur in the classroom, when students are young.

As educators, we can create a climate of mutual respect, a container of care and courage, where students learn to skillfully assert their views and opinions while entertaining opposing viewpoints. We must create a “space” for debate to occur. This cannot happen if students quickly dismiss each other, resort to name calling, or cut it each off with at least considering the other side.

And we have out work cut out for us. Arguing, insulting, and canceling out those who hold different opinions has seeped into the fabric of American culture, and I believe it’s dangerous for democracy. Children, for instance, might see a presidential debate, in which candidates interrupt each other or tell the other to “just shut up.” They internalize that this is the excepted form of communication or debate.

In the classroom, we can do better. We can help cultivate a generation of leaders who know how to express their voice, who can form opinions and arguments, but can execute in a skillful manner based on mutual respect. They realize that on the other side is a human being, who also has the right to possess their own beliefs, views, and paradigms. And by engaging in civil debate, they can perhaps become even more educated, more informed, and grasp new perspectives that were previously closed off.

We need to teach students that common ground can sometimes be found. Other times, we must simply agree to disagree.

The following are some suggestions to build a culture of mutual respect and civil debate and discourse in the classroom:

  • Regularly encourage the sharing of opinions, differing viewpoints, and occasional debate—that can even mean pushing back against a teacher’s viewpoint (oh, yes, I said it). Create a culture of caring, courage, and mutually respect in the classroom.
  • Model how to establish mutual respect when debating and sharing opinions. Teach students that discourse can occur within the context of caring, respect, and giving each other space to share ideas and opinions.
  • Provide structure and establish clear norms and expectations for discussions and debates (e.g. do not interrupt, use phrases such as “I respectfully disagree with…).
  • Teach mindful, deep listening, in which students learn to simply listen to the other without judgment or interjecting.
  • Lend students a framework that helps them see the benefits of mutually respectful discussion. For instance, show a picture of a tree and, depending on where you stand in relation to the tree, you can only see certain angles. Others, standing on different sides of the tree, can help use see the tree from new perspectives and get closer to the “truth.” A great story to illustrate perspectives is the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Right now, as we witness the intensity of these times, the challenges we face, and the volatility, I can think of no greater skill to teach students than that of civil debate. Our future just may depend on it.