Developing space for debate and dialogue

Many social scientists and cultural critics have talked about the loss of spaces in which we can freely engage with ideas, discuss and debate currents issues, learn how to articulate our thoughts in a reasoned and persuasive manner, and learn to listen to and appreciate other people’s viewpoints. We sit in front of out television sets and watch other people talk about issues of the day; we send in our agreement and disagreement through SMS and email; we tweet one line opinions and reactions…and feel like we have participated. But is this really the culture of a participative democracy? Where, in reality are the places that allow us the time and the space to express ourselves at length and to really get into an issue? Do people even see the value in such activities?

Fortunately, educational institutions still give us that. The classroom, and to some extent the assembly, are important versions of the “public sphere” that must be nurtured and protected. Within these relatively safe spaces, children can learn to sharpen their ideas and their wits and express themselves thoughtfully while listening to others do the same. They can learn the value of open discussion and the need to explore the million different threads of a given issue. They can learn about how consensus is built and how to use words to sway opinion through logic as well as well honed emotion. True, all this happens in debate and elocution competitions, but when taken to the competitive stage it is merely performance and not real engagement. What we are talking about here is discussion and dialogue for their own sake, for the purpose of clarifying thought. Offering children such opportunities – in fact insisting that they take advantage of them – may over time develop the very abilities that are so badly needed in the adult world: articulation, assimilation of varied points of view and ideas, and tolerance of these.

As in every issue of Teacher Plus, we try to raise some of the concerns and issues current in the field of school education, in a manner of sparking debate among readers. This issue looks at the position of curriculum in a teacher’s job, and continues the discussion of the Right to Education Act that Maya Menon set out in the February 2010 issue. We are pleased that we have received responses to Maya’s initial note, and hope that teachers, school administrators and all those interested in child education will think about this and share their views through the forum provided by Teacher Plus as well as in other spaces.

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