Learning to disagree – politely

In recent years, we’ve been going through divisive times. Some would argue that times have always been divisive; it’s just the issues that change. Maybe the abundance of media has amplified the divisiveness. We are either for something or against something. We either support a position or person, or are against these things. We think something is good, or it must be bad. Or at least that’s the way our media would like us to think. On television news debates, the opinions are always extreme and the voices are always loud.

On the other hand, we also have a very deeply engrained culture of obedience. If young people speak their minds, it is often interpreted as lack of respect. We do not enter into arguments with our elders, even if we feel strongly that their position is unreasonable, or if we disagree with it in any way. In many families, there is no open disagreement or discussion of different viewpoints.

How does this translate into the culture of schools? While there is a small percentage of schools that actively encourages discussion and expression of diverse, even radical, viewpoints, the majority of schools place a higher premium on obedience. Of course, there is a place for compliance and obedience – there are rules that make our lives easier and allow us to conduct ourselves with respect for place and time and people. But there is a very important place for difference and disagreement, and school is a place to foster this in the right measure.

Teachers – and school administrators – need to find a balance between the two scenarios described above: outright verbal fights and complete silence. How can we model a good climate of discussion that is based on respect for everyone’s opinions without insisting on agreement? How can we teach children to disagree respectfully, and to express disagreement in a way that points to the principle rather than the person they are speaking to? How do we get children to recognize that it’s okay to think differently, but it means we have to accept the different ways in which other people think? And most importantly, how do we hold on to a model of debate that is not what we see in the shouting matches on prime time television?

Perhaps one way to begin is by getting comfortable ourselves, as adults, with the idea of differing viewpoints and how we express disagreement. In our staffrooms and meeting rooms, can we learn to speak frankly and debate on ideas rather than individuals and personalities? Can we encourage ourselves and others to engage in civil (polite) debate that leads us to greater understanding rather than greater divisiveness?