Guest Blogger: Jennifer Fletcher
Pick a side and prove the other side wrong. In a nutshell, this is what many argument prompts tell students to do. But “making someone wrong”—that is, accusing, shaming, or blaming someone else instead of seeking a win-win solution—rarely serves our best interests in personal relationships or in academic and professional settings.
Argument exercises that force students to see an issue as only having two sides or that quantify the amount of examples or reasons students must provide in defense of their position (give 3 reasons!) or that require students to see the “flaws” in a contrary position close the door on creative problem solving. This isn’t argument as inquiry. It’s argument as debate team.
While a competitive debate can be a fun learning experience for students, it’s important that students understand this isn’t how scholars do their brain work. Nobody keeps score in academic conversations. There aren’t clear winners and losers. And participants aren’t restricted to time limits for making their claims and refuting their opposition. Indeed, scholars work hard to avoid binary thinking and tend to view the other people in a conversation as collaborators and colleagues, not “opponents.”
When we teach argument writing to high school students, we need to be ever mindful of why we’re doing this. “Critical thinking and reasoning” sounds like a great justification, and to be sure, reading-based academic argumentation is a superb means of developing advanced thinking skills, but we also need to think of how and when students are going to apply those skills—in what contexts, with what mindset, and to what effects. I’d be pretty concerned if I believed what I was teaching my students was going to make them more antagonistic in their future lives.
A Better Approach: Collaborative Communication
They add that these skills are “no longer merely nice to have” but are now “paramount” (13). When I read this passage, I can’t help but notice the implicit endorsement of rhetorical knowledge—of attention to audience, kairos, and adaptability. The transferrable communication and teamwork skills that can be learned from improv comedy are the same skills that can be learned from a rhetorical and dialogic approach to texts. Both lead to work cultures that “are more inventive, quicker to solve problems and more likely to have engaged employees than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly” (13).
“No, but” adversarial thinking is as counterproductive in academic settings as it is in the world of work. Whereas “yes, and” validates and extends thinking, “no, but” invalidates a person’s experience or perspective. For this reason, I encourage students to use the word “and” instead of “but” during class discussions. It sounds like this:
This kind of supportive dialogue helps build mutual understanding.
With any kind of learning experience, including classroom debates, the essential questions to ask are these: What are the most transferrable skills this activity develops? How do I frame this activity to foreground these skills?
I want my students to be open-minded, creative problem-solvers who communicate effectively and ethically, not chronic debaters always looking for a chance to prove people wrong. If we’re teaching for the kind of transfer of learning we want to see happen in the 21st-century, then we need to prepare students to engage multiple perspectives and resist adversarial and reductive thinking. It’s a respect for diverse and divergent views that will lead to the kind of solutions most needed in our world.
Leonard, Kelly and Tom Yorton. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City. Harper, 2015.
By Jiali Wang and Jazmin Cruz
By Jiali Wang and Jazmin Cruz
Guest Blogger: Alejandro Granados Vargas
“Ain’t is not a word.” This is the mantra one of my teachers made us verbally repeat out loud in my early elementary years. Every repetition was supposed to burn it into our memories and turn it from a sentence into a law, akin to “water is wet” and “sugar is sweet”.
I remember her walking into the classroom. She was short with brown hair tied into a ponytail and she had a paper and pencil in her hand. She was wearing a green polo shirt and navy blue slacks, our school uniform. She was from another class and hadn’t done her homework. That’s why she was sent to our class. My school had a punitive system where students were sent to another class to write letters apologizing to their caregivers for not doing their homework. My teacher looked at her and gestured to the corner, pointing to the spot she needed to sit on to write her letter.
“Can I have a pencil? Mine ain’t workin’,” she said to my teacher.
My teacher looked at her as if she had just insulted her recently dead grandmother, took a bite into a lemon, or both. Without saying a word to the girl, she brusquely gestured the girl to come to the front of the class.
“‘Ain’t’ is not a word. It’s ‘Mine does not work’,” she said, crouching to look into the girl’s eyes.
The girl remained quiet, searching for a visual anchor besides my teacher’s stare, apparently unsure of what to say.
My teacher grabbed the girl’s shoulders to square them in our direction. Slowly and rhythmically accenting each syllable in the way teachers do, she said, “Say ‘Ain’t is not a word’.” The girl muttered it under her breath, all the while looking down at her shoes.
“Say it louder. ‘Ain’t…is…not…a…word’.”
Although, indeed, the girl spoke the words louder, it would hardly be called “loud”. She found a visual anchor in her shoes and maintained her eye gaze at them as if the shame hadn’t trickled down to her feet yet. The teacher then turned her attention to us, with her hands still on the girl’s shoulders, trapping her in her public humiliation.
“If you want to be good students and be successful one day, you have to speak correctly,” she said to us, scanning the room and making eye contact with each of us.
“We are all going to say it together. ‘Ain’t is not a word’.” She had us repeat it all together, nodding her head to the tempo of each cutting syllable, etching the message into our minds deeper and deeper. We repeated it again. And again. And again. Ain’t is not a word.
By Undraa Maamuujav and Jazmin Cruz