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.