Difficult topics: Seeking and considering alternative viewpoints in the classroom

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Difficult topics: Seeking and considering alternative viewpoints in the classroom

Meira Levinson, Professor of Education, develops case studies about difficult questions in educational ethics—for example, grade inflation, charter schools, and policies that disproportionately impact low-income students of color—for Educational Justice students to debate and discuss the ethical dimensions of educational practice and policy.

The benefits: In addition to in-depth content analysis, case discussions illuminate different views among students who may have expected they were in like-minded company. According to Levinson, this is an important goal for instructors, as we tend to assume that others think the same as we do: “Students learn that is not true. We are socialized culturally to avoid difficult conversations—‘don’t talk about religion, sex, or politics at a dinner party’—and not often provided opportunities to substantively engage with one another.”

The challenges: Sometimes students fixate on topics with seemingly universal agreement—for example, the injustice of zero tolerance policies in schools—but Levinson pushes them to identify and discuss those questions that have a bit more ambiguity: “Can they stop focusing on how wrong it is and focus on the question of how a teacher can do best by a student in such an environment?” While no topic is off limits, the framing is what ensures meaningful discourse.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Tackle the big question with a small slice. Cases help students grapple with big questions through something much more tangible, concrete, and shared. “The discussion can’t be about the big question in the most general way, but about a piece of it.” Specific examples also humanize debate, keeping the conversation from spiraling out of control.
  • Choose the introductory question wisely. Carefully selecting a first topic with enough nuance and varied themes allows students to engage productively and feel comfortable offering different viewpoints. “I don’t do a lot of explicit norm-setting about our class discussions, but a case with no obvious partisan or ideological lines sets the stage for students to learn to disagree but work on a question together.”
  • Make different viewpoints visible. Levinson often employs active-learning strategies such as the four corners exercise, think-pair-share, even speed dating: “It helps highlight new ideas, expand the range of viewpoints, and surface minority opinions as well as the ambiguity of a question or statement itself.” These exercises compel students to take a stance in a format more comfortable than general discussion.

Bottom line: Using case studies to discuss ethical dilemmas is good practice for students in and out of the classroom: “Developing the skill, and ideally the disposition, to seek out alternative viewpoints on difficult issues and listen to them in an engaged and meaningful way, that is, itself, a really important goal.”