Making multiple perspectives and complexities visible

September 16, 2019

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

Benjamin SommersBenjamin Sommers, Professor of Health Policy and Economics, finishes his Healthcare Safety Net and Vulnerable Populations course with a debate: students are randomly assigned to roles—as senators, witnesses, or experts—and probe aspects of healthcare policy, simulating deliberations that take place on the Senate floor. Somewhat similar to real hearings, each witness makes an opening statement and then takes questions from acting Senators.

The benefits: This exercise pushes students to not only delve into the details of policies, but also to understand how politics can enable or block them. “Most policies we discuss aren’t unequivocally good or bad.” Sommers wants students to understand different stakeholders’ views and learn how to build coalitions. Those playing Senators have to generate responses to proposals in defense of their positions; witnesses similarly have to address unexpected questions and critiques.

The challenges: Implementing a highly orchestrated, tightly timed debate structure involves careful planning for Sommers, including major logistical support from his teaching fellows. In addition, there’s a risk that the performance aspect of the session can overtake the actual policy content in a way that may be entertaining but less useful educationally. Trying to maintain the right balance between style and substance is important and requiring students to prepare a written document outlining their position in more detail helps.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Encourage students to challenge their own perspectives. “You’ll learn more if you engage opinions you disagree with,” Sommers tells students early in the course. Because roles for the debate are randomly assigned, students may have to defend a view quite different from their own.
  • Provide practice throughout the course. Sommers spends plenty of time on interactive activities, putting students in small groups to work through scenarios, and asking follow-up questions of the students, to build their skills at dialogue and advocacy. “The conversation is open, but not rudderless,” describes Sommers. “I don’t just let people spout off.” By the time debate day arrives, everyone has spoken and been pushed to articulate their views in a variety of ways.
  • Build community through student stories. Throughout the semester, students take a few minutes at the beginning of class to describe a personal experience or connection with the course topics. These brief presentations deepen students’ understanding of each other and of course concepts. Sommers feels this “helps get past disembodied statistics: I can say, because of some policy we’re discussing, an extra 3 million people are now experiencing what John just described.”

Bottom line: Sommers’ debate model and the scaffolding leading up to it makes visible the multiple perspectives and complexities involved in pushing for changes in the real world. The exercise could translate to other disciplines (even those not explicitly focused on policy), such as an English course debating which author to select for a literary award, or students in an astrophysics course enacting a scientific advisory committee.