Monthly Archives: January 2017

Assuming Positive Intent in a Divided World-Doorway to Critical Thinking

According to the Pew Research Center, 48 % of Americans identify as belonging to the Democratic party and 44 % identify as belonging to the Republican party.  So, the U.S, is fairly evenly split between these two parties.  If we believe what we see on T.V., read in newspapers and magazines, or look at our social media feeds, we would undoubtedly arrive at the conclusion that roughly half of Americans are bad people.  It doesn’t really matter which side of the political spectrum you agree with, the prevailing trend is to vilify those on the other end of the spectrum, usually through oversimplification of issues, stereotyping, hyperbolic absurdities in the form of social media memes, or outright fabrication of data or incorrect information.  Civil discourse targeted at understanding each other and finding common ground in the pursuit of real solutions to real issues has given way to personal attacks and vitriol.

If I believe what I see on any given day in my Facebook feed, I must assume at least half the people I know suffer from antisocial personality disorder – that’s what psychologists now use to describe sociopathic or psychopathic disorders.  Here’s the problem.  Most people I know are not bad people.  They’re certainly not greedy, self-serving sociopaths.  As a matter of fact, most people I meet genuinely desire to improve the world, for themselves and for others.  They just disagree on how we can do this best.

So as educators, how can we guide the next generation as they navigate our divided world?  Much attention has been given over the past few years to the idea that the 21st century requires critical thinkers who can work collaboratively and creatively to solve problems and come up with novel solutions.  All the while our children are watching the adults in their lives grow ever more divided and unable to collaborate and find common ground.  Well-meaning educators all too often fall into this same pattern of vilifying those who hold political, religious, or philosophical positions that differ from theirs.  It’s so easy to post a clever meme without considering how broad a brush it paints with or how oversimplified it treats an issue.  It’s so easy to forward/share that latest “news article” that showed up in your newsfeed without carefully vetting it for accuracy.  And on some level, we feel a sense of duty to post and share as a civic duty, fighting the good fight or standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves.  I get it.

But what if we started by assuming positive intent?  What if we assumed that half the population wasn’t sociopathic, but actually wanted to work to create the same better world we want?  What if we stopped throwing stones and arguing our point and tried to actually understand each other?  What if we taught our students to listen to each other and seek understanding?  I believe this is the doorway to critical thinking when it comes to controversial topics.

Years ago, I tried an experiment in my high school civics class.  I had my students brainstorm a list of 15 or so controversial topics like gun control, abortion, legalization of drugs, immigration, etc.  Then they had to create a fairly simple position statement for both sides of the issue.  From there the task was to begin by assuming positive intent and write a brief description of what positive outcome they thought each side of the issue was trying to accomplish.  What developed through this process was a rich discussion that helped us all grapple with the reality that someone could hold a position opposite to our own and honestly have good, positive, noble motivations for holding their position.

When such topics came up throughout the rest of the year, and students began to get emotionally charged, we were able to reference this work, and remind each other to assume positive intent until given a reason to not to.  I’m not saying this magically eliminated all discord and argument, but it did help us steer the discourse away from personal attack and keep it focused on the issue and working together from our differences to seek novel solutions and divergent thinking.  It helped us not take disagreements so personally.  It helped us strengthen our commitment to understanding each other rather than just tearing each other down.  Sometimes discussions led to interesting ideas for how to find common ground and work together and sometimes when the dust settled folks just had to agree to disagree, but we were able to do it with a higher degree of respect and tolerance for each other’s positions.

I know we won’t all agree on everything, but wouldn’t it be great if we could at least disagree respectfully?   Let’s expect our students to be willing to listen to each other and consider the possibility that they might develop more positive solutions together than they would isolated in their own little political camps where the information they are fed rarely, if ever challenges preconceived ideas and philosophies.  Let’s get serious about teaching students to think critically and creatively.  In the end there is far more that unites us than divides us, and the world will be a better place if we believe this and act accordingly.


Want Your Students to Learn? Build a Positive Relationship With Them.

I’ve always been keenly interested in building relationships.  It’s what drives me in almost every arena of my life, and looking back over the years, always has.  Because of this, I found that relationship was always at the heart of my career in education.  As a teacher, I made it my mission to find ways to connect with students and build a positive relationship.  I didn’t have any data to back it up, but it seemed indispensable to fostering intrinsic motivation in my students.  If they liked me and knew I cared about them more than my subject, my paycheck, or my peace and quiet, I reasoned, they would want me to be proud of them, they would trust me to be there for them, and they would be more likely to give it a go in my classes.  All in all, I observed this to be true.  Students seemed to do better when we built good relationships.

As I moved into administration, I took this belief with me and searched out ways to promote this in my schools and throughout the faculty.  In hiring, I always search out educators who demonstrate a sincere love for kids more than a love for whatever academic area they teach.  My mantra is that we can teach you better pedagogy or improved unit planning procedures etc, but if you don’t genuinely have that love for kids, I probably won’t change that – it’s who you are.  Here again, I would say my experience bears this out to be true.  The teachers who come at education from a place of genuine concern for kids, and have that burning desire to build relationships and make a difference in the lives of their students, tend to be the most successful in guiding kids in academic growth.  But that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing though.  Brain research now backs this hunch up with research based findings.  It turns out our brains really do learn best in the context of positive, relationships that attend to and support our students’ emotional health.  In their study, We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,  Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio assert:

Recent advances in the neuroscience of emotions are highlighting connections between cognitive and emotional functions that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of learning in the context of schools.  

…In teaching children, the focus is often on the logical reasoning skills and factual knowledge that are the most direct indicators of educational success. But there are two problems with this approach. First, neither learning nor recall happen in a purely rational domain, divorced from emotion, even though some of our knowledge will eventually distill into a moderately rational, unemotional form. Second, in teaching students to minimize the emotional aspects of their academic curriculum and function as much as possible in the rational domain, educators may be encouraging students to develop the sorts of knowledge that inherently do not transfer well to real-world situations.

As teachers, with ever increasing pressure to deliver measureable academic results, I think we can become hyper-focused on the cognitive side of our profession, pushing for higher and higher levels of academic performance and content mastery from our students.  While this is not an incorrect goal for our students, we need to remember that we will be most successful in reaching it if we also attend to the social, emotional, and cultural needs of our students.  This, I contend, is nearly impossible outside of attending to the building of real, healthy interpersonal relationships with our students, and guiding them in developing real, healthy relationships with their peers.  Immordino-Yang and Damasio conclude their paper writing:

After all, we humans cannot divorce ourselves from our biology, nor can we ignore the high-level sociocultural and cognitive forces that make us special within the animal kingdom. When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students ’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students ’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.


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