The Importance of Being a Heretic

Amid the mass-hysteria of loo roll shortages, I have decided to cough loudly in front of important people in order to justify self-isolation. It's given me some much-needed time to catch up on housework... and YouTube (more one than the other, if I'm honest). As a result, I should be able to get back to a more regular schedule of blog posting. Fingers crossed! This week I am talking about being a maverick; about breaking the rules; and about why we should be teaching children how to argue.
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Empathy is not endorsement
Hold strong opinions weakly
Listen to understand

Regular readers might remember the week I mentioned my favourite podcasts.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here - they aren’t academic; just fun. Anyway, one of those podcasts, Conversations with People Who Hate Me uses a particular phrase that has struck a chord and got me thinking.  The phrase in question is:


Empathy is not endorsement


The message behind these four words is, I think huge.  Especially in the current awkward climate of post-Brexit Britain.  I have a friend who still refuses to speak to me purely because I asked questions about his political belief system.  I didn’t criticise it; I didn’t judge it; I just asked questions about it. And I know I am not the only one.


Perhaps it’s a reflection of having to read so many academic articles and exercise almost constant criticality, but I have seen the benefit of being one of those people who questions everything.  Or, at least, I am now far more likely to want to interrogate sources of an argument rather than blindly accept or dismiss a point of view.


There is another phrase which sort of applies here but is easily misinterpreted:


I have strong opinions that are weakly held


On the surface, this seems like a rather woolly stance.  If you’re going to have an opinion, then you should live or die by that opinion, right?  Except that an opinion is not a belief or an ideal. It’s a conclusion you have reached based on the evidence available.  Therefore, it should be changeable if different evidence comes to light. Holding strong opinions weakly allows you to be passionate but adaptable.


The combination of strong beliefs weakly held, and empathy is not endorsement should, I would argue, be taught from a very early age.  This is where heresy comes in…


In a move that might be somewhat disappointing to a few of you, I am not talking about standing against the orthodoxy of the church.  No, I am talking about a Radio 4 panel show from years ago. It was hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell (of Poker fame) and centred around the idea of unpopular opinions being shared and discussed.  


In one episode that sticks in my mind, the topic up for debate was music piracy and whether or not it should be a crime.  More recently, they have used topics such as climate change, Eurovision and public apologies.  The point of the show is not to score points but to play devil’s advocate and explore opinions that are very different from your own.


I know a lot of teachers do this already, but how often do we allow children to disagree in a positive way?  Schools are a hotbed of ‘say sorry to each other’ and ‘just stay away from each other’ (Primary schools, at least, I don’t know about Secondary).  That’s nuts! That doesn’t teach children the art of agreeing to disagree, of exploring the other side of the argument, of accepting that, perhaps, neither of you is ‘right’ because the problem is actually too big to be reduced to a binary outcome.


I say, let the kids argue.  Let them disagree. But teach them how to listen respectfully.  Instead of ‘no, that’s wrong because I heard….’ teach them how to say ‘that’s interesting.  Why do you think that?’ Better yet, assign them tasks where they have to argue convincingly for the side they disagree with.  Pair them up with ideologically diverse children (it can happen, even in Primary school). Remind them that they don’t have to convince the other person; that they shouldn’t enter the debate to shout the other side down; that a louder opinion is not a better opinion; and, most importantly, that understanding is better than winning.  If they’re entering the conversation with the sole aim of explaining why their opponent is wrong, then they have already lost.


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I was once asked a really useful question by my amazing wife (who is not now nor has ever been a school teacher).  We were talking about my classroom and I was saying how I asked a lot of questions and that my assessment for learning was pretty good.  I was having a brag, let’s call it what it is! Anyway, my clever wife stopped me in mid-flow and asked how I listened to the responses. She followed this with:


Were you listening to respond, or were you listening to understand?

And that’s the third part of the puzzle.  We can accept that playing devil’s advocate doesn’t mean we’ve sold our soul to the other side.  We can agree that our opinion, though strong, may be subject to change, but if we are not listening with the intention of understanding the argument presented, then we may as well all go home because what’s the point?  


Listening to understand takes time and may require follow-on questions like ‘what do you mean by…’ or ‘I’m not sure I understand…’ or even the scariest of them all, ‘I don’t know what that means; can you explain it to me?’  I have found that people, especially people who call arguing debating, hate to appear foolish or uninformed. Obviously, you need to know your stuff if you’re going to discuss it, but you can’t know everything and you should be confident enough to admit to it when there are gaps in your knowledge.  In my experience, it calms things down and reassures the other person that you genuinely are trying to understand their viewpoint. This doesn’t mean that you will adopt it, but you are at least listening.  


So what?  Why is this a thing?  Well, over the past few weeks I have been posting about behaviour management systems and how to stop playground problems before they happen.  This is key to the whole thing. If you can teach the children how to discuss problems instead of arguing beliefs, then a lot of the underlying tension goes away.


Obviously, this is useful as a teaching tool (for persuasive writing etc.) but I feel it is also one of the most valuable citizenship skills we can teach.


So there we are.  I’m going to leave it there.  If this has piqued your interest, then the paper Let's Argue! By Steve Metz is a good follow-up read.  Also, this article by Valya Telep is quick and related.  


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Thanks so much for reading this far.  I’m going to be reaching out to Year 6 teachers in the UK soon for some research and possible focus-groups.  If you would be interested, please leave a comment or contact me on Twitter. In the meantime, have a great week!


Carl Headley-Morris

@Mr_M_Musings | mrmteacher@gmail.com | bit.ly/carlslearningplace | www.svreducation.co.uk

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