There’s a gym in my town that markets itself as a “judgment free zone.” The idea, I guess, is to attract customers by creating a zone where they can feel comfortable exercising, without being judged on their physical appearance or fitness.
In school, we try very hard to create safe classrooms, where students can feel comfortable learning, sharing their ideas with other people.
But I wonder sometimes if making the classroom a “judgment free zone” has an odd side effect. Maybe it undercuts the importance of whatever issues we discuss.
Think about this for a moment. If I’ve learned my ideas will be respected and heard, no matter how “wrong” they might be, do I take them as seriously?
I think that sometimes we as teachers may be a bit too concerned about respecting people’s rights to an opinion. I know this may be something I do. Sometimes I’m so happy to get students to actually have an idea I’m perhaps unconsciously hesitant to challenge their idea, lest they shut down, retreat and never again venture an opinion on anything.
But the problem here is that it’s not enough simply to have an opinion. If I simply validate everyone’s right to an opinion, then I send the message that all opinions are equal. Perhaps this is where the simplistic “relativism” of kids shows up. There are several sides to every story. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.
This issue is a timely one in my own classes right now, as we’re studying William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. The novel, which describes the descent into chaos of a group of polite English schoolboys, suggests as its theme that human beings are inherently prone to evil.
I prep students for this by giving them a brief overview of two writers whose work provides a good context for the novel: John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The quick summary of their beliefs is that Locke saw human nature as a “blank slate,” while Hobbes saw human nature as tending towards evil. After introducing these two and presenting their ideas, I invite students to write about their thoughts. Almost without exception, students write they agree with Locke. They vehemently disagree with Hobbes.
I suspect that what many of them are really saying when they disagree with Hobbes is that they’re not bad people. Of course, they may not know what happens at the end of the novel just yet. But they may suspect it. And when they do encounter it, they probably won’t like it.
So at that point I need to get them to confront their own perhaps idealistic beliefs about human nature. I need to create cognitive dissonance that will force them to analyze the novel’s theme in light of their earlier writing. It’s okay if they disagree with the theme—I’d be thrilled if they did. But I want them to support their ideas—not just have them. The trick then is to not simply hold students accountable for having an opinion, but for investigating it, defending it and perhaps changing it in the face of evidence.
But of course we have to be careful how we challenge our students’ opinions, especially when it comes to class discussions. Otherwise we risk having our classes resemble the chaos of the kids down on the beach:
“A squid couldn’t come out of the water!”
In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breakup of sanity… He could see a whiteness in the gloom near him so he grabbed it from Maurice and blew it as loudly as he could. The assembly was shocked into silence. (88)
The pedagogue’s version of the conch might be something simple like flipping the lights on and off, a repetitive clap or any other thing that gets the group’s attention. These work, but they’re all authority moves that lack the subtlety I strive for in my teaching. I don’t always want them to know I’ve redirected them.
Nor do we want our class discussions to look like the savages’ meetings in Lord of the Flies:
The chief was sitting there, naked to the waist, his face blocked out in white and red. The tribe lay in a semicircle before him. The newly beaten Wilfred was sniffling noisily in the background. Roger squatted with the rest.
“Tomorrow,” went on the chief, “we shall hunt again.”
He pointed at this savage and that with his spear. (160)
This isn’t discussion. This is directive. And it may keep order in a class—but it’s not what we want in a democratic classroom. We need to find a way to allow people to share their ideas without inappropriate judgment. Put another way, kids need to learn how to appropriately question each other and demand ideas be supported.
One way of supporting this is through writing, which can help create the “judgment free zone” we need. I’ve become a big fan of using informal writing notebooks to catch writings like this in a systematic way. Allowing students to explore ideas like this in writing supports them while they deal with problematic issues.
But at some point we need to get the ideas out of their notebooks and out to the whole class. One way to do this is to ask them to underline a single sentence from their writing and read it aloud. I set everyone up for this in the fall by making it clear that while I will never force anyone to share any one particular thing, I do expect them to share their writing as the general rule. By having them underline a key sentence and then read it aloud, we get ideas out.
Finally, we need to model the strategies educated adults use to disagree with each other. Finding the right models for this can be a challenge. It helps to role-play a bit, using a simple rubric to help students evaluate their own participation in discussion:
- Excellent The student is actively involved for the overwhelming majority of class discussions. He or she poses thoughtful questions, clearly summarizes other people’s comments, contributes specific and relevant information, and seeks to involve other students in class discussions.
- Proficient The student is actively involved in class discussions. He or she poses questions, summarizes other people’s comments, and contributes relevant information.
- Developing The student is minimally involved in class discussions. He or she pays attention to the discussions, making supportive comments such as “I agree” or “Yes”, but rarely if ever poses questions, summarizes other people’s comments or contributes relevant information.
- Beginning The student is uninvolved in class discussions, perhaps even failing to pay attention much of the time.
Notice the directive to question, summarize and add information. It’s these three things that mark a class discussion where students hold each other accountable for their ideas.
This isn’t easy. Nothing worthwhile in school is. But helping students learn to respectfully disagree with each other in class is a critically important part of any democratic education.