Promoting Civil Debate in Education

Much has been made about the lack of civil debate in our society today, particularly in politics. In K-12 education specifically, I listen to speeches and read blog posts and opinion pieces that criticize ideas and/or the individuals that hold them in a way that feels less civil than necessary. Accepting that there will always be fundamental differences of opinion, it still seems there are simple ways to promote civil, rational debate.

One of my favorite podcast series, Intelligence Squared U.S., follows a standard procedure – the Oxford Style Debate – to balance opposing viewpoints to thoroughly examine a topic. While I would love to see actual debates on K-12 education topics follow that protocol, I also think the general philosophy could be applied to writing as well. Here are a few ideas on steps we could all take when writing about an idea with disagree with:

Step 1: Clearly Identify Your Disagreement
Start with, “I disagree with <insert detailed description of the idea without using loaded terminology, strawman arguments and/or criticizing individual(s) who espouse that idea>.”

Step 2: Explain Why You Disagree
Provide the rationale for why you disagree with the idea, using objective evidence where possible. Also, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If there are elements of the idea that you do agree with, be sure to mention those as well.

Step 3: Offer an Alternative Idea
Avoid criticizing without offering solutions. Offer an alternative idea that you feel is superior to the idea you disagree with. As with Step 1, provide a detailed description of your idea.

Step 4: Explain the Merits of Your Idea
Similar to Step 2, provide the primary reasons why you support your idea, using objective evidence where possible.

Step 5: Admit the Limitations of Your Idea
Rather than ignoring the limitations of your idea, be straightforward about them. If you have ideas on how to mitigate these limitations, list them.

Step 6: Be Open Minded
As new information emerges that refutes your idea, be open to changing your mind. 

Starting today, I am making a commitment to follow my own guidance. I hope others will join me. After all, if we cannot engage in civil debate as K-12 education leaders, how can we possibly expect our students to act any different?


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