Guiding Students to Be Open to New Ideas
Teachers can show students how to seek out and grapple with opinions contrary to their own—key civic actions in a democracy.
In 1995, MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte envisioned the Daily Me, a digital news package that a person would curate and would contain only stories and information of interest to them.
Negroponte’s prediction could not have been more accurate. Today this concept comes in two forms: reader-created versions like RSS feeds and customized news apps, and the hidden version that many websites deliver to us without our knowledge.
People now immerse themselves in information that reinforces existing viewpoints or entrenches them in an increasingly narrow field of knowledge. The internet allows us to shield ourselves from dissenting or contrary opinions, and we have the ability to read or watch only media that align with our vision of the world.
Even for those who want a more balanced media diet, the internet often curates what we see. This is the hidden Daily Me. In a popular TED talk, Eli Pariser warned of “filter bubbles,” which he defined as algorithms used by search engines and social media to give us information they think we want based on our prior search and browsing history.
So how can educators help students be more open to embracing new ideas? I have four strategies for doing this.
1. Make the Stakes Known
If our information diet consists only of the facts we want to see, what effect does this have on our health and the health of our society? At the very least, this questions calls for discussion. And it’s up to us in the classroom to get the conversations started.
Our Founders understood that the success of the American experiment depended on not only the unfettered exchange of ideas but people’s willingness to engage with those ideas. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that a liberal education was necessary for the preservation of liberty, and Benjamin Franklin defended the publishing of unpopular ideas, arguing that the public should have access to all sides of an issue.
The Daily Me, in both the self-selected and hidden forms, subverts the Founders’ vision of a discerning and open-minded citizenry. The more individuals commit themselves to media that never challenges their worldview, the less they can understand others who have different opinions.
Embracing a plurality of ideas, seeking out differing news, and grappling with opinions that seem in opposition to our own are key ingredients of a robust participatory democracy.
2. Make Your Classroom an Intellectual Safe Space
It’s one thing to say that ideas matter. It’s another to model it. In the past few years, we’ve seen the concept of “safe spaces” emerge at colleges and schools—spaces where students can escape speech or ideas they find offensive. This may leave them unprepared for life beyond school, where such ideas will be all around them.
Let’s revamp the idea and create intellectual safe spaces—places where people can respectfully share all opinions. Students want a place where they feel safe saying anything. Educators can foster such an environment, allowing for polite discussion of all ideas, even those that some find disagreeable.
Simultaneously, teachers need to play devil’s advocate. Question students. Present counter-arguments. Challenge their ideas. Let them know that feeling uncomfortable or confused is OK. Give them the space to explore the world of ideas in a tolerant environment.
3. Teach Students About Filter Bubbles
Information saturates us—it seems as though anything we want to know is a click away. But the reality is far more complicated.
Search engines and social media evaluate users’ interests and trap them in feedback loops, presenting them with links that are similar to ones they’ve clicked on in the past. This creates a filter bubble as the website hides data or media based on non-transparent algorithms.
How do we help students escape the filter bubble? The first step is just to teach them that it exists. Secondly, encourage them to seek out websites that feature opinions different from their own. Help students identify a few “opposition” websites and ask that they visit them periodically. Lastly, teachers should familiarize themselves with emerging technology that helps pop filter bubbles, such as the PolitEcho extension for Chrome, the Read Across the Aisle app, or Twitter’s FlipFeed, which allows users to see the Twitter feed of someone ideologically or politically opposite them.
4. Encourage Skepticism
Teaching students ways of detecting bias in print and electronic media will take on even greater significance in the future, as will preparing young people for a world in which popular web pages hide or parse information.
When it comes to skepticism, though, educators should consider going one step further than asking kids to question information or sources. We need to encourage students to aggressively question themselves as well.
Self-skepticism is a crucial step because it demands that we seek out data and opinions that challenge our own beliefs. This can prove jarring and even painful at times. But encouraging students to confront their own ideas will make them better thinkers, and may also help them become more empathetic.
A Way Forward
The Daily Me, in both its self-selected and hidden forms, threatens to create citizens wedded to a single way of thinking and who have little understanding of opposing viewpoints or those who hold them.
Educators can help impart to their students an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of new media platforms, a desire to explore diverse ideas, and a better understanding of those with whom they disagree.