George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

Teaching Students to Disagree Productively

Teachers can scaffold discussions from the early grades on in ways that show students how to respectfully share dissenting opinions.

November 28, 2018

On a cool October morning, energy buzzed in a third-grade classroom in western Massachusetts. Students sat on the rug, raising their hands and grinning from ear to ear. As I entered at the back of the room, I was struck to hear the words “I disagree!” coming from the carpet. Could it be that all of this excitement was coexisting with—or even coming from—debate?

I hung my coat and settled in to observe this science lesson in action. “Disagreement is great!” the teacher exclaimed before reminding students of a prior discussion about how to share and use dissenting opinions as a tool for problem-solving.

I recalled the political pundits I had listened to on my morning commute. “Disagreement is great!” seemed like a message that grown-ups needed to hear as much as third graders.

Situated among the desks, I thought of my own experiences leading story circles centered around identity development. I recalled the words of students and faculty whom I’d coached through the sharing process, their stories about civil rights, mental health, and community engagement vivid in my mind. So often, personal storytelling demands that we counter polarization by welcoming the complexities and contradictions inherent to human experience.

Dissent is crucial to productive discussion—whether in third grade, Congress, or the board room. However, students don’t arrive at school ready for productive disagreement; we must purposefully support its development. Here are four strategies all teachers can use to scaffold disagreement in the classroom.

Encourage Students to Listen Without Responding

Active listening is a pervasive phrase in education. Indeed, it’s a powerful tool when structuring healthy dissent in classrooms. Story circles are one way to implement listening theory in practice.

Story circles allow students and teachers to take turns sharing perspectives, stating evidence or rationales, and providing supporting anecdotes. Teachers might give students who need support prompts or sentence starters such as: “I believe this because _____” or “My experiences support this opinion because _____.” 

As each student shares, the other students should listen. After each story, teachers might allow listeners to thank the sharer or ask clarifying questions of the sharer. They should not allow direct responses or debate yet.

The goal of this exercise is to create space for differing opinions and backgrounds to coexist. Story circles are a first, nonjudgmental step toward direct engagement.

Invite Students to Share Another Person’s Point of View

Best-selling author Colum McCann’s organization Narrative4 encourages students to share stories about charged topics using first-person perspective in a story exchange. Story partners listen to each other’s first-person experiences related to a designated theme or topic and then share out by retelling their partner’s story in the first person, just as though it happened to them.

This practice encourages careful listening and guides students to develop empathy. It has the additional benefit of teaching social and emotional skills while enhancing academic discourse with personal experience.

Educators can adapt this strategy by inviting students to share historical figures’ stories in the first person.

Have Students Debate Against Instinct

The mock debate is a common curricular activity in middle and high schools. To encourage students to grapple more deeply with dissent, teachers interested in bringing mock debates into their classrooms might ask students to argue in support of a viewpoint with which they disagree.

Encourage students to conduct research using credible sources, prepare arguments and rebuttals, and deliver contentions. Following the debate, debrief by writing and talking about how it felt to see and defend the other side of an argument. This practice encourages students to consider others’ perspectives, develop empathy, and understand that few ideas are binary.

Guide Students to Seek Common Ground

Education researchers Pauline Harris and Barbra McKenzie describe dissent as “a positive resource for making meaning.” The exercises cited above encourage students to respectfully engage with others’ opinions and belief systems. They encourage what author Jonathan Gold calls “norms of civil discourse.”

But the real power of investigating difference lies in the examination of similarity. What themes unite two sides of an argument? Is there a commonality of intent between people with polar-opposite perspectives? Do our differences strengthen classroom communities, or our communities at large?

Synthesizing opposing perspectives and honoring complexity allows teachers and students to join together amid disagreement. Whether students hold their original contentions close or change their perspectives, inviting dissent into the classroom with these activities exemplifies both the how and why of engaging with diversity of thought.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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