George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Engaging With Contrary Evidence

Crafting strong arguments requires students to truly grapple with evidence that doesn’t fit with their ideas.
A boy does online research for an essay.
A boy does online research for an essay.

In researching how best to prepare students for new-media literacy, I’ve come across the term confirmation bias—the tendency that all human beings share to search for or interpret information in a way that supports already held beliefs, and to ignore contrary evidence. It’s something that is hardwired into our brains—our world is too complicated for us to keep testing everything we know.

It’s also one of the many cognitive biases that give us fake news and hyperpartisan politics as we learn to ignore evidence and just look for ways to prove ideas that we already hold.

So what can we do to help students become critical and independent thinkers, voters who are not victims of manipulative fake news or corrupt politicians? One concrete, practical step toward that goal is to teach students to craft quality argument essays. Here are a few ideas about how to do that.

Starting With a Clean Slate

Many students are taught that you start with a thesis and then look for evidence. But I don’t want my students to fuel their biases. Instead, they need to learn to always start with the evidence, without any preconceived ideas about what they will find. It’s also very important to give them tools to analyze that evidence and show them how to do it with scaffolding and instruction.

Cherry-Picking Not Allowed

It’s very tempting to focus only on the facts that support what we want to believe. Instead, push students to examine the pieces that are confusing or difficult or that seem to contradict their ideas. Those are in many ways the most important parts to include in an argument essay. We can’t dismiss that which doesn’t agree with what we already think—we have to address it.

Revising the Thesis

Once they really take a look at the evidence that doesn’t fit with their ideas, they’ll likely have to revise what they first thought. Rather than see this as making a mistake or getting it wrong, students need to be taught that you don’t have a good thesis if you don’t revise it. An examination of the evidence will likely show that their first thought was too simplistic or obvious. They’ll need to go back and look for the elements they ignored if they want a quality idea.

Truly Integrating the Counterclaim

Human beings are also hardwired to avoid cognitive dissonance, which is what happens when we hold two inconsistent thoughts at the same time. By making the counterclaim part of the essay, rather than a paragraph that’s tacked on at the end or thrown in because “the teacher told me to,” we work to stretch our brains a little more and learn to better understand the other side. So teach students to incorporate the counterclaim, and not to just include it.

Getting Critical About Ideas—Even Their Own

It’s pretty easy to be critical of others’ thinking, and anyone who has asked students to critique a sample essay or paragraph written by a fellow student has witnessed that. But if students are to learn to be critical of their own ideas and assumptions, they need to be constantly searching for biases and flawed reasoning. When they see this as part of the process, not a judgment that they are doing something wrong, they’ll learn to improve their ideas by examining them with a critical lens.

Modeling Acceptance of Compelling Evidence

One of my favorite parts of teaching is the way that students teach me. That poem I’ve read 50-plus times and think I have totally nailed? When a 16-year-old kid comes along, reads the poem for the first time, and shows me that I’ve ignored a major theme all this time—that’s a humbling moment. Such moments are also a good time to show students that it’s OK to change your mind when the evidence points out the flaws in your reasoning.

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