How to Encourage Viewpoint Diversity in Classrooms

EdSurge Podcast

How to Encourage Viewpoint Diversity in Classrooms

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 3, 2023

How to Encourage Viewpoint Diversity in Classrooms

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Robert Groven, director of the Minnesota Urban Debate League, has been coaching high school debate competitions for more than 30 years, and he’s noticed a marked shift in student behavior in the past decade or so.

During debate exercises, there’s been a “consolidation” around points of view that are more left-leaning, he says, and a reluctance to make the case for extreme right-leaning positions.

“I have a friend of mine from the University of Chicago who likes to say, ‘We do a great job of preparing conservative students to leave high school and college and go defend their views in the world, but we don't do such a great job of teaching left-of-center students how to defend those points of view, because we don't challenge them as often,’” says Groven. “To me, that's a problem from a pedagogical perspective.”

Groven made the point during a recent panel discussion about how best to encourage viewpoint diversity in classrooms, hosted by the Free Speech Project, a nonpartisan initiative run by Georgetown University. EdSurge was asked to moderate the session, which took place on the campus of Hamline University here.

The discussion tackled plenty of thorny issues facing K-12 and college instructors these days, including how to respond to pressures to ban books in schools, how to make classrooms a welcoming place for debate as schools and colleges grow more diverse, and how to respond to misinformation that students bring to classroom conversations.

The panelists were:

  • Groven, who is also an assistant dean of faculty development and associate professor of communication studies at Augsburg University
  • Kathryn Kay Coquemont, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Macalester College
  • Deborah Appleman, a professor of educational studies at Carleton College, and author of the book, “Literature and the New Culture Wars,” which asks the question: “Can educators continue to teach troubling but worthwhile texts?”

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

What is different now when it comes to viewpoint diversity than a few years ago?

Deborah Appleman: I [used to be] a high school English teacher, but at Carleton I'm in the educational studies department. So my big concern for what's happening to the teaching of literature has to do with the people that I call my ‘thinking partners’ all over the country — secondary teachers, middle school teachers, even elementary school teachers, who are really under threat. That includes librarians as well.

If I think about what's changed at Carleton in the 37 years that I've been there, there are both external forces and internal forces. The external forces have to do with the conversation that the culture is having about cancellation, about what authors are OK, about what books are OK and what content is OK. And this seeps into the college culture within the context of a classroom.

And I need to preface it by saying I love my students, I'm here for my students. They're the most important thing that I think about. But so much has changed. One of the things that has changed is something that some of us call ‘the discourse of harm.’ So students come into the classroom extremely vulnerable and at the same time armed with a readiness to defend themselves against any perceived harm. And I cannot tell you how many conversations I've had with colleagues who are rethinking what they're teaching. People are anticipating moments of difficulty [and avoiding assigning books that might cause controversy.]

So on one hand we teachers have our own version of the Hippocratic oath: ‘First do no harm.’ None of us ever wants to cause harm for our students. On the other hand, we believe that learning is and should be uncomfortable.

So on the first day of my educational psychology class, I say … my job isn't to make sure that you're never uncomfortable. Actually my job is to make sure that you get uncomfortable intellectually with that kind of cognitive dissonance that will help you grow. That's become harder to do.

Kathryn Kay Coquemont: I want to compare something that happened in my formal education with what I think is happening with our current traditional-age college students' education. So it wasn't until I was a Ph.D. student in my 30s that I learned about the origins of racism toward Asians in our country. That’s where I learned about how Asian immigrants weren't allowed a pathway to citizenship. About how after the Civil War when Southern plantation owners wanted to underpay their Black former-enslaved people, so instead they brought in Asian immigrants from the West Coast who had been pushed out of those towns because of the anti-Asian sentiment, and how it bred discord amongst those two communities of color. I didn't know about the history of Hawaii and what we had done to have it become part of the United States.

When I learned this in my 30s, my brain was hopefully fully developed by that time. I had a lot of life experience on how to deal with these things that felt so personal and hard to grapple with and I was so angry about. And in high school I wasn't taught those things.

The cool thing right now is our students are coming with a totally different K-12 education. They might have been in AP African American history. They might have already learned about what oppression is on a short-term basis through TikTok. The ways that they're learning about these things and are starting to grapple with what that means for society and what that means for who they [are] as an individual is totally different than how I came into a classroom as a college student. And we should be rethinking what curricula is calling to them and challenging them.

Why do you think these changes have happened?

Appleman: One of the things … is what I call a pandemic hangover. For the students who did their first couple of years of college in their childhood bedroom with their stuffed animals behind them, there was a way of infantilizing that made them feel more vulnerable. They didn't come with a lot of the social interaction skills that you would expect people between the ages of 18 and 22 to already have.

Groven: I would say there's probably three things rolling there. One is simply that as a society, as conservative columnist George Will has said, that you can sort of write the history of America by looking at how more people are given a seat at the table of American democracy. And I think that's essentially what we see continuing to happen, that more people are getting a seat at the table, and as a result their views need to be included, and that's happening at all levels of society, including in education, higher education, and in debate.

I think a second is the diversification of the country. So just from a demographic perspective, and in particular the diversification of higher education, because a huge number of the issues we see now are really driven by who is in the classroom. If you roll the clock back 100, 150 years, higher ed was overwhelmingly white and male. And as a result, a lot of these issues simply didn't [seem] relevant, because it wasn't part of their experience. But now we have at Augsburg, we have, I think we're like 67 percent of students of color now. That means that if we are not talking about those issues, we are not talking about those students' lives.

And then the third piece is that there has been a development of a large body of research and scholarship and theory which talks about why these things should matter, not just to education, to pedagogy, but also to all the different realms in which we make decisions collectively as a society.

How can educators respond to these changes?

Appleman: So a couple of decades ago, a professor of literature, Gerald Graff, talked about ‘teaching the controversy’ — saying what's at stake, presenting both sides. So when you're teaching a book because the author has been censored. So recently I've been working with some students and teachers at Henry High School in Minneapolis, and they were going to offer a book written by Sherman Alexie, who's been ‘canceled’ because of his sexual misconduct allegations and admissions thereof. He's a wonderful writer, and in many ways irreplaceable for some of the work that he can do with kids.

So what the teacher did was to say, ‘OK, we have these books. We have another class set of this book or this book or this book, and here's what I want to tell you. Some people think that this book shouldn't be taught and here's a couple articles about why. And then here's a couple articles about what this book is and some reviews and let's read them, let's talk about them, and then let's have a discussion and then vote.’

Coquemont: The other thing I think about a lot is, ‘Who is built up and who has had a legacy of being built up in who they are, and who hasn't?’ … ‘Who has always had a mirror reflected back at them, and who has only ever had windows?’ And I think that's really sometimes the crux of it, is you're now giving options that are still inequitable, not because we are trying to reinforce inequity, but because the society they've lived in has been inequitable to them. And so one of the things I think about a controversial book is, can you deal with that controversy? Are you a healthier person to have that conversation when you've already had things that reflect who you are?

And I really worry about the state of K-12 education, by state, because it's going to be even harder, especially for those working in private colleges that have students from all different states where people have had very, very different experiences. That's always been true, but I feel like it's just furthered.

But maybe don't start with the controversy because maybe some of our students now have only had to deal with the controversy and been taught the controversy. Maybe start first with the things that uplift and reflect.

One of the things with controversy that I've noticed is the way sometimes we've also said that the emotion that's brought into spaces is somehow bad. And I do a lot of my work is de-escalation of emotion. There's a lot of that that's needed. But I also think about how do we even set up the conversation to say, ‘It's OK to bring emotion into this, but let's talk a little bit more about what place that has, because the emotion is really connected to the lived experiences that we want to honor.’

Listen to the full discussion on the EdSurge Podcast.

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