Friday, July 6, 2012

Teaching Discourse within Disagreement - A Quora-inspired blogpost

I am an occasional Quora user. I love the concept of answering a question as fully and accurately as possible and having it crowdsourced for accuracy.It is the next extension of Wikipedia. I also feel guilty that I really only feel qualified to answer questions about Batman, BYOT, and an occasional entry on some aspect of #digcit.

So when is saw this question come across my screen:
How can Obamacare be explained in layman's terms?

I was determined to take a crack at it. I sat down to write and opened up a few screens to fact check and when I was finished, I realized that I had not come even close to answering the question. So I never posted.

This was the first paragraph of what i wrote:
Wow. This might be one of the most challenging questions I have seen recently. Urban Dictionary describes "Layman's Terms" as an attempt to "describe a complex or technical issue using words and terms that the average individual can understand" -- I would add to that dictionary that most people who ask the question are seeking "just the facts" without a particular bias or slant, since they often are looking to draw their own conclusions. And even the term "Obamacare" was, and to many still is, a pejorative term for the Affordable Care Act that was meant to imply, among other things, a) that it was one person's idea and  b) a big brother-esque totalitarian solutions (remember the "death boards"?). 
So I scrapped my attempt to answer the question. But that started one of those thought spirals that brought me back to my "Teach the Controversy" series (Part I, Part II, and the PLN-based Part III). This was made even more poignant by Sunday's Mass and the subsequent discussions that happened (I'll get to that part in a second).

Interlude - A Peek Behind the Curtain
I remember one of the more frustrating moments of my Senior year was receiving an assignment to write a research paper. Attached to the assignment description was a list of verboten topics such as abortion, the death penalty, and passing out condoms in school. There were the usual grumbles but the teacher was adamant that these topics had been written about to death. 

A year later, I had the opportunity to do one of my first observations in teacher-training at that high school. During this one week intensive, I got to look behind the curtain into the mysterious teacher's lounge. In classic fly-on-the-wall mode, I got to hear about a variety of things. I remember my shock that teachers knew exactly what was going on in the back of the debate bus (yikes!) as well as who-was-dating-whom and other top-secret teenage lore.

During one of these discussions, the topic of the research paper topics came up. I listened as I heard teachers extol the policy of limiting topics that would cause the student's to lose focus on correct structure, cause arguments that would never be settled, and force teacher's to tip their hand to their own opinions. Through the conversation, it became clear that for all but a few of the oldest teachers, these topics had not been written about "to death" in class -- they had not been written about at all for years!
End Interlude 

I think that we are beginning to reap the results of this policy...and as educators, I think it falls to us to begin to fix the problem -- one controversy at a time.

Fortnight of Freedom:
A Real World "Teach the Controversy" Application

If you are not Catholic, you may not be aware that we are currently in the middle of a celebration, a movement, a protest called the Fortnight for Freedom. This is the name of a series of articles, speeches, homilies, etc. in protest over the Combination of the Affordable Care Act's demand for insurance coverage of certain routine/preventative/health promoting services and an HHS sub-committee's determination that one of those services in the area of women's health should be contraception. You can read the Kaiser Family Foundation's summary here. Note I did not say its unbiased description -- that is kind of the point I am going to try to make -- While I think the summary is accurate and accounts for arguments on both sides of a controversial topic, that is no longer the measure of "unbiased" in American discourse.

Unbiased, has taken an Orwellian shift to mean its opposite. In order to be considered "unbiased" you must now present information from the political, religious or other perspective of the reader.

I sat in church and listened to the homily of my friend and Priest as he explained that this was not an issue of contraception but was an issue of Religious Freedom. More importantly, it was an issue of religious discrimination, since insular churches (predominantly ministering, educating, helping) people of a single faith could be exempt but churches with outreach (read Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, among others) could not be exempt. -- In a moment i have since come to regret, I walked out.

  • I sat on the steps of the parish with my Transformer Prime and began reading the letter from the Bishop that the priest had been quoting -- it outlined the case for religious discrimination
  • I went back and read the reaction from Church leader's when the coverage was first announced -- very little about Religious Freedom in that context. The concern then was that Church dollars (in the form of payments to insurers) would be used to fund contraception that is against the tenets of that faith -- good point, thought I. 
  • Reading further, I found that there had been a compromise made that would force the insurance companies in these situations to cover the full cost of contraception without payment from the Church or the individual being a factored into the cost model.
  • I went back to the Bishop's letter written weeks after this compromise. It clearly talked about the church being forced to "fund and facilitate" contraception. No mention of the policy change. The language was now much more nuanced with the vague "facilitate" taking on strange, non-layman meanings and the term "funding" being applied only under that  "if-we-pay-for-thing-A-then-there-will-be-money-for-someone-else-to-pay-for-thing-B" kind of way.
This was a lot more complicated than the homily made it out to be. The homily was a call to arms, complete with a concluding litany-of-saints invoking images of people being forced to say prayers in homes with darkened curtains and underground Eucharist.

My wife, an OBGYN and much better writer than I am, wrote a letter outlining her reaction to the priest and he asked if we could have dinner. After a wonderful evening with chatting, fellowship, and a good meal, we sat down to discuss.

Let me repeat that last line, it's important: We sat down to discuss.
  • We outlined points of view. 
  • We repeated what each other said to be sure that we understood it. 
  • We spoke with passion about our feelings, but not dismissive of the passionate feelings of others. At one point, my wife was reading the language of the final rule, the priest was reading documents from the Bishops at, and the Google TV, was showing the news articles during the shift in tone from the funding-issue to the religious-freedom issue.
We identified areas of common ground and areas of further discussion. We talked about actions that could be taken to address the larger issue of a corruption of human sexuality. We learned from each other.

In a broader context, we talked about the polarization of politics, religion and society in general. We talked about confirmation bias and echo-chambers, where we dismiss that with which we do not immediately because there are always hundreds of sources that confirm our belief, so how could we be wrong? We talked about raising a generation of children without the ability to see past their own perspective.


As educators, we have to embrace the opportunities for controversy. In those moments and those topics lie the opportunity to teach the fundamentals of discourse and persuasion. To teach how to dissect the biases of our own perspective and work with people from differing points of view on finding common ground. 

Gary Stager, at #ISTE12, chastised educators who force students to "make presentations on topics they don't care about to audiences that don't actually exist". We need to listen to this truth. Teach the controversy...better yet, let the students teach the controversy while we guide them on the fundamentals of finding accurate information, deconstructing claims and identifying evidence and flaws in logic, and building consensus with people who did not already agree with us.

Will this increase standardized test scores? Probably, but that's not why we should do it.

  • We should do this because it is too easy today to live in an info-laden world where everyone agrees with you.
  • We should do this because students need a place and an environment in which they can learn to ask questions, disagree, and change the minds of other while being open to having their own opinion change
  • We should do this because it might be the most important 21st century skill.
Let's stop having students write about "safe" topics they don't care about. Let's stop hiding behind a bland vernier of unbiased objectivity that no student believes anyway. 

We have a month left until school begins...let's start changing the world.


  1. good commentary, as usual, JD. I know how conflicted our pastor has been on this issue. Frankly I agree with him, and you, that the term "Obamacare" has become a perjorative.
    I was surprised that you chose to walk out. My first reaction was to stand up and applaud. I felt that would be disrespectful to those,like you, that disagreed with this "campaign" and the position that many of us hold. So glad that you and and your dear wife got together with Fr. I know your conversation has given him a new perspective. Unfortunately, I know as many Dr's that agree with the position of the Bishop's as I know those who, like E, disapprove. "Truth" has become a murky swamp. We only see the "truth" that we agree to see. Your challenges at Brebeuf, helping these wonderful young minds to grow and question is not easy. Our children have benefited from the Jesuit inquiry education. I know that today's students are in good hands with you and others in this environment. At this point you and I will agree to disagree. You're a good man Charlie Brown!

    1. I always appreciate your perspective and support of what we do at Brebeuf. I think the importance of being able to rationally discuss those perspectives may be the key. I get disheartened when the rhetoric appears to be "if i have enough people agree with me, i don't need you". It seems like pursuit of TRUTH demands a higher standard. Thx for the feedback. :)