Monday, October 1, 2012

The Believing Game and How to Make Conflicting Opinions More Fruitfu

Elbow, P. (2006). The believing game and how to make conflicting opinions more fruitful.   In C. Weber (Ed.), Nurturing the Peacemakers in Our Students: A Guide to Teaching Peace, Empathy and Understanding (pp. 13-25). Heinnman.

This article researches the idea behind teaching controversial and highly debatable topics in classrooms.  Elbow’s major point is the  process of thinking behind the “critical thinking” .  He addresses in 2 different ways.  First he describes the four ways in which people argue:

“This explains a lot about how most people deal with differences of opinion:
Some people love to argue and disagree, and they do it for fun in a friendly way. They enjoy the disagreement and the give-and-take and they let criticisms and even attacks roll right off their backs. It’s good intellectual sport for them.
Some people look like they enjoy the sport of argument. They stay friendly and rational---they’re “cool”---because they’ve been trained well. “Don’t let your feelings cloud your thinking.” But inside they feel hurt when others attack ideas they care about. They hunker down into their ideas behind hidden walls.
Some people actually get mad, raise their voices, dig in, stop listening, and even call each other names. Perhaps they realize that language and logic have no power to make their listeners change their minds--- so they give in to shouting or anger.
And some people---seeing that nothing can be proven with words--- just give up on argument. They retreat. “Let’s just not argue. You see it
your way, I’ll see it my way. That’s the end of it. There’s no use talking.” They sidestep arguments and take a relativist position: any opinion is as good as any other opinion. (It’s worth pondering why so many students fall into this attitude.)" (Elbow,13)

Elbow continues on to write about the major differences between what he describes as two ways of thinking about other's opinions. He titles them: The  Doubting Game and The Believing Game. The Doubting Game is the way most people have been taught to think critically.  This is mostly analytical; following reason and logic to any idea that is presented to a person. When one hears or reads something, it has been widely taught to find as much of the facts on that information and then decipher one’s own opinion and thoughts based on evidence.  His argument is that there is one major flaw with The Doubting Game:

“This blind spot in the doubting game shows up frequently in classrooms and other meetings. When smart people are trained only in critical thinking, they get better and better at doubting and criticizing other people’s ideas. They use this skill particularly well when they feel a threat to their own ideas or their unexamined assumptions. Yet they feel justified in fending-off what they disagree with because they feel that this doubting activity is “critical thinking.” They take refuge in the feeling that they would be “unintellectual” if they said to an opponent what in fact they ought to say: “Wow, your idea sounds really wrong to me. It must be alien to how I think. Let me try to enter into it and see if there’s something important that I’m missing. Let me see if I can get a better perspective on my own thinking.” In short, if we want to be good at finding flaws in our own thinking (a goal that doubters constantly trumpet), we need the believing game." (Elbow, 19)

Believing is the ability to takes someone else’s views and try to believe them.  That is, giving every idea value, yet proceed with caution. He explains that this can have more value because "we
 can use the tool of believing to scrutinize not for flaws but to find hidden virtues in ideas that are unfashionable or repellent. Often we cannot see what’s good in someone else’s idea (or in our own!)" (Elbow, 19)
He also explains the relationship between the two is synergenic.  That is to say, you can’t have one without the other.
He writes:  “In short, we must indeed continue to resist the pull to believe what's easy to believe. But believing what’s easy to believe is far different from using the disciplined effort to believe as an intellectual methodological tool in order to find hidden strengths in ideas that people want to ignore”.  (Elbow, 20)

The last section of this article explains how to effectively engage students in The Believing.  He lists 8 very useful and practical ways for teachers to use in their classrooms when students are having a philosophical/controversial debate.  They are:
1. Active Listening
2. 3 minute/five minute rule
3. Testimony session
4. Using specific language
5. Silence
6. Private writing
Using Physical voice

8. Non adversarial argument

I found this article very enlightening as well as progressive. Though it mostly focuses on the philosophical core of conflict within classrooms, It can definitely help in fostering a safe classroom culture to include rich and fulfilling conversations among students.

1 comment:

Stacey Caillier said...

Beth, this article sounds fascinating to me and I love the details/quotes you have included here! (I'd also love a copy if it's easy to make me one!)

I really appreciate the distinction the author is making between Doubting and Believing - and I think he hit the nail on the head when he talked about the problem with the doubting game. I've been in so many grad classes (and meetings) where people seem to think that being critical = intellectual, meaning that the more they can argue against someone's ideas, the more thoughtful/academic they are being. Yet, often what this produces is a dead end, and usually creates a space where people are afraid to just think through ideas together. I love the idea of trying to approach discussions from a Believing stance - where we are willing to engage with any idea, to try it on and see where it can take us, before jumping in with the critique. It strikes me that "Start with Believing" would be a powerful norm for a group/classroom - maybe even our own!

I also wonder if this would be a cool thing for all of us to read and discuss together (or for me to work into the first course next year)? What do you think?

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