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When Classroom Discussions Mimic Social Media Debate

As more of our society’s political and cultural debates begin to take place online, real-life conversation has begun to mirror the unique constraints of conversation through a screen. Users’ lack of face-to-face connection with their audience makes it easier to forgo civil conversation with those who disagree in favor of screaming matches. Character limits restrain the ability to fully explain the nuances of one’s positions. And internet thought-bubbles offer a false sense that the broader society has come to consensus in favor of an opinion, however controversial. These factors, when combined, create a culture in which all of us, but particularly the Internet-based generation of young people, struggle to have open-minded conversations with those who disagree. Complex issues are made out to be black and white; those who hold the “wrong” opinion are instantly vilified without the chance to fully express their point of view, and members of the ideological majority are never forced to confront the opposing perspective.

In the classroom environment, this approach to discussion often means that the dominant belief on any given political or social issue is accepted without much debate. Contradictory opinions, therefore, are often left unexpressed. This intolerance of ideological diversity negatively impacts those who largely agree with the dominant viewpoint as well as those who don’t. Those with opinions that tend to dominate classroom discussions do not develop the valuable critical thinking skills gained from defending one’s opinion; instead, they are allowed the comfort of unchallenged beliefs. On the other hand, those with often invisible perspectives are left feeling resentful as they retreat from the other side into their own opinions. The lack of balanced debate leads them to further entrench in their beliefs, less open to alternative perspectives.

This mentality is particularly toxic when it pervades institutions of learning. An educational community benefits from exposure to a broad range of perspectives, rather than one that adopts popular opinion without question. When students are allowed to shy away from the diverse opinions that exist in the real world, they are left unprepared for a future in which they must interact with opposite perspectives. Further, they are robbed of the benefits of open-minded debate, which generates more thoughtful ideas by forcing people to evaluate the nuances of their own opinions. Though social media’s degrading effect on the quality of political and cultural debates may be unavoidable online, it is our responsibility to ensure that our in-person conversations don’t mimic the flaws of internet discourse. Nowhere is this more imperative than in the classroom.

I don't have a solution to this issue, but I think it starts with teachers modeling how to provide a platform for opposing perspectives. Our teachers need to be able to offer space for divergent opinions, while also serving as moderators to ensure ideas are fully explored and analyzed. Our teachers also must create a safe space where students do not feel attacked and discriminatory speech is interrupted. I know this is another requirement on our teachers, but it is necessary in order for us to learn how to engage in civil discourse.

Calla Rhodes is a junior at Lincoln High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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