Helping students (and ourselves) navigate disagreement

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Greetings from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on my way back to the United States from Finland. The week-long adventure was full of insight about what we saw and imagination of what could be. Promise that the next newsletter will be dedicated to the experience. What was also helpful was to have the opportunity to step out of the country for a week, escaping for a few moments from the ugly divisions at home.

This newsletter has been in the works for over six weeks and the timing of sharing this with you now hopefully opens us up to truly hear one another.

I am a big fan of the Ted Radio Hour on NPR and happened to tune in as Zach Wood, a senior at Williams college, wanted to better understand the breadth of diverse perspectives in public discourse in light of the election of 2018. Wood asserts that we need to be able to engage in “uncomfortable learning.”

“No one likes being offended … but tuning out opposing viewpoints doesn’t make them go away … It’s worth the discomfort.”

Jeffrey Howard’s TED Talk put a spotlight on our societal inability to engage in reasonable disagreements, one that puts your own thinking on display to shift or deepen viewpoints.

The more I listened, the more I wondered why there is such intolerance of ideas, why tribalism trumps connection, and why being heard has been subsumed by being right. I remembered reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness a few months ago in which she shared a paradox for the world we are living in right now.

People are hard to hate close-up. Move in.
Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
Hold hands. With strangers.
Strong back, soft front, wild heart.

How do we create a school environment that lives this paradox?

First, it starts with providing a safe space designed to air out ideas in the light of day especially when we believe those ideas are distasteful, regardless of your viewpoint.

Second, if the intention is to listen with understanding and empathy and allow oneself to think interdependently, it means being willing to be influenced by another person’s ideas as well as being willing to express one’s own ideas with strength and passion. Whether you are engaging with students, colleagues, or community members, these reflective questions are designed to support listening in uncomfortable learning moments:

  • What responsibility do I have to listen or read an opposing viewpoint?
  • When an idea or viewpoint is intolerable, how do I handle it to make certain that I am staying constructively in the conversation?
  • What does this person want me to believe? What is the evidence that supports his argument?

This newsletter shares the perspectives of a teacher, building administrator, and superintendent on how they work to engage members of the school community in building safe places for deep thinking and action.

If we want to begin to heal the way we engage with those we fundamentally disagree with, it starts with showing up and staying focused on the humanity in the human being. Still something that I personally struggle with but am more committed to growing this now more than ever.

Thank you, as always, for reading and engaging!

Allison Zmuda
Educational Consultant and Founder of Learning Personalized

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