Friday, 7 January 2022

Countrymen, lend me your ears

Last year I read an interesting article by Jonathan Zimmerman on the Times Higher Education site. It was written like a Rip Van Winkle story, but effectively tells a story illustrating how tertiary teaching techniques may well be contributing to societal political polarisation. Ouch.

The scenario is that the lecturer wakes from a 40 year sleep and rocks into his lecture, asking students to comment on the capitol riots of 6 January 2021. The students ask if the lecturer wants them to sit in something called "Multiple Perspective Circles" (Zimmerman, 2021). 

"The students [...] arranged themselves in groups of three and [...] found distilled descriptions of three different perspectives on the event. Each student had to make the case for one [view], while the other members of the circle listened and took notes. One interpretation held that the riot was caused by spasms of white racism that had seized the country during the presidency of Donald Trump. Another attributed it to widening economic equality, which had left many of the protesters in dead-end jobs. Still another described it as mainly a media spectacle, spawned by websites whose main goal was to gin up traffic" (Zimmerman, 2021). 

Following twenty minutes of the discussion triplets, the students then asked if they should "Square the Circle". Zimmerman writes:

"The students moved [...] into a square, with their positions assigned randomly by an app on their phones. If you were on Side 1, you had to argue for the first perspective; students on Side 2 argued for the second one, and those on Side 3 for the third. The students on the fourth side acted as moderators, asking questions of the other three" (Zimmerman, 2021). 

The students were all learning the power of listening. They talked to each other, listened respectfully, and discussed the issues. They self-moderated their own behaviour. There was no contempt shown. Inclusivity was rewarded in discussion points: 

The moderators "awarded 'listening points' to students who drew on statements from other sides of the square [] the right way. If a student demeaned someone, even with an eye roll, their group got a point taken off. But if they commented carefully and respectfully about a remark from another side, their group received two points. The students were into it, because everyone loves a good game. And the winner wasn’t the group that made the strongest argument [...]. It was the group that listened the best" (Zimmerman, 2021; emphasis added).

Powerful stuff: as powerful as Shakespeare. It is indeed, "Friends, Romans, countrymen; lend me your ears!" (Shakespeare, 1599/1980, Act 3, Scene 2, line 77) to create powerful and sticky persuasion. It is balanced. It is compelling. 

And this is something we can learn from right now.



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