Dudley Field Malone, one of the lawyers who defended biology teacher John Scopes in the famous “Monkey Trial” in 1925 on academic freedom uttered the immortal words, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man that agreed with me.” This quote has always resonated with me. As a history teacher, this was a mantra of sorts for me. Long before I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I believed wholeheartedly in underscoring the controversy in the study of history, or the study of anything for that matter. Loewen was preaching to the choir on that one.
I was reminded of this quote earlier this afternoon as I sat on the couch in my family room, reviewing my undergraduate students’ research talk topic proposals. Let me explain. The best way I can do justice to this is to share a few of the proposed research questions with you:
How do we define art?
What were the first weight classes in the sport of wrestling?
Who invented basketball and what were the early rules?
What inspires artists to create works of art?
Do humans fear all that they do not understand?
As you can see, some of the questions generated by students are a clear invitation to engage in higher order thinking, while others are an invitation to a quick, painless Google search, or worse–to boredom. My review of my students’ research questions forced me to confront myself as an educator with a very important question: What exactly am I looking for in a strong research question? And further, how will I communicate what I am looking for to my students? As I thought about it, these question were even more critical than I first thought. After all, I am teaching the future educators of the U.S. If I send them out of my classroom without the ability to generate questions that stimulate higher order thinking, how can I realistically hope that they will be able to empower their future students to think critically? Clearly, the stakes are high.
After some deep reflection on the nature of the more thought provoking questions that my students posed, I arrived at the conclusion that all of the most thought provoking questios were quite meaty; that is, their open-ended nature left room for “a beef” or a conflict of ideas if you will. And this is when I reached my conclusion that, much like a story, any good lecture, talk or lesson should include some semblance of conflict. If not, then we don’t invite the listener to question. And where’s the fun in that? More importantly–as Malone would say–where’s the opportunity to learn and grow from that? This is the reason that Oliver Stone’s JFK is so much more interesting–whether you appreciate his views or not–than a documentary that puts forth the lone reported explanation for JFK’s assassination. This is the reason that more people prefer to get their political news from unashamedly biased sources like The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show With John Stewart than from the more objectively reported network evening news. We find controversy interesting. It stimulates thought, and when used effectively by teachers, it can provoke our students to think critically. And isn’t that the name of the game?
This internal dialogue resulted in mypersonal reaffirmation to always include conflict–conflict in opposing ideas– in any lesson or workshop I facilitate. Whether my audience agrees with me or not, at least I will inspire–or provoke ;)–critical thought.