A non-traditional final: Tanner (12th) defends his synthetic philosophy during his Philosophy Wars final exam
My entire approach to assessments changed when I read an article by a forward-thinking and idealistic astronomy professor published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Anthony Crider wondered what would happen if we completely rethought final exams:
Instead of a final exam, end the semester with one last, memorable learning experience: an epic finale.
“Final” implies the end (or death) of something; “finale” suggests the end of an artistic performance, such as the ultimate episode of a television season or series. Where a “final” implies that one is done discussing something, a “finale” is something that inspires speculative discussion beforehand and reflection afterward. What happened to the Soprano family? Will Ross and Rachel get married? Is the Island really just purgatory? Who shot J.R.?
I followed his lead a couple of years ago and designed my first “finale” assessment, which you can read about in an early blog post here. Last year, a team-taught Arc of Justice course Jim Percoco and I led concluded with a pretty awesome community event you can check out here.
I’m only able to do these fun “finales” because I work at a school where I have total control over my curriculum and assessment design. LSG founder Deep Sran gives teachers this freedom because it enables students to learn more deeply and enduringly.
If you prescribe too much in front, or you make too many decisions up front, you really constrain where people can go — what they can imagine and create. So I think you have to leave room for teachers and students to see where it leads, and to do so openly and honestly. You can’t know at the outset that, by gosh, by May 20th the kids are going to be on page 700 in the book, and they will have covered all the way up to the French Revolution. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Deep’s philosophy of school leadership rests on the premise that when both teachers and students have power over what happens in the classroom, education can be beautiful and transformative. And he has seen that when we empower teachers, they use their autonomy, in turn, to empower students:
I trust that the teachers here are qualified and know their subject areas better than me and are more curious about those subject areas than I am. I want to build the type of workplace where human beings can come in and do the work that they have prepared their whole lives to do.
The other side of teacher autonomy is student autonomy. If I give teachers the freedom to design their courses, and to end where they want to end, then they are actually able to respond to what their students are interested in and where their students are going.
So if I’m not telling the teachers where they have to end up, then the teachers don’t have to tell the students where they have to end up. The ultimate goal is that students feel free and comfortable, that they learn things that are meaningful and enduring. To do that, basically you have to create the same opportunities for the teachers.
For a better sense of how all of this comes together, here are some examples of the final assessments LSG students completed last week.
“Final Activity” versus Final Exam
To grade students on their individual progress and achievements in a course, teachers must assess students individually. But sometimes an individual assessment is an inauthentic or incomplete measure of what students were actually supposed to gain from the course — especially when collaboration and group work are central to instructional design throughout the semester.
To resolve that tension, our Proofs and Mathematical Reasoning teacher David Romero split the difference. He administered a traditional final exam to measure individual progress, and he created a “final activity” to conclude the course more authentically.
David explains the difference here:
We had this formal assessment before our final activity, and the assessment was somewhat artificial. It tests whether students were able to write proofs by themselves. But every single time we’ve been creating these proofs, creating these ideas and reasoning, it was always a social event. Students were never isolated, writing on a piece of paper, and if they don’t get it right, it’s wrong. It was always more like, “I think this,” and then someone would come over and say, “I’m not sure how you got from here to there.” Or someone would say, “Mine looks like this. Is it equivalent? Is it the same? Is one better?”
And so I wanted to introduce some problems that would remind them that although our formal assessment was individual, the final activity illustrated the point of the course — this social exchange of ideas.
In the video above, students work through Lewis Carroll riddles, applying what they learned in David’s proofs class. He explains the assessment design:
We chose some problems that were just silly and fun. So these riddles come from Lewis Carroll. Here is what was awesome about them: normally you can use your intuition to reason through things, but the premises in these riddles are so ridiculous, like “if you’re this type of cat you play with gorillas. If you like fish you’re not teachable.” It forces you to use formal logic because intuition is useless. This is weird for our students because in everything else we’ve done, we’ve tried to introduce this formal way of reasoning that showed how it went hand-in-hand with your intuition. But now we’ve kind of pulled the scaffold away to see if students can do formal arguments.
There is still context in the sense that you have these silly creatures and the words are familiar. I didn’t put jargon or invented words, “does the florg cause the whatever.” There is not much context, so you have to use formal reasoning, but there is enough context to give students something familiar and amusing. So in one of the videos, I’m just cracking up because it’s like the seventh time I’ve said “we choose an arbitrary cat.” It’s not intimidating. You can’t rely on the context to reason, but it’s there to make the activity fun and not intimidating.
It was important to David to give students a choice of final activity. Here is a video of another option – a theoretical tiling problem:
We had previously briefly discussed these tiling problems. Our group project way back when was tiling a rectangle with squares. And so I offered one final activity option with triominos, little L shapes made of squares. The prompt asked: can you tile this across different shapes? I offered them a variety of problems; we’d talked about the ham sandwich problem, and cake-cutting – how do you distribute things fairly in mathematics? I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to choose what final activity they were drawn to. So if they were working on the Lewis Carroll, it’s because they found it interesting and intriguing. And if they were working on triominos, it’s because specifically Cas wouldn’t let it go. They kept wanting to talk about these triominos and their ideas about triominos.
By creating a collaborative activity that incorporated student choice while removing some of the contextual scaffolding, David challenged kids with a memorable final activity.
The oral exam and oral defense
Research suggests that students find oral assessments more useful, more authentic, and (unsurprisingly) more intimidating. The same study indicates that kids experience oral exams as opportunities to begin thinking of themselves as professionals or masters of the content area assessed.
Few American students take oral examinations (outside of foreign language courses) because it is impractical and inefficient for a single teacher to administer one-on-one assessments for a large group of students. But even at large public schools, the International Baccalaureate program incorporates oral assessments across disciplines to assess student learning. The benefits are clear:
Direct, real-time feedback allows teachers to get an accurate sense of what students know
The dialogic nature of the exam permits the students and teacher to take the conversation in unexpected, productive directions
Oral examinations encourage students to build communication and problem-solving skills they will need in the workplace and in life
Because students are assessed orally instead of in writing, their composition skills do not cloud a teacher’s ability to assess their grasp of the course content
For these reasons, I’ve administered oral exams to my middle and high school students during all six years I’ve taught English. Below are recordings of some of my eighth graders’ exams from last week. (The final exam study guide gives an overview of what the oral assessment covers: Great Books Final Exam Study Guide).
I look forward to these exams every year because they give me the chance to understand how each of my students has made the course content personally meaningful to them. And taken together, my collection of exams over the years offers a unique record of the kids’ intellectual development.
The “oral defense” is a class event instead of a one-on-one conversation. The film Most Likely to Succeed has memorable depictions of the portfolio defense assessment administered at San Diego’s High Tech High. Students present their work, reflect on their progress, and answer challenging questions from peers and teachers.
In Philosophy Wars, we concluded the course with individual oral defenses of students’ “synthetic philosophies.” In the video clip above, Shailee (10th) presents and defends her original positions on key questions of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and human nature.
Oral assessments, whether individual or collaborative, give students the chance to interact with the course content in new and enduring ways.
Role playing assessments
Indiana Jones final activity in Spanish
For a few years now, I’ve been an admirer of journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski’s “Stakeholder Wheel” technique. The exercise requires reporters to brainstorm all the people affected by a particular issue or event at the very beginning of the investigative process. By taking on different perspectives, the writer will be able to understand the nuances and implications of the story.
I love the Stakeholder Wheel because it requires students to practice empathy as a means of understanding their world: it suggests that we cannot know all that we must if we confine ourselves to our own narrow view.
To me, that is the purpose of role playing exercises as assessments: to show how course ideas might live in the world beyond ourselves.
The Zinn Education Project uses role play activities to help students understand complex and controversial events in history and current events. Their Dakota Access Pipeline activity, for example, prepares students to take on the roles of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, officials from the oil company building the pipeline, Iowa famers, union workers, and other stakeholders.
These exercises can be highly engaging and fun. In Vanessa Moreno’s Spanish class, kids had to produce and perform a skit that involved vocabulary usage, particular grammatical constructions, and pronunciation, among other skills. Here are a couple of short clips:
Likewise in Psychology and Literature, students reenacted the crucial dinner party scene from Virginia Woolf’s complex novel To the Lighthouse. The activity allowed kids to recognize all that the text left unsaid, and to infer or imagine what characters thought and felt.
Psychology and Literature final activity for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: reenacting the novel’s dinner party
Our Latin and Classics teacher Dr. Michael Hendry added an unexpected twist to his Shakespeare final. He asked students to cast members of our school community in the appropriate roles from the plays they had studied:
Imagine you are casting the three plays we saw this semester, and you have to include one classmate, one LSG student who’s not in this class, and one teacher or administrator in each play. (Assume you have plenty of competent outsiders to cover the other roles.) Which would you cast, and why? Be specific about their qualifications. Also, no repeats: 9 different names.
A separate question asked students to imagine what would ensue if a character from one Shakespearean play were placed in a scene in another play.
Both of these questions offer students what is perhaps the most appealing aspect of fan fiction: the reader’s ability to shift into the author’s role. These kinds of questions give students the chance to think in new and original ways about the text and their relationship to it.
Metacognition and reflection
Jim Percoco’s Hero’s Quest exit ticket gives Max (9th) the opportunity to reflect on his learning in this semester-long history course.
Metacognition is “thinking about thinking.” Too often, the pace of content coverage is so swift that students miss the opportunity to reflect on themselves as thinkers and learners. When kids take the time to examine their progress, their preferred learning styles, their challenges and goals, they take control of their intellectual development. Metacognitive activities can be dramatic turning points in students’ academic careers.
In Psychology in Literature, I required kids to turn in a reflection along with their final project. I asked them to explain what they’d taken away from each of our twelve course texts, and to think about how difficulty, joy, and personal importance impacted their experience of reading and learning in the course.
Here are some of the things each student took away from course texts:
“Your perception of the world and your memories can’t be trusted, because your brain makes incorrect assumptions and takes shortcuts. What I see and what I remember are different from what you see and what you remember.” (Hannah)
“There are many benefits to being perceptive about others’ thoughts or feelings, and the most perceptive people are able to make others happy.” (Layla)
“Repressed desires or memories can shape your entire life” (Tanner)
“Institutions are instruments of power and social control” (Mariam)
“The final idea that I will remember is the idea of struggling against the impossible. This is an idea central to humans, who will often not give up even when faced with an impossible or stacked task” (Will)
“Humans go through a merging state of our mind and body, in which we acquire an advanced sense of self that no other animal has” (Julianne)
“We don’t truly know ourselves” (Alex)
And here are some of students’ comments about their identities as learners and readers:
“What is most important to me is also what I enjoyed reading most.”
“When it comes to balancing difficulty, importance, and personal joy, it seems to me that people seem to like what they understand.”
“Personal importance and joy were loosely related. I really enjoyed the texts that volunteered new — sometimes crazy — ideas that explained a stage in life.”
“The ideas, questions, and texts that appealed to me were those that revealed something about power dynamics or the way our society functions. I just find human relationships and the way we interact with each other really interesting, these were the ideas I found most important as well. It reveals cracks and flaws within the system, and if we know how they function we can fix it.”
These metacognitive assessments help me communicate to students that they are the architects of their own academic experience. I can’t learn anything for them. I expect and encourage them to invest in themselves as thinkers by reflecting on what they know, what they want to know, and why it matters to them.
Student ownership is central to LSG’s instructional design, and it informs a broader civic mission. Founder Deep Sran explains why it is so important to make room for student voice and student choice in our classrooms:
The most important thing when we watch student presentations is some evidence that the student believes it’s truly theirs. They’re not going through the motions or doing it for a certain grade. The goal is that there be evidence that they did it for themselves. And again, there’s that parallel between the student and the teacher. The teacher has to feel the same way that ultimately, they did it for themselves. And that is where this has broader implications to civic life and interpersonal life and all of the things that we hope for professionally but rarely get the opportunity to do because somebody just thinks they know better. That’s why LSG is structured this way.
I love student-designed projects. I love them perhaps more than any English teacher should.
Don’t get me wrong: I luxuriate in a nuanced and thoughtful seminar discussion or a well-crafted or ambitious student essay. But there is something special about making a physical thing that can be publicly displayed to celebrate our finishing a text – especially a difficult, rewarding text. And it’s equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking (for all parties) to let students design the form and content of that “thing.”
When I teach novels with a complex approach to time – novels that include multiple flashbacks, re-tellings, and a fragmentary or disjointed narrative – I know up front that even the most attentive students will struggle to thread events together coherently. My standard approach is a collectively assembled, color-coded timeline.
When my middle school class read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example, we set aside class time each week to write significant plot events on index cards, color coded by chapter. Then we reassembled the cards chronologically, plotting them on a long, unwieldy timeline spread across two classroom walls. The mix of colors helped us see the extent to which she tells Lacks’ story non-chronologically, moving back and forth in time to parallel Skloot’s investigative journalism. The whole activity is meant to engage us in a deeper consideration of form and structure – the way the text is built.
As we began our study of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in AP Literature this year, I wanted to focus on the same goal while putting students in charge of the design. So I kept the parameters broad: visualize the structure of Toni Morrison’s novel using any medium you like. Here is the assignment sheet (feel free to use):
I provided suggestions, required kids to keep a journal of their ideas and attempts, and scheduled a workshop halfway through our study of the novel. Students knew we would present our finished products to parents and the school community at our holiday party.
Each student chose a very different approach, but all report understanding the intricacies and the craft of the novel more profoundly as a result of their work. One student pointed out that this kind of project is not appropriate for every work of literature; she said, “There has to be something to uncover.” In other words, it should be complicated enough to reward the kind of labor this project requires.
Two students were struck by Morrison’s use of color to link ideas, characters and events. Peyton, a senior, recorded every single mention of color in the novel and wrote code to render each a vertical, colored sliver in a chronological tapestry. When the cursor hovers over a sliver, the corresponding phrase and page number appear, reminding the viewer what the color references. The entire text of Song of Solomon is distilled into what looks like a digitally rendered scarf or quilt, marking the colors that tell this complex story.
Peyton, 12th grade, wrote code to render each mention of color throughout the novel, arranged from beginning to end.
Sophia, 9th grade, took a more interpretive approach to color in the novel, producing a painting and an analytical chart (below). She writes: “Morrison’s vivid imagery inspired me to discover the symbolic meanings of color in her novel. My painting helped me develop my ideas, which are displayed here. I chose the most important instances of color to represent in my painting, which filtered into these six colors.”
Painting on canvas representing Morrison’s use of color to develop motif. Painting by Sophia, 9th grade.
Sophia’s corresponding chart.
Katie, a ninth grader, kept a meticulous record of every event in the novel. She then coded each event’s relationship to one of the five major themes she identified in the text: names/family/history, power/status, love, life/death, and flight/freedom/travel. Her poster offers a quantitative analysis of themes by character and geographic location, and organizes events into a thematic timeline (pictured below). Pie charts are drawn to scale using a ruler.
Here is one of the nine (!!) pages of her writeup:
Tessa, a senior who wanted to convey the fragmentary and image-laden quality of the narrative, created dozens of small, poignant watercolors depicting key events relating to love. On the back of each, she wrote an analytical caption. She linked her paintings with a key chain (for me, evocative of the text’s focus on travel – and on cars in particular).
Tessa, 12th grade. Her caption to the painting on the far left reads: “This picture describes two scenes. The first is that of Solomon leaving Jake on Heddy’s doorstep. This is really the start and the cause of the family’s overall unhealthy attitudes toward love. His abandonment of his family is later mirrored by Milkman with Hagar, and Ryna’s reaction is apparently a hereditary one, because Hagar does the same thing. It also describes Milkman’s final flight after helping Pilate bury Jake and watching her die. It’s the symbol of his transformation from passive receiver of love to active defender and avenger of those whom he loves. He understands death and surrenders to the wind.”
Students drew on their talents and interests to emphasize the aspects of the novel’s structure that they found most salient. Shailee, 9th grade, used Photoshop to create minimalist posters (in the style of traditional movie posters) visualizing core tensions and themes in the novel.
“Third Bottle,” Shailee, 9th grade. Shailee’s caption: “This poster pays tribute to Milkman’s disdainful attitude towards the world that pervaded throughout most of the novel, here expressed in his comment comparing Hagar to the “third beer” — “Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, which confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?” I felt this passage was key in how it implicitly describes so much about Milkman’s character, and was the beginning of Hagar’s arc. So, I placed three bottles of beer against an unforgiving black background – the beers are actually all the same shade of pink (pink because it’s a color commonly associated with femininity), but with their opaquity slowly decreased. This poster is the most minimalistic of them all – I wanted to derive a deeper meaning from a brief and simple moment in the book, without making anything particularly clear to the audience.”
Shailee’s caption: “This was supposed to be a simple poster. We have Milkman slouching behind a tattered sea green background. Robert Smith’s blue wings extend from his back. They symbolize flight, yet the blue wings were worn by Smith as he committed suicide in his attempt to fly – the novel ends with Milkman leaping as well, though whether he flies like Solomon or falls like Smith is uncertain. At the same time, the white peacock feathers extend from his feet – perhaps they are a reflection, perhaps they are weighing him down. They symbolize vanity. In the book, Guitar remarks that the albino peacock they chased has “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity….wanna fly, you got to give up that s— that weighs you down.” In this way, the peacock feathers – and the vanity they symbolize, Milkman’s vice – are weighing him down, preventing Milkman from flying.”
I will continue to add images or links to student projects as they are completed. Ultimately, my sense is that the combination of student choice and public presentation gave us the motivation to engage the intricacies of this novel in ways a traditional timed essay might not have. Instead of being exasperated by the complicated form of this work, students found its complexity a worthy design challenge – and came to understand how Morrison’s structural choices make the novel all the more impactful.
Inspired by George Orwell, students debate how best to amend the English language to more effectively control thought.
Sorry for the long blogging break – my colleagues and I have been involved in the XQ Super School Project’s competition to rethink high school. I’m energized and inspired by the proposal we submitted this week.
Our “finale” used George Orwell’s dystopian regime from 1984 for inspiration. Orwell uses that novel in part to exemplify the ways language structures thought. In the book’s appendix, which outlines the principles of the fictional totalitarian government’s new language, he writes of Big Brother’s concerted efforts to remake the English language:
It is intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.
I told the students to come to class as members of this dystopian regime’s “Eleventh Edition Committee” charged with writing the Newspeak dictionary. What words would they eliminate or invent? What grammatical constructions would they amend or proscribe? What lessons and texts from this semester support their ideas?
I distributed a “script” and had the class vote on a chairperson to lead the committee meeting. We vigorously chanted for Big Brother, yelling the government’s language-defying motto, “War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!”
We pretended our white board was a telescreen surveilling our every move. Bren took on the role of chairperson with a little too much enthusiasm, threatening to vaporize her classmates for “oldthink” and heresy. My script launched us into a heated discussion drawing on literature, philosophy and current events.
Students suggested eliminating abstract nouns like “freedom,” restricting all pronoun forms to only two (“us” and “them”), and eliminating the active voice to render all writing more vague and indirect. They referred to Ehrenreich and Pollan’s ability to inspire empathy for the powerless (minimum wage workers and industrial farm animals, respectively), and debated ways that language could offset or undermine those subversive feelings. In essence, they took all the lessons we’ve learned about powerful, moving writing and turned them on their head.
I’m not sure whether to be proud or afraid, but it certainly was fun to watch.
In the last ten minutes of class, students wrote about the “most compelling idea”, backing up their assertions with references to the semester’s work. Shailee’s response stands out as particularly insightful in her linking this event to the work of this course:
I think the idea of paternalism was very compelling, as well as how it ties into vague writing and the government. I like this because I think the process of debunking this vague paternalism is the point of our class – Truth in Media. Ehrenreich peels back the corporate veil that obscures the lives of lower-class workers from their upper class peers. Pollen reveals the truth that the food industry works so hard to hide. In both cases, modern industries use vague language and jargon to feed us half-truths, and we grow too comfortable and trusting towards these industries. The Elements of Journalism shows us how to defend ourselves from blindly following this feeling. – Shailee, 8th grade.
Here’s the script in case anyone would like to try this:
The “offensive” ideas my middle school students chose to engage for 24 hours
For 24 hours, my students “offended themselves” by generously imagining themselves on the opposite side of an issue about which they’re passionate. Inspired by Roi Ben-Yehuda, they sought out and read sources with which they vigorously disagreed; they left their comfortable corners of the Internet and explored perspectives that unsettled them.
The goal of the challenge was not to change their minds or values. Instead, I wanted them to deepen their understanding by engaging the ideas and experiences they might otherwise avoid acknowledging.
This was, without a doubt, the most engagement I’ve seen from my students for a required writing assignment. Students were also intrinsically motivated to improve their Internet-based research skills — a lot of them didn’t know where to start in seeking out oppositional sources, and weren’t shy about asking for help. In the finished products, I was impressed by the level of nuance, sophistication, and detail. Students who’ve been quiet all semester wrote hundreds of passionate words in response to this challenge.
In short, I heartily recommend this assignment to all secondary-level teachers, and I plan to do it again next year. Here is the assignment sheet I prepared (feel free to use): Offend Yourself Guidelines
I found that the more seriously and sincerely students approached it, the harder this task was. Joel, a high school junior, challenged his faith in big government and noted:
As simple as this may sound, I was immediately struck with how difficult a task this would be for me. Even thinking about empathizing with the opposing view made me not only intellectually uncomfortable, but Physically uncomfortable! I have held the idea that big government is the only path to national security and personal safety for as long as I can remember. Even with the knowledge that the assignment wasn’t to agree with the other side, I still felt morally opposed to trying to empathize.
I was stuck in this rut for a few days, trapped inside my own dogma. To be honest, I don’t think I ever really left that phase.. but I eventually got around to looking for sources. It was at this point that I realized how I could get out of my dogma, albeit temporarily… –Joel, 11th grade
The students who went through with the challenge noticed that reading disagreeable sources helped to humanize those they disagreed with. Two students engaged a variety of anti-gay perspectives and came to a similar conclusion:
There’s a definite trend of fear in the opposing ideas. Fear that LGBT+ people will attack morals, spread disease, harm others, etc…. I think it is good that this mini-project was assigned because of my tendency to believe that opposers of LGBT+ are only driven by a need to hurt others, but it is actually mostly the human instinct of protecting oneself. –Ilsa, 10th grade
I found that it was difficult to empathize with these people, as I am very firmly against their perspective, but this challenge gave me insight into what values and traditions influenced their beliefs. For example, I visited a few Christian-affiliated websites that promoted anti-gay ideas, and I could see what Bible passages or core ideas led them to their conclusion. I also came to the realization that the story is not quite as black-and-white as I had imagined, as I noticed people who were “between sides” (for lack of a better term), struggling with opposing information and ideas. This challenge definitely helped me to view all angles of a story, which will definitely help me going forward in my pursuit of journalistic truth. –Sofi, 8th grade
Some students found their perspectives altered by the end of the exercise. One sophomore came to understand the broader historical context of #blacklivesmatter by reviewing statistics and anecdotes in Bernie Sanders’ campaign materials:
On his website, Bernie says that African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. He points out many cases where extreme abuse has taken place, like the killings at a church in June. Many other statistics support his claims that racism is still a big problem and needs to be stopped. I can definitely see from these why a Black Lives Matter movement is needed.
Conclusion: Racism is still a prominent problem in parts of America. I completely agree with the idea of Black Lives Matter, I just think some of the movement’s actions are too radical and don’t have enough evidence to take their more radical ideas seriously. Remember, racism isn’t cool kids. 🙂 –Tanner, 10th grade
Most, however, remained resolute, though still recognizing the exercise’s value:
Now that I’m finished writing from the perspective of a radical Islamist Islamic State supporter, you might be wondering how this could have been intellectually worthwhile. It’s important to look at why people espouse views that you object to, so that you’ll be even better at countering their arguments. Specific to this topic, it’s especially important to understand why people support the Islamic State. Understanding this can strengthen counter-terrorism and foreign policy. It can help combat propaganda. We can analyze how we make decisions regarding the region, since these decisions may be used against us to bolster their propaganda. –Kamran, 10th grade
According to Couch’s attorneys and many other people, “affluenza” is a real condition. I do not agree with this opinion. However, I do believe that understanding and analyzing their thought process as I have above is important, especially since we live in one of the richest counties in the country. There are probably many teenagers who were raised just like Ethan Couch in Loudoun County… –Chasya, 9th grade
One eighth-grade student, who challenged her faith in the efficacy of higher education, insightfully articulated the implications of the exercise on our understanding of how ideas form and spread:
This exercise was valuable to me for many reasons. Firstly, I think that it forced me to disrupt some of the firm viewpoints that I have settled into as I wind my way through my education. This challenge caused me to think about the way that assumptions get blown out of proportion so that advocates of each side refuse to ‘offend themselves’. Secondly, I spent some time wondering to what extent our beliefs are based on the way we’ve been raised/the community with which we interact. The ‘tribes’ that Ben-Yehuda mentioned in his video could be based not only on the beliefs we have chosen to uphold but on the amount of interactions that we have with those who do not share those beliefs. One trend that I noticed when sifting through the vast amount of information available to me was that most of those who disagree were older people who had written about their own disappointing experience in higher education. Perhaps those who have yet to experience college for themselves are taught to think that college is a worthwhile goal because, in a school setting, the authority figures are more than likely to share that belief. Lastly, this challenge has made me think about the ordinary citizen’s role as a collector and interpreter of information. Seeking out information/articles/posts with which I disagree was valuable to my state of being ‘free and self-governing’, but based on my experience so far, it is very easy to become set in your ways and to stop seeking experiences like this one. – Katie, 8th grade
“What do you disagree with, but are willing to explore in order to learn new things?” – @irshadmanji
George Mason University grad student and Columbia University lecturer Roi Ben-Yehuda created a web challenge this past summer: for twenty-four hours, embrace an idea with which you vigorously disagree. In other words: #offendyourself
In the video, Ben-Yehuda explains the reasons behind the challenge:
The world is complex, and yet we reduce it to narratives that avoid any nuance and any contradiction, and so we misunderstand reality. We belong to tribes, we belong to moral tribes, to ethnic tribes, to religious tribes, and those tribes tend to be ideologically homogeneous. It is these perspectives, and these narratives, and these identities, that themselves legitimize exclusion of the other, and violence towards the other, and make constructive dialogue within groups, and between groups, a lot less likely. Challenging an idea that the tribe shares collectively is quite risky. On the one hand, you have the risk of being unpopular, and the other extreme, you also have the risk of facing violence as a result of taking an unpopular perspective.
He argues that in order to engage with other people constructively, you have to possess two key qualities:
The first one is intellectual empathy: not just feeling with somebody else, but generously imagining what it’s like to think as another person. The second one is integrity, and by that, we mean not losing sight of your principles, your core principles and core values that anchor the worldviews that you hold.
If you just have empathy without integrity, you are an intellectual chameleon. If you have integrity without empathy, you’re dogmatic, you are rigid, you are unbending.
The goal of this challenge, which we’ll be engaging next week in Truth in Media, is to build intellectual empathy. The purpose is not to change your views; it’s to engage the kinds of ideas, experiences, and perspectives that you otherwise purposefully or accidentally avoid.
The Challenge: For twenty-four hours, you’ll generously imagine what it’s like to be a person who embraces an idea with which you vigorously disagree. You’ll seek out information confirming this idea: articles, social media posts, videos, books, conversations with people. Entertain the idea; consider the experiences, traditions, and values that might inform the people who possess it. Perhaps explore the history or geography of this idea: when or where has it been popular? At the end of your twenty-four hours, post to your blog reflecting on your experience and new insights. Explain why you selected your chosen “offensive” idea. Share or paraphrase any informational sources you consulted during the challenge.
Criteria for your choice of idea:
Must challenge a belief shared by you and one or more of your social groups (peers, family, neighbors, etc.) because there should be a social risk associated with challenging this belief
Must have accessible sources confirming it (articles, blogs, videos, academic communities, etc.)
You should be able to explain in your blog post why temporarily embracing this idea will be an intellectually-worthwhile experience for you.