I observed a teacher this week who was doing a lesson on creating theories and finding evidence to support one’s thinking. She used a text from our curriculum called, The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery by Jane Yolen. It’s a great text for a variety of reasons, but one of the best things about the book is that it sparks such curiosity in students. The cast and crew mysteriously disappear in the middle of the ocean in the 1800s and no one has ever figured out what happened to them
Besides the fact that this teacher artfully asked questions that got the students thinking deeply, what stood out to me the most was the way the students conversed with one another about their ideas and how, even when they disagreed, they did so in a way that respected the individual they were talking to.
The lesson began with the students sharing their ideas about what the characteristics of a good theory are. During this conversation, students eagerly raised their hands and shared things like, “it has to have evidence,” with others adding on, “the evidence has to be strong.” After this, students were partnered up in two lines and did a sort of “speed dating” with their theories about what they thought actually happened.
It was during this time that I observed students saying things like,
“I respectfully disagree with you because…”
“I respect your opinion, but…”
“I can see why you think that, but have you thought about…”
“I thought the same thing….”
“Tell me more about…”
“Can you give me another example?”
“Can you tell me more so I can understand better?”
The purpose set by the teacher for this time was to get new ideas from their partners, evidence or theory. No one got upset while they were talking. In fact, students eagerly shared their ideas in authentic conversations.
When I asked the teacher for more information about how she developed this skill in her students, she said:
“I noticed a need for this because I was trying to have my students have deep and mature conversations, but for many this was new and they didn’t yet have the social tools to do this respectfully. Even as we get older disagreeing can be a difficult thing, so I tried to find visuals that the students could refer to when they were vocalizing their thoughts. If they agreed, I wanted to give them language to further the conversation.”
Her plan is to continue to have her students practice this skill in literacy and then adapt it for math. She thought this would be particularly useful for student discussions about the reasonableness of answers, which can be tricky for students of all ages.
As I think about her lesson, I wonder if another element of success was the teacher’s use of the word, theory as opposed to argument. Coming from the latin stem, argumentum, argument is literally defined as, “an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one.” When we are asked to build an argument and then find support for our idea, the natural tendency is to fight with the person we are speaking with if they disagree until they come to our side.
The connotation of the word theory is quite different, less combative and more collaborative. The word theory usually refers to a hypothesis that a person is formulating and still seeking information in the process to support the thought. When talking to another person about his or her theory, the partner wants to help, to question or to add to the other person’s thoughts because it is not absolute yet.
With the volatile world that we currently live in, it is imperative that we teach students to respectfully disagree. Being able to successfully communicate one’s ideas, as well as perceiving opposing thoughts as an opportunity to learn instead of a personal attack are key skills to success in making our world better.