Don’t Teach Viewpoints; Teach Counterpoints

Time to talk about boredom. Kids complain about being bored; moms get agonized over hearing this complaint in the carpool line; teachers are flustered as to how to respond.

counterpointThis is a big topic—it’s packed with issues that are developmental and societal, not just educational. I’ll be turning to this topic from time to time on this site. For now, let me offer one of the simplest and most effective strategies in the classroom (and at home for parents, actually) to snatch students’ attentions, galvanize their motivation, and enliven their minds: create an opposition. What I mean by this is that we can pose almost anything we are trying to say or command or teach in terms of a choice or as a point/counterpoint proposition.

Outstanding teachers know this instinctively—pose the question in terms of thiscezanne.basket-apples or that. What contributed more to the Civil War: economic power struggle between north and south, or the clash in views over slavery? What is more of a danger to American freedom today: security surveillance or insufficient support for the military? Does this Cezanne version of Still Life depict anxiety or serenity?

There is so much more than just class discussion or paper topics that flow from questions posed in this manner. Students can be managed, children can cooperate, the team will be eager—whenever choices or counterpoints or dichotomies are presented, the stakes become more meaningful for students.  Even early childhood teachers can benefit by posing choices: would you like to join the playgroup over here or sit and draw at this table?

You read about this so frequently on the parenting sites, like “Aha Parenting!” and “PBS Parents”: Giving choices, the win-win strategy that pre-empts or dissolves any power struggle, and gives your child options that are okay with the parent. This way, the child is in charge, within the parent’s parameters, like, “We have to leave now. Do you want to put on your shoes yourself or do you want me to put them on for you?”

Whether we’re talking about the Kindergarten classroom or the case study discussion at Harvard Business School, the approach of posing a choice or choosing an interpretation should be uppermost in the minds of teachers when engagement and intellectual investment are sought.

And be sure to bring it to closure—let’s take the classroom debate as an example:

Be sure not to conclude with noisy argumentation where students walk away confused and frustrated. The conclusion should end in a celebration of main substantiating points and with recognition of the possibility of alternative perspectives, and these kinds of mutual support conclusions are more likely to end with empowerment and motivation. Rules, guidelines, boundaries, limitations, etc.—these are the factors that help bring about orderly and satisfying debates; free-for-alls and competitions over who can say more things and say them the loudest should be strictly avoided.

Attacking boredom involves establishing boundaries and making it very clear where everyone is positioned within those boundaries. Draw the lines first, set up the rules, and select the sides—do this, and it’s game on!

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