I Disagree – The Phrase That Changed How I Approach Teaching

In my 13th year of teaching, I started over at a school far from the only one I had ever known. Geographically it was in a different part of the state, demographically it was a different student population, and professionally I was mid-career.

Since no one at this new school really knew me, I approached the new appointment as an opportunity to reinvent myself as an educator. From the parts that had formed me thus far, I would take only the best, casting aside all other substandard ideas and qualities. What could go wrong? Surely with my experience, I could easily forge brilliant lesson plans from which my students would passionately involve themselves, never minding the fact that it had been eight years since I taught a level World History course and never taught an AP World History course.

How quickly new challenges can humble us.

I knew plenty of World History to slap together 70% of my AP World History course, but the remainder, well, let’s just say that was a crash course in every way. Were there days where the material I had intended to teach ran ten minutes short of the bell?

Yup.

Did my classroom management strategies fall through at times?

Yup.

Did it all turn out okay?

Sure it did.

I had taught history long enough that I could riff on all kinds of peripheral information related to the topic of the day. This wasn’t good teaching, but it was theatrical, informative, and competent, and I had the student’s attention, a quality all administrators like to see in classrooms.

These soapbox moments of teaching began to grow in popularity (as any action by a teacher that has little to do with the lesson has a tendency to do) where they were looked forward to by myself and the students. These moments weren’t much, maybe 15 minutes a week, but they seemed to be more alive, more electric with the stuff of learning, not educating, so much so that I began to work lesson plans around them.

What made these moments so valuable?

We talked. The students and I, we talked about history. I didn’t tell them historical information and facts; we actually had a dialogue about history. It started out that I would just ramble about something historical related to our topic of the day (rather self-indulgent, actually), but after time, students began to ask questions about the topic, and I would do my best to answer. It was all very exciting in many ways.

But the greatest moment of that year, which admittedly came near the end of the year, was when a student hesitantly rose her hand in an act of tremendous bravery and said, in response to what I was talking about, in front of the entire class…

“I disagree.”

It was like the oxygen had been sucked out of the classroom. All the students looked at me, and for a brief second, I was motionless. Here was this student who, very humbly I would like to point out, felt she had to share her view on the subject which was in contrast to mine. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I finally said,

“Tell me more.”

What prompted this student to make such a bold statement? I had been carrying on in my usual blustery style, tossing opinion softballs left and right hoping someone would hit one, riffing on the topic of how much time had to pass before an event could be judged historically. My line in the sand was 10 years, that it would take that much time to pass before someone could objectively reflect and judge the importance and impact of an event. She disagreed.

This was a wonderful moment. And why? It was the bursting of the dam that we had been building towards for months.

Students and teachers have dialogue in classes; there’s nothing new or revolutionary about that (though there are many teachers who do not even go that far!) and certainly, that is what we had been doing in class the past few months. Allowing students to ask questions makes room for them to think a little, lets them feel the classroom is in part theirs and eases the atmosphere to where more open interactions can occur. And while this is good and creates a trusting environment, it’s only scratching the surface of what educational lingo calls Critical Thinking.

When students critically think, they are evaluating, and when students evaluate, they are using an entirely different set of skills. It means students are analyzing by investigating the assumptions, quality of evidence, and the implications of an argument, and by doing that, they begin to find their own voice.

A favorite quote I use to start all my classes, no matter the subject, is by Irish philosopher George Berkeley,

“Few men think; yet all have opinions.”

It is imperative that we send students out into the world equipped with the tools to evaluate claims and to construct their own based on something other than opinions rarely founded on fact or knowledge. We need students who can problem solve, who can have the confidence to advocate for themselves, who can identify faulty reasoning in themselves and others, and articulate why.

For the remainder of the year, how I approached lessons and objectives were completely reoriented. This is not to say there weren’t days where class functioned along traditional lines and I delivered lectures, but woven throughout was the expectation that room would be made for an “exchange of ideas.” This transformed the learning experience into one that was more dynamic and personally meaningful.

When my student said, “I disagree” it opened the door for others in the classroom to begin disagreeing as well, and counterintuitive as it sounds, those disagreements made for a much richer classroom experience.

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