“That’s what I think. And I’m entitled to my opinion.” This kind of declaration can be the end of the road for any exploration or exchange of ideas. Up goes the wall. Behind it, the speaker entrenches a view and refuses to examine it. In a course such as Theory of Knowledge where we encourage students to think about justifications for reaching conclusions and to reflect on what they think themselves, the assertion that “It’s my right to have any opinion I like” runs us smack into opposition to any thought whatsoever. Given our goals of reflection, analysis, and communication, how can we handle this barrier to thought if faced with it in class?
We can certainly witness what happens in the media, with Brexit and the American presidential campaign flooding us with more examples than we ever wanted of entrenched opinions impervious to examination. In news reports and media commentary, we watch the walls of opinion go up, and behind them we hear the sabers rattling.
Is it possible that in TOK we can discuss ideas in a way that’s different from the public contest we witness? Can we encourage in our students a way of thinking that would enable them to navigate conflicting knowledge claims more thoughtfully?
How might we do so? No teaching methods are ever fool-proof, and no group of students is completely predictable in their reactions. Still, in large part I think we can forestall the “It’s my opinion, and that’s that!” wall from going up by:
- establishing open questioning from the beginning
- introducing vocabulary and distinctions that give students a way of steering around obstructions in the way of communication
- creating a safe and inclusive space in class
- valuing opinions and encouraging their thoughtful development
But as I express my own opinions here, I appeal to experienced TOK teachers: are these approaches appropriate or even obvious – in your opinion? Can you offer suggestions that – in your opinion – work effectively to keep communication flowing even while views strongly differ?
1. Establish openness and questioning right from the start.
In the TOK Course Book I suggest opening TOK by questioning the whole point of the course ahead. Some lighthearted materials prompt initially broad discussion on the question “Does it matter if what I believe is true?”
Today, I’d be tempted to substitute the question “Are people always entitled to their own opinion?” — just because it raises the same points, but in a way that immediately connects TOK with everyday debate. And then I’d give students the chance to think and comment themselves on what the question actually means and what provisions they might impose on agreeing with it.
I’d expect, with a group of IB students, that some of the following distinctions would emerge:
- the “right” to having your own opinion vs having an opinion that is “right” (The concept of “rights” can be flagged for later discussion on ethics.)
- entitlement to having an opinion vs entitlement to acting on an opinion in society, or even expressing the opinion if it is hate speech
- accepting someone’s opinion vs treating that person with respect whether you accept his opinion or not
- whether all opinions are of equal value, or whether some opinions are worth more than others (Aha! The term “justification” can be introduced and hopefully some early discussion on what it involves.)
I recommend an article by Patrick Stokes, lecturer in philosophy, entitled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.” I wouldn’t, however, take his classroom approach of declaration. I’d try to get students to think through the issues and make the points themselves.
2. Help students distinguish different kinds of knowledge claims and their appropriate justifications.
As a follow-up to the discussion above, I’d prepare a sheet of 5 to 10 assertions of opinion (knowledge claims) ready to circulate in order to pin down analytically some of the distinctions that are likely to have emerged.
If students haven’t distinguished already between facts and values, or between facts and interpretation, a list like this one could give them a push. This is just a sample – and if you opt for an activity like this one, you’ll probably want to generate your own assertions that are more likely to galvanize your own group.
Sample knowledge claims “It’s my opinion that…”
Which of the following knowledge claims would you call “opinions”? If some are opinions, and some of them are not opinions, what is the difference between them?
What is the difference between a “fact” and an “interpretation”? What is the difference between a factual statement and a statement of values?
- I think Usain Bolt is the finest athlete in the world.
- I think that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War I.
- I think all children should have access to free basic medical care and free basic education.
- I think all people should pay for their own education and medical care and not ask the government for help.
- I think that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1920, as the document which founded the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations.
In the TOK Course Book I’ve followed a common distinction by dividing knowledge claims into different kinds: statements of observation, statements of values, predictions, hypothetical statements, metaphysical statements, and definition. Although the different kinds of knowledge claims are interconnected in any arguments we’re likely to make, drawing these distinctions is useful for any kind of clarity. In many ways, these distinctions underlie our whole course.
Sadly, some commentators have called recent years the “post-fact era”, when factual statements established on the basis of considerable evidence by an appropriate method and a relevant expert are treated in the media as if they can be debated in the way statement of values can be. It takes more than a distinction and a definition to get students to recognize what “facts” are, even with all their uncertainties. We have some fascinating territory to explore in the short hours we have for teaching TOK!
3. Create a safe space.
We don’t want students to retreat behind the “It’s my opinion” wall and shut off their thinking altogether. But there are many reasons for students to put up a wall, and not all of them involve mental laziness. We want to create an atmosphere where they don’t feel they need to retreat to protect themselves.
We can set the tone, and maintain it, so that students treat each other with respect – listening to each other and letting others finish, being polite even in disagreement, and asking questions about others’ views rather than just assuming they already know them. I’ve known some teachers who work out ground rules for discussion at the beginning of the course with their students and find them helpful to guide the class. We can also allow that students sometimes need to disengage from discussions on particular topics because of personal comfort level at the time, and uphold their “right to their own opinion”. From time to time, they may need a wall – and are more likely to let it down for discussion later if they feel in control.
We can set the pace in discussion so that students don’t feel out of their depth too often and begin to retreat behind that wall. Sometimes students find ideas too unfamiliar, or feel that they contradict what they think already — but they can’t process the ideas on the spot or formulate questions or comments immediately. I’ve found it helpful to give students a question in advance on which to gather their thoughts – a few minutes in class to find their ideas and their words before they enter discussion, or perhaps some time at home after a discussion to pull together their ideas for themselves.
We can vary class styles of communication to keep that wall from going up. It’s great fun to have energetic class exchanges where lots of students want to jump in with ideas, but it’s too easy to ignore the students who remain quiet. Quiet students may be happily engaged as they follow discussion – the amount of mouth noise people make is certainly not a reliable indicator of amount or quality of thought! But it’s also possible that they feel excluded or inadequate. With a range of personalities in our classes, we have to balance group discussion with small group work, pair work, and individual reflective writing to make sure that everyone’s communicative comfort is taken into account.
Wouldn’t it be a transformation if all groups in society or at work aimed to be communicative, respectful and inclusive? I keep hoping that familiarity with an open, questioning, supportive space in class will have lasting effects on our students when it’s their turn to run the world!
4. Give value to the concept of “opinion” and the responsibility for forming one thoughtfully.
In TOK, we’re not out to make our students agree with our opinions.
Instead, we’re out to help them to listen to different points of view and recognize why people hold different perspectives, even if they disagree. We’re out to help them recognize and evaluate the justifications that people put forward for their knowledge claims and their arguments.
In my opinion, we’re perfectly positioned in TOK to facilitate communication across cultures and worldviews and to support conflict management or resolution. We’re also centrally placed to foster appreciation of how areas of knowledge hone their knowledge claims and validate their experts and “expert opinion”.
In TOK we have a lot to offer in public context where people too often put up walls to communicating with others unlike themselves, and see the other side of the wall as alien or threatening. At least, that’s my opinion.
Patrick Stokes, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion”, The Conversation. October 5, 2012. http://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978
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