Argument values students’ unique contributions

One of the tenets of American education is that every child’s ideas are valuable. That tenet has oozed into a practice of treating all ideas as equally valuable on the theory that Josh shouldn’t be made to feel his idea is not as good as Caitlin’s.

The truth is that some ideas are better than others.

In a piece for fastcodesign, Daniel Sobol, a design strategist at Continuum, writes about how the company encourages innovation. By deliberate choice, Continuum has rejected brainstorming, which is about getting lots of ideas from everyone, in favor of deliberative discourse.

Deliberative discourse has been used to solve problems from the time of Aristotle. Such discourse is both deliberate in the sense of focusing on a shared purpose. It is also deliberative in the sense of being evaluative.  You and I probably call it argument. That’s what the Common Core State Standards call it. Sobol says, “It refers to participative and collaborative (but not critique-free) communication.”

The deliberative discourse process is not argumentative; it does not make personal attacks or spout off illogically. Disagreements have to be supported by evidence.

When argument is enlisted to solve problems, some important shifts occur.

First, the focus shifts from the quantity of the ideas students generate to the quality of ideas they generate.  We’re deluding ourselves if we think Josh won’t notice that Caitlin had five ideas for every one of his. In true collaborative work, the person whose argument leads to rejection of a weak idea is at least as valuable as the person who generates lots of ideas.

Secondly, the ability to articulate a position clearly—which implies having evidence to support it—becomes extremely important. That’s an educational reason for using argument.

Finally, the uniqueness of each individual’s perspectives, experience, and skills takes on greater significance. In a world that increasingly relies on collaboration, workers will be selected for their unique skills. It seems only sensible that in our classrooms, we teach collaborative processes like argument in which all are accorded respect for the unique value of their contributions rather  allowing  the individual’s contributions to be melted into the group’s work.

[Updated link to Sobol article content 2016-01-22.]