Controversy in the Classroom

July 29, 2013 in featured by julielkz

Reframing Class Participation

For an I-course about the practice of tolerance in religious societies, student teams were given controversial or even offensive positions to defend/attack. Teams of five were selected more or less at random and assigned one side or the other. They prepared web-pages on their positions and then debated in class according to modified Oxford rules with the audience encouraged to challenge positions aggressively. The debates were open to the public and some outsiders attended. Each team’s written and oral presentations were graded for content and style. The winning team received an automatic (not too large) bonus grade. The winning team was determined by the debaters’ ability to change the audience’ collective mind. Students voted before and after each debate using their cellular phones to call into an aggregating website (not by clickers); the team that moved more of the audience to change their votes was declared the winner. We videotaped the debates  and streamed them for the class. Teams perfected their web sites after the debates.

The point of these debates was to give students the opportunity to frame an argument, muster evidence, and convince each other of a position. It was not “to be right.” This is meant to fit in with my overall assumption that in the information age the purpose of the classroom is not to pass along information but rather to teach students how to locate, filter, and repurpose information.

You can view a (not-overly-professional) video of one debate here: Mosque Near 9/11 Site

Debate topics included:

Resolved: The recent moral outrage against pedophiles is a reflection of social uncertainty about the proper roles of men and women in the family rather than a moral position that has always defined Western society.

Resolved: The Muslim community in New York should not have been allowed to build a mosque near the September 11 memorial.

Resolved: The rigid division of Church and State in the United States is tantamount to persecution of religious people by preventing them from expressing themselves in the public sphere.

Resolved: The state has the obligation to extract children from families that belong to communities with unacceptable moral values. (Examples: polygamous Mormons, sects that promote child marriage or [female] circumcision, etc.)

Resolved: Muslim girls should be banned from attending public school wearing head scarves because such costuming is oppressive to women and an affront to our society’s egalitarian social values.

Resolved: A society has the right to keep out people that it labels as undesirable on grounds of religious and/or moral grounds and to expel their children and grandchildren if the original migrants entered the society illegally.