Agree or disagree?

Excerpted from “Challenging Students . . . and How to Have More of Them”

….Thoughtful assignments can be designed specifically to encourage a sharper, more active response to authors.  This requires us to dispense with the tired practice of asking students “Do you agree or disagree with what you’ve read?”

A little more reflection is encouraged by asking Why do you agree or disagree?”, but even that question is far from ideal. To begin with, it suggests that there are only two possible responses. (Exercises in which students are assigned to argue for or against a given proposition, like anthologies that contain clashing “pro” and “con” articles on controversial issues, similarly teach students to think in simplistic and misleading dualities.) We want students to construct nuanced positions on important questions, not merely to come out for or against something.

Another disadvantage of reading and participating in such debates is that they encourage students to accept an adversarial approach to thinking and discussing. We want them to challenge, but there’s a difference between challenging in order to learn and challenging in order to win. Whenever competition is involved, learning — and ultimately the quest for truth — is apt to suffer.

Asking students “What’s your opinion about what you’ve read?”, rather than whether they agree or disagree with it, would seem to address these concerns. But even here we have to be careful. The premise of both questions seems to be that the student’s view is a fixed reference point by which ideas should be evaluated. This excludes the possibility that one’s opinion might change as a result of having been exposed to a new idea. Thus asking “What questions do you have that you didn’t have before you read this?” is more consistent with the possibility that learning might have taken place…