Playing the Devil’s Advocate: Challenging Students to Broaden their Perspective

English 101 was supposed to be an easy Freshmen class at my college, unless you had Professor Cunningham.  Then, it became one of the most difficult classes on your schedule.  Of course, as luck would have it, I had the pleasure of taking the easiest English class with the hardest professor on campus.  He demanded excellence at every turn.  Despite working on my first essay for his class for numerous hours, I received a C-.  Yes, that wasn’t a typo, C-.  I had never earned below a B- in any of my high school classes.  What was going on? I thought.  Prior to handing back that first essay to my class, he laid into us.  “Your high school teachers taught you nothing.  You are the worst writers I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with.  My grandson, who is in kindergarten writes better than any of you.  You have much work to do this semester if you want to be successful,” he screamed at us.  He yelled at my class at least once, every period.  He was intimidating and intense.  He was the person who broke me of saying “like, uh, ah,” and “um” all the time.  While I feared him and dreaded going to his class, he forced me to become a better, stronger writer and speaker.  After successfully completing his class, I was a far better writer than I’d ever hoped I would be.  He challenged me to become a better writer each day.  For that, I am eternally grateful; however, I do wish the nightmares would stop.

Over the years as a teacher, I’ve learned to harness the effective and appropriate parts of Professor Cunningham’s approach to teaching, so as to help challenge my students to be the best version of themselves possible.  I want my students to learn how to expand their perspective and see the world through multiple lenses.  I want my students to push themselves to complete quality work because they want to do so.  I want my students to hold themselves to high expectations.  I want my students to see the value in learning and growing.  To do this, I have high expectations for my students.  I expect that they send me properly formatted emails.  I expect that they proofread and edit their work prior to turning it into be graded.  I expect that my students help their peers to understand difficult concepts.  I expect that my students read at least four books during every trimester.  I expect that my students use proper keyboarding skills when typing on a computer.  I expect that my students raise their hand to ask a question during class.  I expect that my students are kind and compassionate community members.  I expect that my students practice mindfulness techniques to free their minds of distractions in order to be completely present in the moment.  I expect that my fifth grade students stay focused during lessons.  I expect my students to ask difficult questions.  I expect much of my students, because if I don’t, then they will do the same of me and themselves.  I want them to constantly strive to grow and develop as students and people.  While I don’t yell, scream, and belittle my students like Professor Cunningham did, I do challenge them to complete only their best work on a daily basis.

One way I help my students learn to broaden their perspective in Social Studies class is to play the Devil’s Advocate during current events discussions.  Each Friday afternoon, we spend about 30 minutes discussing a relevant and controversial current event from the world.  After introducing and briefly explaining the topic or event, I then open the floor to the students.  After each comment, I respond with a question to poke holes in their thinking.  I want them to be able to challenge themselves to think critically as they alter their perspective.  This past Friday, we discussed the Migrant Caravan issue taking place as we speak.  We watched a short news clip on the issue so that the students would have a basic understanding of the topic.  I then posed a question to the students, “What should America’s response to this issue be?”  The first student responded, “We should let them in, provided they have proper identification.”  My response was, “These poor people from Central America will likely not have any sort of identification on their person.  So then what?”  The student paused for a moment and said, “Well, we could then do a brain scan on them to determine any mental deficiencies or give them a lie detector test.  Those who pass one or both of the tests would then be allowed safe passage into our country.”  I then poked back with, “Do you know how much the machines for brain scans cost?  Who’s going to pay the bill for that?”  I let her process this information before moving onto the next student.  For every statement, I countered with the opposite side.  Another student said, “We should only let them into the country if they can prove that they are going to have a positive influence on our nation.”  I then reminded the class that sometimes people lie to gain access to a country in order to commit acts of terrorism.  “What if a person lies about their intentions and we let them in?  What if they then commit a horrible act of terrorism?”  After this back and forth, I explained to the students that my role is to challenge their thinking.  “I am playing the Devil’s Advocate to help you broaden your perspective and think more critically about issues.  In order to successfully debate serious issues like current events, you need to be able to examine an issue from all sides.  I’m not picking sides in this discussion by probing your thinking, I’m helping you to see the other side of your take on the issue.”  After my short dissertation, the conversation continued fruitfully for the remainder of the period.

My students love discussing current events because I challenge their thinking.  I create a back and forth debate with the class on serious issues impacting our world.  I choose controversial topics that spark conversation.  I want them to care about what is happening around the world so that they will want to make a difference in the world.  I want them to see the value in exercising their civic responsibility to vote.  I want my students to see problems in the world and then create viable solutions to them.  I challenge my students to be change makers in our world.  They are the future of our country, and so I must equip them with the skills they will need to be successful, think critically and creatively, and make the world a better place.  By pushing my students to think about their perspective and broaden it, I am helping them to become better versions of themselves.  I am helping them to gain empathy and compassion about people and topics they knew nothing about before beginning the year in my fifth grade class.  I challenge them so that they will hold themselves to high standards and expectations.  When the bar is set high, students find a way to leap over through perseverance and much struggle.  They work hard to be successful and mature so much because of the experience and journey.  When the bar is set low for students, they easily hop right over it.  Because they aren’t challenged to work hard and think critically, they aren’t able to learn as much as they could.  In my class, the bar is high because I care about my students and want them to do the same.

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