There has been a lot of talk lately about the need for viewpoint diversity. Critics have complained that colleges have become silos where students are often provided only one side of issues, and they sometimes actively resist even hearing a different point of view. It has been argued that viewpoint diversity is important in college, as well as the workplace. But the why is not always obvious. Viewpoint diversity is good for students because it can be a tool to teach critical thinking and critical thinking is a skill that will serve them well in their careers.
Diversity of What?
When someone says viewpoint diversity, it is usually in the context of controversial political issues. Viewpoint diversity, however, goes way beyond politics and can be found anywhere people might have different ideas about something. On campus it exists in all disciplines where there are different opinions and perspectives. In my field, for example, it exists in the teaching of statistical methods when professors note that there are different opinions about the best way to conduct an analysis instead of telling students one way and ignoring that there are others. I was point/counterpoint editor for Journal of Organizational Psychology for 20 years where we published exchanges in which different authors took opposing positions on an important issue. We had debates on whether emotional intelligence was a thing, if the new values-based leadership theories were useful, and whether self-report surveys provide anything of value. None of these exchanges dealt with sensitive political topics. They all reflected viewpoint diversity.
Viewpoint Diversity Is Good for Students
In the television show The Paper Chase, Professor Kingsfield tells his law students “you come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer”. This quote recognizes that an education is not just about memorizing content, but in acquiring critical thinking skills appropriate for the discipline. In these times of political divisiveness where disagreement can be uncomfortable, it is even more important for faculty to provide viewpoint diversity to students. This can be done by exposing them to different ideas and opinions and challenging them to analyze them.
Viewpoint diversity does not have to be about sensitive political issues. It can involve more neutral issues that are important for a particular discipline. But merely exposing students to different viewpoints is not going to automatically promote critical thinking. That requires facilitation by faculty to challenge student thinking. One way that this can be done is by having classroom debates. Groups of students can be assigned one side of an issue that they have to argue, even if they personally disagree with it. That process of defending a position hones critical thinking skill.
Another tactic is to ask questions that require students to defend their positions with evidence and think through their logic. Questions can be part of discussion within a single class session, or they can challenge students to find evidence and be prepared to present it at the next class. Some questions that can invoke critical thought include:
- What makes you say that?
- What is your definition of that word?
- Why do you think the author concluded that?
- How did you come to that conclusion?
- What evidence do you have for your claim?
- How would someone in that circumstance react?
- Why do you think that person concluded that?
- How would doing this be better than doing that?
- What are the unintended consequences of doing that?
The goal of the questioning is not to change minds or to point out that students are wrong. The point is to make them think more deeply about an issue so they can develop better analytical skill. This could result in a change of opinion, but often it will help them articulate their position more clearly, basing it on evidence. At the end of the day, it is important that students learn to think critically so they can arrive at and express informed opinions.
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