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September 6, 2007

Encouraging Dissent

Relative to most of my students, I am older, more experienced, have a broader knowledge of the law, and a better sense of what is important.  Nonetheless, sometimes I am wrong-- by not considering all possibilities, for example, or in failing to differentiate between the law of different jurisdictions.  (hopefully, I don't get doctrine wrong, but sometimes I may make that mistake, too).  At those times, I would like for my students to say so.  Even more, I would like them to speak up when they disagree with my ideas on policy issues.

Too often, that doesn't happen, even when I openly invite dissent.   Why does this bother me?  In large part because what should be teaching is critical thinking, and that talent should be on display in class, so it can be further honed and embedded as a method of analysis.  When I am teaching future prosecutors, for example, I want them to learn the importance of critically analyzing the evidence brought to them by investigators, rather than passively accepting cases.

I am still working out how to foster dissent in my classroom.  Here are the steps I take right now:

1)  Make it clear that dissent is welcome.  As part of my first-day lecture, I make it clear that I hope and expect them to disagree with me, and that they won't be punished for their disagreement with me.

2)  Reward dissent.  When I can, I try to reward those who apply critical thinking to what I am presenting.  This may take the form of affirming their logic, or even rewarding them with extra credit towards a grade.

3)  Making space to disagree.  If I am opining on policy or law which is part of a controversial policy, I always try to immediately ask for opposing views, and allow time for them to be discussed.

Is there more I can do?

-- Mark Osler

September 6, 2007 | Permalink


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Mark, besides looking at your own influence on encouraging/stifling differing POVs, what role do you find student culture plays in discussion? Are the students themselves heterogeneous, and do students with minority opinions feel oppressed not just by you but by their classmates? IMHO, once the "shock and awe" of the professor fades, their peers' opinions and influence become a bigger damper. (Except for the contrarians who like to play the role of martyred soothsayers).

Posted by: Gene Koo | Sep 12, 2007 12:11:30 PM

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