Build a classroom culture that encourages active listening and a willingness to consider others' perspectives.
When I was a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I often asked my students to engage in debates inspired by our readings. For example, I once asked my students to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” — a short story in which a group of villagers participate in a long-standing tradition of stoning to death the “winner” of a mandatory lottery — and to debate whether or not the villagers could be considered “murderers.”
The prompt for students to “debate” with one another had its benefits: my students often became passionate to defend their beliefs and their analyses of the text, and students read the text closely to identify evidence and to justify their thinking out loud. However, notable shortcomings also arose when students engaged in the task of debate: they often became combative and indignant when others did not agree with them, and they seemed resistant to change their initial side of the argument.
At any age, it can be challenging for students to admit that they have changed their minds, especially in front of their peers. Even moreso, it can be challenging for students to actively listen and to respond to others’ points of view and analyses. It requires the ability to welcome or to accept a new idea or perspective. An excellent way to foster this kind of openness in the classroom — this culture of intellectual and social empathy — is to ask students to participate in what Peter Elbow called “The Believing Game.”
Balancing believing & doubting
The task of debate often asks students to participate in what Elbow called “The Doubting Game.” The doubting game requires students to be skeptical and as analytic as possible. It encourages students to try hard to doubt ideas, to discover contradictions or weaknesses, and to scrutinize and test others’ logical reasoning. This kind of critical thinking can be incredibly valuable, but it can also foster a classroom culture that only celebrates doubting, whether that be doubting ideas presented in a text or ideas presented by others in the classroom space.
Contrastingly, “The Believing Game” asks students to try to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea they encounter: not only to listen to different views, but also to hold back from arguing with those different views. Further, the believing game asks students to restate others’ beliefs or arguments without bias and to participate in the act of actually trying to believe them. Elbow points out that “often we cannot see what’s good in someone else’s idea (or in our own!) till we work at believing it…when an idea goes against current assumptions and beliefs — or if it seems alien, dangerous, or poorly formulated — we often cannot see any merit in it.”.
Including the believing game in your classroom does not need to coincide with the removal of the doubting game. The act of doubting — of critically thinking to develop thoughtful skepticism — is an undoubtedly important skill for students to develop in order to discern truth. But, a sole focus on doubting, as I shared from my own teaching experience, can lead to a classroom culture in which students are always inclined to doubt. This inclination can lead to rigid thinking, and an unwillingness to listen, respond, and grow. At its worst, this inclination can lead to a classroom culture in which students become hostile towards other students’ beliefs or ideas that seem oppositional to their own.
The benefits of believing
Peter Elbow, the creator of the believing and doubting games, is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has written extensively about the benefits of methodological believing for students and teachers. He identified three main benefits for the believing game in classrooms:
Engage students in the game of believing
The opportunities for students to participate in the game of believing are endless. I offer here a few suggestions for simple ways to engage students in the game of the believing.