Making Someone Wrong

By Jennifer Fletcher

Pick a side and prove the other side wrong. In a nutshell, this is what many argument prompts tell students to do. But “making someone wrong”—that is, accusing, shaming, or blaming someone else instead of seeking a win-win solution—rarely serves our best interests in personal relationships or in academic and professional settings. 

Argument exercises that force students to see an issue as only having two sides or that quantify the amount of examples or reasons students must provide in defense of their position (give 3 reasons!) or that require students to see the “flaws” in a contrary position close the door on creative problem solving. This isn’t argument as inquiry. It’s argument as debate team.

While a competitive debate can be a fun learning experience for students, it’s important that students understand this isn’t how scholars do their brain work. Nobody keeps score in academic conversations. There aren’t clear winners and losers. And participants aren’t restricted to time limits for making their claims and refuting their opposition. Indeed, scholars work hard to avoid binary thinking and tend to view the other people in a conversation as collaborators and colleagues, not “opponents.”

When we teach argument writing to high school students, we need to be ever mindful of why we’re doing this. “Critical thinking and reasoning” sounds like a great justification, and to be sure, reading-based academic argumentation is a superb means of developing advanced thinking skills, but we also need to think of how and when students are going to apply those skills—in what contexts, with what mindset, and to what effects. I’d be pretty concerned if I believed what I was teaching my students was going to make them more antagonistic in their future lives.

A Better Approach: Collaborative Communication

The importance of creative collaboration is certainly something the business world has taken note of. The delightful book Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City has become a popular resource for organizational leaders who want to help their employees become more flexible and adaptive problem solvers. The title says it all. Based on the remarkable work of The Second City improv school in Chicago—whose alumni include Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Oprah Winfrey—Yes, And is about building on the work of others, not shutting others down.  The authors explain their approach in language that will resonate with teachers who have worked to foster academic habits of mind:

[In the business world] the soft skills—such as a willingness to listen, forge trusting relationships, take and support responsible risks, adapt to change, and stay positive in the face of adversity—are seen as those essential to allowing people and businesses to respond with agility and nimbleness to the fast-moving information, opportunities, and challenges of today’s workplace.

(Leonard and Yorton 13)

They add that these skills are “no longer merely nice to have” but are now “paramount” (13). When I read this passage, I can’t help but notice the implicit endorsement of rhetorical knowledge—of attention to audience, kairos, and adaptability. The transferrable communication and teamwork skills that can be learned from improv comedy are the same skills that can be learned from a rhetorical and dialogic approach to texts. Both lead to work cultures that “are more inventive, quicker to solve problems and more likely to have engaged employees than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly” (13).

“No, but” adversarial thinking is as counterproductive in academic settings as it is in the world of work. Whereas “yes, and” validates and extends thinking, “no, but” invalidates a person’s experience or perspective. For this reason, I encourage students to use the word “and” instead of “but” during class discussions. It sounds like this:

  • I appreciate what you’re saying about X and am interested in also exploring Y.
  • Your point about X is important, and I think Y is an additional consideration.
  • What I hear you saying is X, and I’m wondering if we can also talk about Y.

This kind of supportive dialogue helps build mutual understanding.

With any kind of learning experience, including classroom debates, the essential questions to ask are these: What are the most transferrable skills this activity develops? How do I frame this activity to foreground these skills?

I want my students to be open-minded, creative problem-solvers who communicate effectively and ethically, not chronic debaters always looking for a chance to prove people wrong. If we’re teaching for the kind of transfer of learning we want to see happen in the 21st-century, then we need to prepare students to engage multiple perspectives and resist adversarial and reductive thinking. It’s a respect for diverse and divergent views that will lead to the kind of solutions most needed in our world.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. Her new book Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Work Cited

Leonard, Kelly and Tom Yorton. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City. Harper, 2015.

One thought on “Making Someone Wrong

  1. This strikes me as a healthy context for research and synthesis, Jennifer. Students often know just enough to be dangerous, including opposing perspectives only so they can discredit or refute them. When they ask questions like “Do I need a concession paragraph?” I often tell them that’s a rhetorical choice they get to make, and that their goal should be to form a well-considered perspective on the issue. I like your framing a lot better — and in the age of knee-jerk emotional social media, this is valuable critical thinking. Thanks!

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