February 7

The importance of disagreeing well

Kristina Highlife (1)In the vast landscape of ideas, opinions, claims and counterclaims, we may often find ourselves standing at a crossroads, facing the challenge of disagreement.  

It feels more important than ever to help young people navigate the maze of diverse perspectives and understand the art of ‘disagreeing well’.  

The reason I care so much about this topic is because as a History & Politics teacher for many years, I have always tried hard to encourage my students to engage with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree with – to learn about differing viewpoints, even when they feel it’s obvious what the ‘right’ approach may be.  

We often talk about the importance of diversity – and whilst diversity offers many positive outcomes, a rich and varied diet, it can also entail some challenges.  

Because diversity means difference.  

And sometimes difference can involve disagreement, which can sometimes lead to division.  

Therefore, learning to disagree well is not optional, but rather a core survival skill. 

Our classrooms, communities, and society are filled with people holding different beliefs, values, and lived experiences. Recognising this diversity is the cornerstone to a healthy democracy. Openness to engage with differing opinions constructively means we are willing to learn beyond the echo chamber of our social circles. Imagine a world where everyone thinks and feels the same way – it would be a dull and stagnant place!  

Although it can often feel safe to surround ourselves with people who agree and embody similar ideas to our own, by embracing diverse perspectives, we open the door to a much deeper understanding of the world. It is hard to imagine how genuine engagement can happen across difference unless we approach it with at least some willingness to conceive that my understanding might be incomplete, or even wrong. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a bestselling novelist and one of my favourite authors. Her stories, which there are many, often centre around identity politics, including feminism, racism, immigration and otherness. Last year, Adichie featured in the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures where she expressed her concern that freedom of speech is under attack. Cancel culture has produced a difficult atmosphere, especially on university campuses, which are supposed to be spaces where different ideas and discourses can be explored without the fear of being silenced. However, this brings up difficult questions such as if we have the freedom to offend, where do we draw the line? 

I would argue there are skills that can be taught and learned, important to the practice of disagreeing well, which might help when dealing with ideas that you may disagree with. 

A skilful disagreement involves active and genuine listening – feeding back for correction what has been heard. By doing this, we respect the autonomy of the other person and let them control their own narrative. 

Disagreeing well also requires us to focus on the issue at hand rather than attacking the person expressing an opposing view. It's essential to critique ideas without resorting to personal insults and unhelpful exaggeration. This principle is particularly crucial in an age dominated by social media, where online debates can quickly devolve into toxic exchanges. By disagreeing with respect, we contribute to a culture of healthy discourse. 

I have designed an Enrichment Programme module for students in Year 7-9, where we will explore what disagreeing well looks like, and how to engage in civil discourse.  

We’ve started with some personal reflections, by asking questions such as:  

  • Can you remain calm when other people say things you dislike? 
  • Can you comfortably accept when friends or family reach different conclusions on a controversial issue than you might have reached? 
  • Do you become emotional when you’re having a hard time explaining why you think another person’s views are wrong? 
  • Have you ever become angry at another person during an argument? Why might this happen? 

In a couple of weeks' time, we’re going to analyse and evaluate an Oxford Union debate about Prime Minister Winston Churchill and whether Britain should be ashamed of him. Here, we will listen carefully to the arguments put forward by proposition and opposition, before coming up with our own judgements and thoughts on the debate. The Oxford Union have been debating since 1823 and continue to offer an important space for often controversial issues to be discussed in an open forum. 

I’m excited to be taking a group of Sixth Form students to UCL’s ‘Disagreeing Well in an Online World’ panel discussion on 26 March 2024 with an amazing line up of prominent female speakers such as Ayesha Hazarika (Times Radio presenter), Gina Miller (Businesswoman and Activist) and Jess Phillips (Labour MP). For anyone unable to make this exciting event, I would highly recommend buying Matthew Syed’s children book, ‘How to Agree to Disagree and Still Be Friends’.  

As we prepare our students to be the future leaders, thinkers, and contributors to society, mastering the art of disagreeing well empowers them to navigate the complexities of the modern world. It strengthens their ability to solve problems collaboratively, fosters resilience in the face of adversity, and ensures that their voices contribute meaningfully to dialogue. Democracy demands that we do more than simply shout at each other, and I’m confident that our school community is a place where reasoned dialogue can flourish.  

Written by Ms Lewis, Deputy Head (Academic) 

Hear more from Ms Lewis in her recent podcast interview on ‘The Importance Oracy & Civil Discourse’ with Teaching & Learning specialists Myatt & Co and Cat Priggs, Assistant Headteacher at Dr Challoner's Grammar School and Member of the Historical Association’s Secondary Committee.

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