Lesson of the Day: ‘Learn to Argue Productively’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Learn to Argue Productively’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 2021.

Featured Article: “Learn to Argue Productively” by Harry Guinness

“Like most things, there’s a skill to having good arguments,” Mr. Guinness writes. “Productive disagreements aren’t all-out shouting matches with a victor and a loser; they’re deliberate attempts to explore differences and reach a common ground, whether that be about who should be President of the United States — or if pizza for dinner is acceptable three nights in a row.”

In this lesson, part of our suite of resources for our Civil Conversation Challenge for teenagers, running from Sept. 22 to Oct. 30, students will practice putting the six practical tips in this article into action. They will then consider how these tips apply to online disagreements and to teenage “cancel culture”— as well as to broader questions many have posed about what it means to have a “civil conversation” in the first place.

Before you read the article, try having some “joyful disagreements” first. Click through the choices above — which include “Does pineapple belong on pizza?” and “How does the roll of toilet paper go on the holder?” — and then choose one that you feel strongly about. Next, find a classmate, family member or friend who feels differently than you do about the issue, and debate it for a few minutes.

When you’re done — whether because you came to a stalemate or because one of you convinced the other — stop and process it together. What happened in your debate? What was productive about it? What wasn’t? If the argument was unsatisfying to either of you, how might you have had a better discussion?

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. What are the “three realms” of arguments, according to Buster Benson, and how would you explain each? Can you think of a time you had an argument that was unproductive because you were arguing in different realms?

2. This article says that “the emotions you feel when someone disagrees or challenges you on something reveal where your personal expectations don’t line up with reality.” Do you think that might be true for you? Think about a time a disagreement inspired strong emotions in you. Stepping back a bit, do you think your personal expectations were unrealistic? Why or why not?

3. Why might genuine, as opposed to leading, questions about someone else’s position on a topic lead to better disagreements? Can you come up with an example for both types of questions about a topic, perhaps the one you tried in the Warm Up?

4. Why is summarizing a position back to the person you’re arguing with an effective way to understand nuances? How might doing this help you to understand someone else’s logic?

5. One piece of advice in this article for healthier relationships is to “talk about disagreements when you’re not having them.” What argument do you have over and over with someone close to you? How might you use this piece of advice with that person?

6. What is the final piece of advice in this guide, and why do you think the writer ends with it? What does it acknowledge about disagreeing with other people in general?

7. Would any of the tips in this piece have worked for the argument you had in the Warm Up? How so? When you and your partner processed your discussion, did either of you mention similar ideas?

Do these tips apply to online arguments, too? The article you read dealt chiefly with having disagreements in person, but many of the arguments you may find yourself in these days take place online, sometimes with strangers. What is your experience with disagreements online, whether as a participant or an observer? Do you think the tips in this piece could apply to the arguments you’ve observed there? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

Do the tips apply to teenage cancel culture? In a 2019 piece titled Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture, Times journalists describe several situations set in high schools or colleges in which someone was called out for his or her actions and “canceled” as a result.

  • Are these situations familiar to you?

  • Do you have examples from your own school?

  • What do you think of the quote from Ben, 17, who says in the article that people should be held accountable for their actions, whether they’re famous or not, but that canceling someone “takes away the option for them to learn from their mistakes and kind of alienates them”?

  • Do you agree that there is a difference between being called out and being “called in”? (As the article defines it, “‘Called in’ means to be gently led to understand your error; call-outs are more aggressive,” but for more information, you might read “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down,” an article from Teaching Tolerance.)

  • How, if at all, do you think the tips from the article you read above apply to situations like those described here?

What does it mean to have a civil conversation — and can calls for civility be repressive? We posted this lesson as a first step for those interested in participating in our Civil Conversation Challenge — yet right now, the very idea of what a “civil” conversation means is in question. Listen to this short segment from NPR — or read the related piece. As the article puts it:

Right now [our] social contract — a common agreement on what appropriate public behavior looks like and who deserves respect — feels broken. No one can agree on the facts, let alone on how to argue or what to argue about.

In that context, the article explains, “the calls for civility can feel like an effort to stifle people’s outrage over injustice or hate, because civility can be a tool to build or a weapon to silence.” Who gets to define what civility is? How can voices that may have been stifled in the past be a part of the conversation?

Finally, take a look at the rules for our Civil Conversation Challenge — six discussion forums in which we’ll be inviting teenagers to weigh in on sensitive and divisive issues like race and our national response to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know what you think of our rules by considering the following:

  • Do tips like the ones from the first article you read apply to discussions on issues as complex as the ones we’re inviting students to discuss, or are they too simplistic?

  • Are there any guidelines we should add, take away or detail further?

Let us know by posting a comment here, or by writing to us at LNFeedback@nytimes.com. Then, consider participating and adding your voice, anytime from Sept. 22 to Oct. 30.


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