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Facilitating Respectful Dialogue

“Every person that you meet knows something you don’t; learn from them.”

- H. Jackson Brown Jr.

A 2009 survey of employers identified broad agreement about what higher education could emphasize to better prepare students for productive careers.

  • More than three-quarters of employers called for greater critical thinking/analytical reasoning and analysis/complex problem solving.

  • Roughly 70% wished for students to be better equipped to work in teams, be creative, understand concepts and developments in science and technology, and locate/organize/evaluate information

  • About two-thirds are looking for students who can understand and work with numbers.

Teaching with case studies can prepare students in these critical learning areas, but they are especially useful in teaching something more imperative, respectful dialogue, perhaps the single most important attribute of being a team player.

It has become culturally acceptable for people to not have the humility or courage to admit their mistakes, and this culture has infiltrated the scientific community as it has all other academic communities. The unfortunate consequence is that it has slowed scientific progress by diverting our cognitive energy in unproductive directions.

As educators and parents, we need to deliberately cultivate more intellectually humble, curious people than we have done in the past if we are as a nation to remain at the forefront of scientific advancement. This much-needed cultural shift for our laboratory and field researchers starts in our science classrooms today.

In order for us to acquire more intellectual humility, all of us, even the smartest among us, need to better appreciate our cognitive blind spots. Our minds are more imperfect and imprecise than we’d like to admit.

Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, “I was wrong.” And we need to be braver about saying it. We need a culture that celebrates those words, so we can more quickly set to our task of seeking better explanations for our observations.

Sometimes our most academically gifted students need to be gently reminded that being smart is not a “get out of being a kind person free” card, and it comes with the responsibility to not use their gifts as an emotional weapon against other people.

Scientific case studies are narratives that reveal information and invite analysis. They typically pose a dilemma for students to grapple with, and participants are put in the position of evaluating data points and making decisions. Ultimately, they have to organize the evidence they have into a well-reasoned narrative.

Unlike traditional classroom learning where teachers provide the analysis to the students, cases include information but provide no authoritative analysis. Students are tasked with providing the analysis.

When students are presented with complex scenarios that don't include every piece of information they would like to have and may include extraneous or irrelevant information, they are challenged and become engaged in the process of seeking the answers themselves. Ultimately, the questions they are asked often have no single "right" answer. Instead the focus is on defending whatever position they choose with evidence and scientific reasoning.

Cases provide a rich contextual way to introduce new material and create opportunities for students to apply the material they have just learned. The same overarching case can even be used repeatedly in the same course, with students returning to the story of the case with new analytical techniques and tools.

Ideally, case studies prompt vibrant conversations between students, rather than driven by their teacher. Master teachers who utilize case studies often describe their role as conductor, facilitator, discussion manager or guide, emphasizing that their most important role is cultivating discussion in which students are the primary participants.

Which brings us to a great opportunity to address a great problem. The conversations we have while teaching with case studies present us with a great opportunity to model and cultivate the necessary skills and phrases for respectful dialogue. Let’s reinforce that we should always be patient and kind with one another, and choose the most charitable interpretation possible of the words spoken by those who disagree with us. Intellectual humility, knowing you might be wrong, is a virtue that seems to get little recognition in the current media environment but does wonders for advancing the cause of science.

Even more importantly, it’s OK to be wrong, and we need to to teach the next generation of scientists and citizen scientists how to do it gracefully. Let’s show our students how to best respond when we realize our mistakes, and provide positive reinforcement when we observe them do it well. Let’s also teach them the long view so that they understand that, in some cases, being wrong is temporary, and so is being right. Science, and the whole world, would benefit greatly from a pandemic of humility.

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