Organizational Leadership is the Key to Learning Outside the Classroom
The college campus is recognized as a place for sharing ideas and developing critical thinking skills. Discussing controversial topics in the classroom is crucial for learning about different values and beliefs. I learned about the power of exposing students to different viewpoints in structured learning activities during the late 1980s. I was an ethnic studies and psychology professor at California State University, Fullerton which is located in southern California’s conservative Orange County. Hot social topics were ripe for helping students struggle with taking different points of view.
Why aren’t today’s organizational leaders, such as Challenges and Presidents, taking advantage of the teachable moments that controversial campus speaking engagements present? I understand organizational leaders’ dilemma especially having served on a school wide leadership team. Safeguarding free speech must be balanced with realistic concerns about angry demonstrators getting out of control. What I do not understand is why higher education organizational leadership appear to shy away from demanding academic excellence when controversial speakers come to campus.
Organizational Leadership Means Preparing for Crises
Perhaps leaders can benefit from what I learned early in my college teaching career. I learned out of necessity how to structure learning environments in which controversial topics are discussed to increase critical thinking skills. I taught a required general education cultural diversity course. Only two to three of the fifty students in the course were not white American. Some students became disruptive when fellow classmates shared their honest opinions about controversial topics. I remember the only African American in one class calling a white American female classmate a racist after she offered her views about anti affirmative action. The tension in the classroom was very high after students started to talk over each other and taking sides. I somehow facilitated the class safely through the discussion, but I wasn’t at my best. In addition, my views about cultural diversity were shaped by the 1960s civil rights movement. The students felt that I was taking the “liberal” side on topics and it showed in my teaching evaluations.
The results of using the critical thinking exercises, ground rules, and increasing understanding about emotional reactions to competing views were remarkable.
The faculty review committee strongly advised me to improve my teaching performance. I sought changes that would both improve my teaching while not watering down the instruction. My cognitive psychology training came in handy as I sought answers to my dilemma. I found a series of publications called Taking Sides. The publications provide articles on controversial topics in debate style format to encourage critical thinking. The affirmative action debate, for example, has a pro affirmative action and an anti affirmative action article. Students were randomly assigned to read one side of the argument or the other. They were placed in small groups afterwards according to the side of the argument that they read. Each group developed a persuasive presentation to the class in support of the point of view. Students for the most part presented enthusiastically during the role play whether or not they agreed with the viewpoint. The structured lessons were very productive and the students showed increased critical thinking skills.
Some of the topics made students very emotional. Critical thinking skills were not easily accessible for these mostly Christian students when discussing topics such as gay and lesbian rights. Some students objected to reading the article that supported gay and lesbian rights. I turned to cognition and emotion psychology literature as well as mediation and negotiation books to address the lingering student challenges. That led to the introduction of ground rules to create greater sense of safety during classroom discussions. I also incorporated a lecture on the cognition and emotion literature and related it to cultural diversity debates.
The results of using the critical thinking exercises, ground rules, and increasing understanding about emotional reactions to competing views were remarkable. I no longer had to mediate arguments between students with different points of view. The exercise helped them better understand different views about controversial topics. The ground rules enabled them to self govern when someone behaves out of boundaries. I could sit back more to watch let them teach and learn from each other. My evaluations improved. I even wrote articles about what I had learned which were published in academic publications.
The larger arena in which controversial speakers share their thoughts with students is not as contained as the classroom. At the same time, controversial speeches are still taking place on campus. Imagine creating structured learning events when controversial figures are invited to campus. Students are expected to create learning experience with faculty and staff support instead of the typical free for all in which some can decide to act like hooligans. Structured learning takes putting in the time to prepare students for the event, making the linkages between the event and learning clear, and providing ground rules for participation. Give the audience the opposing viewpoints to enhance learning and critical thinking. The emphasis should always be on teaching and learning. It may not be easy to transfer the classroom experience to the larger arena of campus speeches. But it is the responsibility of organizational leadership to use educational tools and faculty expertise to transfer critical thinking to student life outside the classroom.
Billy Vaughn PhD CDP CDT CDE is a Contributing Faculty Member at Walden University, consultant and trainer at DTUI.com, and director of the Diversity Executive Leadership Academy. His bio is located at http://dtui.com/about-dtui-com/billy-e-vaughn-biography/