Honoring and Challenging Students’ Beliefs

Students walk into college classrooms with values and beliefs that are nonnegotiable. They do not see themselves as broken vessels, blank slates, or empty cups ready for filling. Many students whom I have encountered accept that they may not know everything, but they still seek affirmation that their experiences and beliefs are valid. In any course, there is room for students to doubt and dismiss ideas that contradict what they hold most dear. As educators, we must consider their starting points in order for our dialogues with them to be more authentic.

When they begin reading the content and discussing it in class, it is important to have some framework that describes how the course will honor and challenge their beliefs. This framework can also benefit the design of in-class activities and graded assignments. Over time, I have begun explicitly emphasizing the need to balance and integrate these three components: 1) personal experiences, beliefs, and values; 2) others’ experiences and values; and 3) the expertise of scholars and practitioners. Using a triangle as the visual, I propose that each component has its own point and is equally valuable. Throughout the semester, this framework anchors our discussions.

“You are not broken.”
After semesters of hearing students use derogatory remarks or question the integrity of an entire group of people, it’s tempting to consider them ignorant and lose respect for them. But if we communicate these impressions, students feel belittled or pressured to regurgitate what they think we want them to think. These results are not productive if the goal is to deepen understanding and self-reflection. While students are learning new material, small- and whole-group activities can encourage thoughtful examination of the content through their own personal experiences and their own value systems.

“That person’s shoes are hard to walk in.”
As children, most of us learned about the misplaced curiosity of Goldilocks in her pursuit of a different experience. Her exploration of bear culture is actually a glimpse into how to disrespect what and who we are trying to get to know. However, when we ask students to walk in another person’s shoes as part of developing their awareness of others, we must remember how uncomfortable that can be, especially if someone else’s experience does not afford the comforts that our own lives offer (ergo, the piping-hot porridge and a rock-hard bed).

In class, having students make a T-chart that lists the ways in which they operate and how they would describe the exact opposite may help them see how they perceive others. For example, one of my students shared that she was highly motivated and highly organized and described the opposite person as detached and lazy. What a telling assignment! Last, having students read a memoir or semiautobiographical work that represents diverse cultural experiences will emphasize thoughtfulness and respect for commonalities and diversity within and across communities.

“Scholars and practitioners have values too.”
Each semester, students buy books and download articles with the expectation that some expert will enlighten them. Nonetheless, any professional course can further honor and challenge students’ beliefs and values with a reminder that scholars and practitioners are people too. I assign articles and chapters that explore the positions the authors have taken, their identities, and their experiences as researchers and professionals in the field. These perspectives are key when asking students to believe the words of the experts. Students’ knowledge of the experts’ personal connections or roles as outsiders is just as important as the results of any study.

Balancing three sharp points
In order to emphasize the importance of balance, it is critical to have a frank conversation about what the imbalance may look like. If students are focused solely on their own perspectives, they risk having or nurturing an egocentric and ethnocentric perspective. How can their research and practice benefit anyone if they do not value others’ ways of knowing or doing? Second, the narrow focus on other people’s perspectives may initially increase interest in diversity, but students must understand the danger of not seeing possible ways in which they may connect with others. Last, it is possible for students to value the expertise of the scholars and practitioners at the expense of dismissing the real-life experiences of themselves and others. While in college, it is important to have students see how their journeys may contribute to their fields even before they have obtained their degrees.

This appears to be an easy formula, but the trick is in the careful monitoring of your own and your students’ use of each major perspective in papers and discussions. This formula allows me to consider my own biases and values as well as my expectations of undergraduates in professional programs.

Reprinted from “Honoring and Challenging Students’ Beliefs,” The Teaching Professor, 25.3 (2011): 6