In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

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To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

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