K-12 Education

Developing Civil Discourse and Critical Thinking in High School

June 13, 2023

The Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative created to help bridge divides not by papering over them but by helping people have better arguments. Arguments don’t have to drive us apart—better arguments can bring us together.

Peter Tragos participated in the Better Arguments Ambassador Program, an immersive, fellowship-style program designed to equip participants to bring the project to their communities. Peter Tragos is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, just north of Chicago. He sat down with the Better Arguments team to discuss how he is leveraging lessons learned in the Ambassador Program.

Why do you think it is important that we find healthier, more constructive ways to disagree and exchange ideas in classroom settings?

I believe that education is a public good, and the “good” we are putting into the world is citizens who can thrive in a complex society—citizens who can think, who can argue, who can do all the things that good citizens do. Fostering dialogue is an important part of preparing students to be this kind of citizen.

I think that schools are the most ideal and important place to do this, particularly now. As people have taken up entrenched positions and education has become a polarizing subject, it is important that we rise to the challenge in our classrooms. After all, if we are not going to have reasoned debate in our classrooms, where will it happen? It can feel like it is not happening in the public square, whether that be news media, social media, or any of the other places where people interact with each other’s ideas.

It is also important that we center dialogue to teach students how to take an inquiry stance. If inquiry is the norm in a classroom, it leads to people getting to know each other in much more intimate ways. The unique relationships that are formed in an inquiry-focused classroom can then lend themselves to even deeper understanding. And then, lastly, our biggest objective in preparing students for the world is to teach them how to think, not what to think. It is part of our mission to expose students to multiple perspectives and ways of seeing the world. In my mind, schools are the ideal place to do this type of human development.

You referenced the concept of teaching students how to think, not what to think. What are some ways you are doing that?

There are a couple of ways to do it. Some of it comes down to teaching certain dispositions, such as open-mindedness, inquiry, and curiosity. Teachers can establish these norms by modeling them in class. And then there are some discipline-specific ways we can go about it. For example, there are some methods of historical inquiry that involve examining multiple sources for their historical context and bias. This helps students start to build a framework around how to think about those things and how to substantively evaluate a wide range of perspectives and opinions. Our goal is to eventually develop students’ skills to the point where they can teach their peers how to think about the world, creating a robust community of learning amongst our students.

As K-12 education has increasingly become a polarized subject, what challenges are you facing and how are you responding?

One of the challenges we are facing is that there are bad models of civic discourse in the world today. There are also challenges related to what is happening at the local level, which increasingly reflects the national discourse. There is an intense distrust of public education and public educators unlike anything I have faced in my 27 years of education experience. Schools have traditionally been a source of pride for communities. Now, there is widespread distrust of education that assumes malintent, leading to challenges to curricula and book choices, and questions about the motives of teachers and educators. That is harmful to education at large and hurts local communities.

Responding to these challenges has been difficult for many teachers, who say it is tiring and demoralizing. The climate has a chilling effect on them because issues that did not used to be controversial now feel fraught.

But we must rise to the challenge, and we are finding ways to do so. For one, we are constantly evaluating our curricula to ensure that we have a high standard for teaching with clear learning objectives, and that the books and resources we assign help us meet these goals.

Our ultimate objective is to teach inquiry and prepare students to think critically. The current climate around education has forced us to examine how we are meeting those goals and become more explicit about why we do what we do.

Can you share more about New Trier’s Civil Discourse and Critical Thinking Statement and how you are working to put these principles into practice?

We adopted our Civil Discourse and Critical Thinking Statement in October of 2020, during a period of deep contestation over education, to codify a set of practices and a set of beliefs about inquiry and critical thinking.

It can be difficult to follow up a statement with action that people see as satisfactory, but we’re committed to acting in accordance with the principles in the statement.

To that end, one thing we are doing is assessing our teaching practices. We have done a significant amount of professional development to help teachers build their skills and dispositions for creating classroom environments that welcome civil discourse.

Additionally, we are working to be very transparent about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We want to demonstrate to the community how we foster a culture of inquiry where civil discourse and critical thinking is the norm. So, we are working with department leaders and teachers across disciplines to show how the principles of the statement come alive in the classroom. One way we are doing so is through an annual “teaching and learning series,” where teachers give presentations to the Board of Education that illustrate how the principles of critical thinking are practiced in the classroom.

How have you utilized learnings from the Better Arguments Ambassador Program to help your school community disagree and exchange ideas constructively?

My work to bring Better Arguments to our school is still in progress. My goal is to start by bringing students with differing political views together in conversation. After that, I would like to bring parents into the discussion as well, since they are an important part of our school’s community.

On an individual level, Better Arguments has influenced how I approach my work. I try to pull from parts of the Better Arguments framework when approaching issues at school, applying concepts like “take winning off the table,” or “listen passionately,” or “pay attention to context” to my everyday interactions.

Those things can be challenging. In particular, it can be difficult to make people feel like you are listening if you ultimately reach a different conclusion on the issue at hand. In those cases, people will often say “you didn’t listen,” and that’s hard and counterproductive. It’s possible to hear someone fully and appreciate their viewpoint while ultimately reaching a different conclusion. But I am continuing to work on these skills, and they have been immensely useful as I engage with my school’s community.

What advice do you have for fellow educators who are thinking about how to encourage students to exercise their voices while leaving room for the views of others?

Start by assuming that there are multiple perspectives in the room, and including undeveloped or uninformed perspectives. We are talking about adolescents. They have a wide range of opinions and a wide range of levels of information. It is okay for students to be coming in at different levels, and as an educator, you must make room for learning and still encourage students to express themselves.

Next, you should normalize a wide range of debate. There’s going to be a wide range of beliefs. We need to live in a world of facts, but we also need to help students understand context and nuance rather than shutting down discussion and dismissing certain voices. Allowing students to grapple with difficult or controversial issues is the best way to ensure that they are ultimately able to interpret and understand the world around them.

And then, lastly, challenge all students equally and respectfully, especially those whose beliefs align with your own. We have heard from students that they do not always feel like they are being challenged equally. By challenging all students equally, we give them space to articulate what they think and why they think it—a practice all students can benefit from.