Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Push and Pull: Playing Devil's Advocate

by Quinn Loch

Every day in class my students read a short (about half a page) article on a current event that relates to our content. The goal, which I outlined in this previous blogpost, was to have my students read and write more often, but also to teach the content in a more interconnected and relevant way.

What I have found challenging has been how to initiate and facilitate discussions on the topics that we explore - and there are several. Having meaningful and deep discussions can be a powerful tool in any classroom.

AP environmental science (APES) lends itself well to controversial issues and discussions since there are many different perspectives (economic, social, political, ethical, etc.) that can be taken. This multidisciplinary nature is reflected on the writing portion of the AP test. Students often have to list economic or environmental costs or benefits to topics outlined in the free response section. The better the students can see these topics as a complex issues with many moving parts, the more possible answers they will have to pull from when writing.

To help facilitate more discussion and engage students with the readings, we have been using what I call the "APES-inion" board. At the beginning of the unit, we introduce an environmental issue and have students place a unique and anonymous foam piece somewhere on the spectrum that reflects their current standpoint.

Our first topic was on human population control. One side of the spectrum said that governments should have policies or rules that limit population growth, while the other side said that they shouldn't.

Student opinions on population control measures before the unit.
Throughout the unit, students move their piece based on any new information that we have been learning in class. Here is where my students fell after a couple weeks.

Student opinions on population control measures after the unit.

I have found that having understanding of the collective thoughts of the class has been a great to tool to help me ask tough questions or propose scenarios that challenge students' thinking. I can also tailor the articles that I use from day to day to push and pull students from different perspectives and make them really think deeply. I have grown to love playing devil's advocate.

Natural discussions have become more frequent in my class and sometimes a 5-minute warm up has turned into 15 minutes of good back-and-forth discussion. Students have also been more likely to share stories or anecdotes and ask questions than they were before. Their scores on our most recent writing test showed a significant improvement from previous attempts as well.

I'm excited to continue this routine as we move though the rest of the year and I hope to encourage students to bring in their own article as well.

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