Constructively Framing Issues

By Bob Schwalb

Comprehensive humane education teaches students about some of the world’s most intractable problems. In our lessons, we examine the scope of these problems, discover causes and effects, and search for solutions that will do the most good and least harm (MOGO) for all humans, all animals, and the global environment. The issues we cover are rarely, if ever, black-and-white, and—as you might expect—neither are the solutions.

The way we frame the issues for our students not only affects how they understand the issues, but also influences the type of solutions they will consider to address them. Framing refers to how we present an issue; that is, how we explain it, the elements we include in discussion, and the parameters we set for that discussion.

It can be tempting, as educators, to frame issues we teach in a way that conforms with our own worldview. Accordingly, we may decide to assemble lesson plans that neglect to probe the complexity of the issues and of perspectives that run contrary to our own point of view. When we do this, though, we not only limit the information that our students could potentially use to understand and solve an issue, but we pass up the opportunity to build in our students the ability to view issues from a richer perspective and develop solutions that consider the complexities defining them.

If we look at issues portrayed in the media (news and social), we often see simplistic “us-versus- them” framing. Only one side can win, so, naturally, the other must lose. You’re either for one side or you’re against it. There’s scant room for middle ground, no search for compromise, and no desire to find a solution where everyone wins. Each side adopts warlike rhetoric to promote its cause (i.e., a battle that must be fought and won). Through this lens, we’re dissuaded from seeing things from the perspective of those with whom we disagree, and we certainly aren’t encouraged to empathize with them. We dig in our heels and vow not to give an inch, lest we stumble down a slippery slope that forces us to cede even more ground to our “enemies” who see the world differently from us.

If our true goal is to help students find solutions that not only do the most good and least harm, but also are sustainable, then we have to ask ourselves if a winner-takes-all framing is the best way to achieve this goal.

In a study done at Columbia University in its Difficult Conversations Lab, researchers found that participants with polar-opposite worldviews were able to grapple with contentious issues in a more nuanced way after being presented with information that highlighted the complexity of the issue. In the study, researchers paired participants who had opposing worldviews. Some pairs were given an article to read before they met that was written in the traditional pro/con manner (i.e., here’s one side, here’s the other). The other pairs were given an article that was written in a more complex, nuanced manner that explored the issue from many different angles throughout the article. The pairs were then brought together to discuss a different polarizing issue. What they found was that the pairs who read the pro/con article had discussions that were more likely to be mired in negativity. The pairs who read the more nuanced article had discussions that were more likely to be characterized as open, with higher-quality ideas being generated, and they left feeling more positive about the conversation. 1, 2

Conflict is often inherent in the issues we teach. We should not ignore the conflicts or try to minimize them; instead, we should promote deep inquiry with a quest for more accurate understanding of the issues and their inherent complexities. We do this by shining a spotlight on the conflict, exploring it from many different angles, and searching for multiple ways to work through it. When we as humane educators create a safe, accepting environment in the classroom where students are encouraged to openly and respectfully share their views on issues and respectfully listen to others’, we are preparing the ground for MOGO solutions.

When delivering comprehensive humane education lessons, we should be mindful to frame issues in a way that aligns with our goal of providing accurate information, fostering empathy and compassion, promoting critical thinking, and searching for MOGO solutions that benefit all. When we do this, we not only build valuable life skills in our students — we also prepare them to take on the world’s most serious problems with confidence.

Image attribution: Photo by flickr © Aaron Brothers 2012 available under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

1 https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/09/28/navigating-political-polarization-times-crisis-lessons-difficult-conversations-lab/
2 https://grist.org/article/the-war-on-climate-the-climate-fight-are-we-approaching-the-problem-all-wrong/

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