Why Students Should Debate Controversial Topics in History
In a world of fake news and polarized politics, your teachers have a responsibility to teach students how to evaluate and value different opinions. The challenge is helping students overcome my-side bias — the tendency to evaluate information and test hypotheses based on prior opinions. When students are able to put their point of view aside, they develop the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in life.
According to the research article, Examining My-side Bias During and After Reading Controversial Historical Accounts, people think less critically when reading text that contradicts their beliefs. Instead of taking opposing arguments into consideration, they ignore or devalue them, even if those arguments are well-supported. This my-side bias often leads to racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.
In this study, researchers Kalypso Lordanou, Panayiota Kendeou, and Michalinos Zembylas examined how emotion, prior knowledge, and epistemic beliefs (how people view knowledge) affect the way people think when reading controversial historical accounts. Their findings show how Social Studies teachers can use controversy to improve students’ critical thinking and diminish social prejudice. As your teachers instruct students on how to appropriately and effectively debate controversial topics, they’ll improve students’ academic performance and prepare them to become upstanding citizens.
Examining My-Side Bias Using Historical Accounts
Researchers asked 39 Greek Cypriot young adults to read two historical accounts about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. First, they asked the participants to read an excerpt from a 10th-grade textbook written by a Greek Cypriot historian. Then, they asked them to read a passage from a high school textbook written by a Turkish Cypriot historian.
The researchers chose these accounts so they could compare how people think when they read a narrative that supports their political views versus one that doesn’t. They also purposely selected accounts of a historical event that most people in Cyprus feel strongly about, allowing the researchers to see how emotions affect critical thinking.
Measuring Each Variable
Before the participants read the accounts, the researchers determined their epistemic beliefs, prior knowledge of the invasion, and feelings about Turkish Cypriots.
To identify epistemic beliefs, the researchers asked the young adults to read two accounts about a fictional event. Then, they asked them which account was correct and if it was even possible for a historian to know what really happened. From their answers, the researchers discovered whether each participant was an:
- Absolutist: believes knowledge is certain and given by experts or comes from direct observation.
- Multiplist: recognizes the subjective nature of knowledge but sees all opinions as equal regardless of how well supported they are.
- Evaluativist: believes multiple opinions can be correct; however, some arguments can be better supported by evidence and therefore more valuable.
To see how these young adults felt about Turkish Cypriots, the researchers gave each of them a self-reported questionnaire, asking them to say if they agreed with statements like, “I respect Turkish Cypriots” or “I dislike Turkish Cypriots.”
To measure prior knowledge, they asked each participant to write down what they knew about what happened in Cyprus in 1974.
During the experiment, the researchers had each young adult read the historical accounts one sentence at a time. After each sentence, the researchers asked what they thought or felt about the text to measure their cognitive processing and emotional reaction.
If a participant made a judgment about the sentence without justification, the researchers considered that low-epistemic processing. If the participant made a judgment and gave a reason for it, then they marked it as high-epistemic processing.
Once the participants finished reading, the researchers asked them to write a summary of both accounts. By seeing which account they wrote more about in their summary, the researchers could determine the participant’s level of my-side bias.
What They Found
Even though the researchers clearly asked the participants to write a summary of both accounts, 72% of them wrote only about the historical account from their ethnic group.
Participants with absolutist or multiplist beliefs who showed anger and prior knowledge of the event were most likely to exhibit my-side bias and low-level epistemic processing.
“This finding can be explained by a belief protection mechanism, according to which individuals purposefully ignore belief-inconsistent arguments that might challenge their prior beliefs,” the researchers said.
Another possible reason why people don’t consider multiple perspectives is because they don’t think it’s necessary to explain why something happened.
What really concerned the researchers was how little the participants evaluated the historical accounts. Even if they struggled to see the event from a Turkish-Cypriot’s perspective, they could have reflected more on the account from their ethnic group. For example, the researchers pointed out that the first account only mentioned the people who suffered and died on the Greek-Cypriot side of the war and not the Turkish-Cypriot side. The participants could have noticed this, but they didn’t.
The participants’ emotional responses also fascinated the researchers. While most of the young adults claimed to have positive feelings toward Turkish Cypriots, they expressed sadness when reading the Greek Cypriot’s account and anger when reading the opposing account. These emotions predicted more low-epistemic processing statements.
“One explanation is that anger had motivated participants to engage in some type of evaluation, even of a low quality,” the researchers said. “An alternative explanation is that anger impeded short-term high-level cognitive processing. The relation observed between anger and low-level epistemic processing, particularly in the form of expressing disagreement, might suggest that angry subjects were more prone to biases. The disagreements exhibited can be interpreted as a tendency to refute the belief-inconsistent information according to the disconfirmation bias in order to protect their beliefs.”
The 28% of participants who summarized both accounts had evaluative epistemic beliefs. These young adults also showed more cognitive processing. These results prove that valuing other people’s opinions decreases my-side bias and supports cognitive development.
As this study shows, developing students’ critical thinking skills is only half the battle. You also have to teach them to respect different opinions, even if those opinions provoke anger or sadness.
To prevent my-side bias, help your students appreciate different perspectives. Encourage your Social Studies teachers to introduce students to controversial topics in history, then have students debate both sides and come to their own conclusions. This exercise will increase their capacity to consider multiple sides of an event and construct well-supported arguments.
As teachers improve students’ cognitive processing, students will perform better in all their classes. They’ll score higher on tests, earn better grades, and be prepared for the next grade.
Teaching students to appreciate other people’s opinions will not only help them become better citizens in the future but nicer students in the present. Their increased respect for classmates and teachers will decrease behavior problems and make everyone’s school experience more enjoyable and productive.
Help your students appreciate different historical perspectives using our K-5 Social Studies curriculum.