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How to Get Students to Believe on the Basis of Evidence: The Power of Group Deliberation

Contributed by Sharon Bailin & Mark Battersby
January 11, 2019 | Comments

Editor’s Note: Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby are both advisors to Critica. Their biographical sketches can be found on our website. Together, they are authors of the book Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of resistance to credible and trustworthy evidence. We find it in the widespread distrust of expertise and a disdain for facts that we see in political decision-making (e.g., the rejection of scientific and other authoritative sources), in health decisions (e.g., refusing vaccination), in environmental policies (e.g., based on climate change denial), and in full frontal attacks on notions of evidence, facts, and truth.

One obvious way to try to counter these tendencies is through education. Certainly a central goal of education is to develop critical thinking. This means learning the skills and knowledge that are required for making reasoned judgments in a range of areas. But it also means developing a “critical spirit” or “spirit of inquiry.” It means coming to appreciate the importance of reason and being committed to basing one’s beliefs and actions on rational grounds.

Unfortunately, there has been considerable research that has shown just how difficult a goal this is to achieve. One difficulty is often a lack of knowledge. Students (like adults) tend to have the illusion that they understand more than they actually do about issues, particularly issues about which they have an opinion. Students also often lack an understanding of how to evaluate arguments. And they frequently don’t know how to evaluate sources of information and claims, nor how to find reliable and credible sources (e.g., in the media and on the internet).

But a different sort of challenge is the one-sidedness of many of the claims and sources that individuals are exposed to. There are many reasons for this one-sidedness. One is the filtering effect of social media and search engines, which direct people to the views with which they already agree and shield them from opposing or alternative positions. The increasing tendency of people to live and work primarily with those sharing their political beliefs also tends to limit the range of views to which individuals are exposed. And various cognitive biases, especially confirmation bias (the common tendency of all people to primarily seek evidence in support of their existing views) all work against an exposure to alternative views. Yet research has consistently shown that considering arguments against the view that one holds and entertaining alternative views is a key element in making a reasonable judgment.

Yet another challenge is posed by various psycho-social biases which result in a resistance to any evidence that challenges one’s existing beliefs. One of these is defensive bias — the tendency to identify with one’s beliefs so that a challenge to one’s beliefs is perceived as an attack on one’s identify and self-worth. (We can doubtless all identify with the sense of self-satisfaction with “being right” and of discomfort at having our beliefs challenged.) As a result, individuals will tend to protect their beliefs from challenges in order to protect their sense of adequacy and self-worth.

Another common psycho-social bias takes the form of cultural cognition. This involves individuals holding beliefs as a way of expressing their group identity and solidarity with others. Groups provide individuals with important forms of support, both emotional and material, and allegiance to the beliefs of the group often forms an important part of the identity of its members. As a result, they will tend to evaluate information in a selective pattern that reinforces the group’s worldview, resisting evidence that challenges the groups’ beliefs.

What can we do in education to address these challenges? It is important that we emphasize research on issues under investigation before making judgments. We need to put educational efforts into teaching students the criteria for evaluating reasons and arguments in a range of areas, including, importantly, in science. Students also need to learn how to find reliable sources, understand why they are reliable, and recognize non-credible sources. An awareness of some of the most pervasive cognitive biases is also important.

But the bad news is that there is considerable research that even with instruction, people tend to make systematic errors in their reasoning. They are also generally much better at critiquing the arguments of others than they are at evaluating their own reasoning. And simply knowing about these cognitive and psycho-social biases does not free one from their influence.

The good news is that this research also points to some ways to address these challenges. In particular, it points to the importance of exposure to conflicting views and contrary positions in the context of deliberation within a group. The discussion among peers of conflicting positions appears to help people to see both sides of an issue, to acknowledge counter-arguments, to make better arguments, and to change their minds toward better beliefs and decisions.

In order for this to happen, the group must be one in which genuine arguments for differing views are presented, which supports fair-minded disagreement and critique, and which supports the norms of rational inquiry. And participants need to be ready to change their minds when presented with good arguments.

For the educational context, this research points to the importance of creating a community of inquiry in the classroom. This requires frequent opportunities for student discussion, critique, mutual feedback, revision, and collaborative inquiry. Such a community embodies the norms of rational inquiry, valuing open-minded and fair- minded exchanges, rigorous but respectful critique, a commitment to respectful treatment, meaningful participation, and productive interaction.

Such a community can serve as an effective counter to some of the psycho-social biases which work against an evidence-based mode of believing. Participating in a community of inquiry can reduce defensive bias because value is placed on being reasonable rather than on supporting particular views. Thus having one’s views challenged will not be framed as an attack on one’s sense of self-worth and changing one’s mind in response to relevant evidence can be a source of self-esteem.

A community of inquiry also has an important role to play in addressing the challenges posed by cultural cognition by creating a community of affiliation as an alternative to or counter-balance to one’s cultural community. In a community of inquiry, group identity is constituted not by a commitment to specific beliefs but rather by adherence to the norms of rational inquiry.

Considerable current research supports the view that an evidence-based mode of believing is best fostered through:

  •      exposure to conflicting views
  •      in the context of group argumentation
  •      in a group which embodies norms of rational inquiry

These aspects are important for deliberation and decision-making in any context. But they are particularly important in the educational context, where we have the possibility of intervening early to establish ways of thinking and habits of mind that will produce more rational citizens for the future.

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