how to change people’s minds

i definitely affiliate myself with social justice causes. i’m a member of the ACLU, i donate to political campaigns and nonprofits, i have several friends who work in the field, et cetera. plus, i am a teacher, and until recently was a public school teacher in an underserved urban community; this makes me a social justice worker in my own right. i’ve taught the labor movement; civil rights, citizenship and civics; critique and consideration of the war on terror, the appalling events of the Vietnam War, and others; revolutions across the globe; and generally the merits of insubordination.

now i find myself in a culture not my own, with some tenets i can respect and some tenets that i am highly critical of, even offended by. how do i teach the content proscribed by my curriculum (ap psychology and ap world history) without stepping on anyone’s toes? short answer: subtly.

a few weeks ago i found myself teaching about sexual motivation, the physiology of sex, and psychological thinking about sexual orientation. in Jordan, and in greater MENA (Middle East/ North Africa, where Islam is prevalent as both religion and culture), being gay is still ‘haram’, and having sex is only to be done inside of marriage. the expectation is that young people will not have sex until they are in wedlock, and then with the purpose of having children. (although i don’t know what the Muslim stance is on birth control, actually. anyone want to weigh in?). however, i am teaching high schoolers who live in 2015, are constantly on the internet, watch and listen to western media, and generally are up on the norms of western society, whatever that may be. so, i:

-ask them to write about their views (this was for the lesson on homosexuality) and what has influenced those views

-put them in groups to review the research described in the textbook on possible biological influences on homosexuality (fraternal birth order effect; genetic influences; prenatal hormones; etc.)

-shuffle the groups so they teach each other the basic findings of the research, and discuss it

-ask them again, individually, silently, to now write about their views on homosexuality again, and what has influenced it.

… that’s it.

i didn’t collect their writing; and i didn’t quiz them on the content (yet). i didn’t directly confront anyone’s views or read over anyone’s shoulder. i *did* announce, at the start, that i had a bias, and that i have many gay, lesbian, bi, trans, etc. friends and that i would like them to be respectful of the people that i know, if not of their lifestyle, if they felt that way. but after that, i didn’t issue any more statements, just let them deal with the information and respond on their own.

this was following a day previously where i chose to discuss sexual motivation (the sex stuff is in the motivation chapter, which i find entertaining) by having my students respond to an anonymous survey asking them what they thought of the reading, how much of it was new, etc., and asking them to write about what their family and their culture teaches them or dictates about sex, how much they differed, and giving them an opportunity to write any *information* questions they might have that i could answer in class. i decided to give them the framework of thinking about advice versus information. i said, “most of what you have heard about sex is probably advice- ‘do this, don’t do that; that’s disgusting; this is the right way; etc’ from people who may not know much. so today, let’s focus on information.” i also talked about misperception of social norms– when people believe that ‘everyone else’ is doing X behavior, or is doing X behavior so much more than they are, and it’s not actually accurate– and how it’s been found that people then adjust their behavior accordingly, which, in the case of binge drinking or frequent sex partners, can be dangerous or destructive. i then answered kids’ questions about sex. kind of. basically i gave a mini-speech about the importance of communication and protection, and gave some details on each. it was much more hands off than it would have been in the US, but i think they probably heard messages (esp. about communication) they hadn’t heard before.

so the class was primed to think about advice vs. information– and then we used that same framework on the sexual orientation day. i said, “today i’d like you to consider some information that may be surprising, challenging, or new to you- but i want you to consider it just the same, and reflect on how your thinking is affected by it.” some may say i am being dastardly and obviously trying to affect their thinking. this is probably true. but, i am proud that i chose this method, of presenting information and letting them respond on their own time, instead of the method i might have chosen five or ten years ago: bold statements and confrontation instead of quiet suggestion and respect. i think i’m learning how to be [sneaky] subtle, but still powerful, about trying to teach possibly controversial ideas.

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One thought on “how to change people’s minds

  1. the next week, my Psych students researched and presented information about drugs. i had saved this unit until after we had studied motivation because i wanted to humanize drug users and help kids understand it in a more holistic way. they did presentations and made recommendations for how the school should teach about and prevent drug abuse; we watched a video in class of a girl (self-posted on her vlog) who had troubles with marijuana, alcohol, heroin, and meth; and they wrote a reflection. here is one student’s response; it makes me proud.

    “Initially I have always viewed drug addicts as bad people because I thought they have no reason whatsoever to do drugs in the first place because of all its negative influences it has on the body. This is because all my life I have always been given advice from my parents and my schools about how I should never do it just because it is bad for you, and it is against your religion, however I have never really gotten any knowledge about why people do it, what it feels like and how addictive it actually is. Conclusively I do still have a negative image on people who do drugs, although now I would understand why people do it, and that sometimes it is out of their hands to stop doing drugs right away. What influenced my thoughts is the knowledge I now know about the different drugs people do and the fact that it is very addictive and not very easy to stop, and most importantly that it may help with some peoples negative features such as depression and anxiety.”

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