One of my middle school students recently had a debate assignment on the death penalty. Looking through his papers I saw he had written some arguments against it. “Oh, I said, you’re against the death penalty. These look like some good reasons.” “Actually,” he said, “I’m for it. I just think it should be applied in a totally different way.” When I asked why he hadn’t written his own ideas, he told me “we were assigned our opinions.”
My first reaction was that this was utterly ridiculous. The idea of assigning an opinion seemed just wrong and it reminded me of one more way in which curriculum does not allow for the presence of student voice. As well, surely a student aged 13 was old enough to have developed strong ideas about big issues. I wanted to hear those. I wondered what the reason had been to assign opinions in the first place. Perhaps if too many people were against the death penalty (or for it) there wouldn’t be enough of a balanced argument. Maybe that was the point.
I asked a colleague what he thought and he said he totally understood the teacher assigning opinions. “It’s part of learning how to develop a solid, persuasive argument,” he said. It sounded more to me like he was quoting one of the state standards. My thinking related more to the student being able to develop his mind–developing his ideas and opinions and realizing a greater knowledge of self from taking part in an assignment that had valid, personal meaning. I don’t think we do enough of this in schools–allow the kids to develop who they are.
From my perspective, I couldn’t think of having to defend something I didn’t believe in, in real life. I thought the pros of having to defend something I believed in outweighed the idea of developing a solid argument and that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. My student did well on the final assignment (of which the opinion was also assigned) and I helped him craft his final argument for the debate. But I couldn’t help but wonder what his argument might have looked like had he been allowed to pursue his own opinions. How would that have played out in the classroom and for him? I think we need more assignments where kids are given the chance to find out.