Teaching in a Polarized Classroom

06.19_teaching-in-a-polarized-classroom

I teach psychology to students who are largely from rural and low-income areas. In my courses we discuss a wide range of topics that have the potential for controversy, such as sexuality and gender, best parenting practices, racism and implicit bias, and the neuroscientific perspective on free will. As the Western political landscape has become more polarized in recent years, I’ve been brainstorming ideas on how to create a safe and inclusive learning environment.


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I teach psychology to students who are largely from rural and low-income areas. In my courses we discuss a wide range of topics that have the potential for controversy, such as sexuality and gender, best parenting practices, racism and implicit bias, and the neuroscientific perspective on free will. As the Western political landscape has become more polarized in recent years, I’ve been brainstorming ideas on how to create a safe and inclusive learning environment.

I strive to start out on the right foot with my students, hoping they will be receptive to scientific evidence and new perspectives. I’ve started using class time in the first week of the semester to discuss how we tend to favor those who are like us and how to expand who we consider as part of our ingroup. I have been doing this for four semesters now, and the reception from students has been encouraging.

I first begin by asking them to imagine that they are in a large arena, watching their favorite sports team play a rival team. Then they envision leaving the arena after their team has won. But on the way out, after other fans have cleared, they notice someone limping along, clearly in intense pain. Will my students help the hurt fan? What if they noticed the fan was wearing the rival team’s jersey? Would that make it less likely for my students to help them?

My students typically say that they would be just as likely to help a fan of their favorite team as they would be a fan of the rival team. Then I inform them that this study was carried out in the UK with soccer fans unbeknownst to whom the injured fans were actors who were part of the study. The students then predict how participants may have acted. Would the test subjects behave just as my students claimed they would in that circumstance? The researchers found that, perhaps unsurprisingly to those of us from the behavioral sciences, participants were more likely to help those who wore a jersey of their favorite team than those who wore a shirt supporting the rival team (Levine et al., 2005).

Researchers found one small change they could make that made the participants just as likely to help fans of their own team as the rival. My students typically speculate that the researchers changed the injured actor to a child or had the injured person directly ask for help. The correct answer is that before the soccer game, the researchers reminded participants of their love for soccer rather than for their favorite team. Suddenly the in-group expanded from people who cheered for the same team to people who enjoyed watching the same sport.

“So how does this apply to a classroom?” I ask. Right away my students typically see connections about how we can separate ourselves from each other according to many factors and how those lines are malleable. I love beginning with the soccer example not only because it is based on research but because sports are an excellent area of in-group bias that is usually more flexible than other areas, such as race, religion, or political views.

Then we discuss how to create a safe learning environment and productively discuss topics that may provoke strong opinions on both sides of an issue. “How might you interpret a classmate’s response to a question if you see them as part of the outgroup? As ‘the other?’ What about if they are part of your ingroup?” I discuss with them how different parts of our brain are active according to whether or not we see someone as like us. If we are picturing the mental state of someone we view as similar to us, a brain area related to self-referential thought (the ventral medial prefrontal cortex or vmPFC) is active. When imagining the mental state of someone we see as dissimilar, the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) is active. The authors noted,

Prejudice may arise in part because perceivers assume that outgroup members' mental states do not correspond to their own and, accordingly, mentalize in a non-self-referential way about the minds of people from different groups. Without a self-referential basis for mentalizing about outgroup members, perceivers may rely heavily on precomputed judgments—such as stereotypes—to make mental state inferences about very dissimilar others. This view suggests that a critical strategy for reducing prejudice may be to breach arbitrary boundaries based on social group membership by focusing instead on the shared similarity between oneself and outgroup members. (Mitchell et al. 2006, p. 660)

After discussing how we have evolved to quickly assess who is “us” and who is “them,” we talk about how our brain can sometimes overapply this critical survival tool. Researchers have found that pain receptors are more active when we view someone in pain who we perceive as like us compared to those seen as dissimilar. In fact, sometimes seeing “the other” in pain can make our reward centers active (Molenberghs & Louis, 2018).

Lastly, I ask my students for ideas on how we can work to expand our ingroup. I guide them through a demonstration of compassion meditation (sometimes referred to as loving-kindness meditation). This exercise has been shown to increase positive feelings toward outgroup members, decrease empathic distress, and increase helping behaviors towards those who are suffering (Weng et al., 2013).

Discussing how we humans create us versus them thinking, how in-group bias affects the learning environment, and how we can work to expand our in-groups has been an enlightening experience for us all. Setting the course up in this way allows me to reference back to these principles as I introduce new polarizing topics. This activity could be applied in a variety of disciplines as every college student has a need to belong.

References

Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shape helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443–453. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204271651

Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable medial prefrontal contributions to judgments of similar and dissimilar others. Neuron, 50(4), 655–663. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2006.03.040

Molenberghs, P., & Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights from fMRI studies into ingroup bias. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, Article 1868. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01868

Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. Z., Olson, M. C., Rogers, G. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological science, 24(7), 1171–1180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612469537


Veronika Tait, PhD, teaches psychology at Snow College. She received her doctorate in social psychology from Brigham Young University.