Four “Circuit Breakers” That Disrupt Student Inquiry
In my role as an educator, I frequently speak to teachers and students across the country. Recently, I had a conversation with a 9th-grade student in Boston. She is a studious kid and a voracious reader. But like most 14-year-olds she is viscerally aware of what her peers and teachers think, and she is cautious not to stray too far afield from what she feels they would approve of.
When I asked her how school was going, she sighed. “For the past two or three years I’ve been getting more into politics, and I realized that a lot of my views or my questions don’t match what is considered correct in my school. I feel like if people really knew how I felt, if they actually knew me, they would hate me. No one here knows the real me, they just know the censored me. I can’t say anything because then I would lose everything.”
This student is not alone in her fears. According to the Knight Foundation’s 2022 “Future of the First Amendment” report, while high school students are largely supportive of free speech, only 19% of high school students feel “very comfortable” disagreeing with their instructors or peers. When we expand responses to include “somewhat comfortable,” the number rises only to 55%. That means that half of the students sitting in class are actively uncomfortable expressing contrary views.
Many teachers I speak to explain that they want to engage their students in conversations about important issues that might be politically sensitive, but that students are often quiet and seem reticent to take intellectual risks. We founded the Mill Institute, in part, to solve this problem.
Our goal is to give teachers the support and tools to create the kinds of learning environments where students feel more able to speak, challenge one another, and examine their own thinking. One of the things we do is bring awareness to four “circuit breakers” – or thinking habits – that block the free flow of dialogue in the classroom and shut down student thinking:
Oversimplification, which can also be thought of as a kind of imprecision, is a tendency to reduce one’s thinking about a complex problem to a narrative that is clean and simple but lacks nuance. Popular slogans, like “Make American Great Again!” or “Believe Science! ” get traction in part because of their ability to distill complex ideas into something that is easily digestible. While oversimplification may have value in particular situations—like marketing, for instance—it can block good thinking and shut off curiosity in the context of a classroom environment.
Oversimplification is often accompanied by poorly defined terms that are stand-ins for far more complex ideas that are often left ignored. What does “Great” mean in Make America Great Again? What should we believe when scientific evidence is inconclusive or points in different directions?
When our thinking is oversimplified, we don’t just risk skipping an important detail here or there. We can completely miss aspects of the problem that might have made us see things differently. Take, for example, the issue of policing. If a student is convinced that all police officers are racist and that policing is therefore fundamentally corrupt, she might agree that the more money police departments get, the more harm they will do. This will likely lead her to conclude that defunding them is the best path forward.
But this oversimplification might prevent her from considering:
- That even at the height of the racial reckoning of 2020, 80% of black Americans surveyed wanted the same or more policing in their neighborhoods
- That some data regarding police shootings paint a complicated and contradictory, rather than simple, picture
- That better training and oversight of police officers both require adequate funding.
In this example, by oversimplifying the problem, the student misses information that, even if it wouldn’t ultimately change her mind, is still important to consider to understand the full scope of the issue.
Certainty – the feeling of being 100% right about something- leads people to dismiss the perspectives of those who disagree with them. The reason for this is straightforward. When you know you are right, then those who disagree must be wrong – either because they are misinformed or because (one might think) they are simply bad people with bad values. In either case, there is no need to consider their views seriously.
Professor Ilana Redstone, my colleague, and co-founder of the Mill Institute, has named this phenomenon the Settled Question Fallacy. She writes, “We fall into this fallacy when we treat open questions as though they have known and definitive answers or when we behave as though the right path forward is obvious, clear, and has no downside. This limits our ability to solve problems, and it shapes how we judge people who disagree.”
Certainty prevents curiosity and, like an oversimplification, it limits thinking. But while oversimplification can lead people to passively ignore alternatives because they don’t realize there might be more to the story, certainty also leads to the active dismissal of ideas and condemnation of anyone who holds those “wrong” ideas.
In the context of the previous example, the certainty that the only reason to support police is indifference to racism could lead a student to reject the views of someone who disagrees. After all, the simple fact of disagreeing reveals them to be morally contemptible. This dismissal might then prevent the student from interacting with important stakeholders or conducting wide-ranging research, both of which might have otherwise broadened and enriched their understanding of the topic.
Overidentification comes in at least two forms. One is the idea that who we are determines which ideas we can consider or espouse.
This doesn’t mean that identity is irrelevant. My view about policing, for example, is inevitably informed by the fact that I grew up in a middle-class suburb and rarely interacted with police in any negative way. Failing to recognize that my experiences affect my perception of policing would be both naive and limiting. Students should be able to do this kind of reflection.
Overidentifying, however, goes further than this. When we do this, we behave as though our identities not only shape our thinking, but they determine which ideas we have sufficient standing to consider. In the case of policing, this might mean that because I am white, I have no standing or right to form an opinion about policing policy in communities of color.
A second form of over-identification is when people start to blend their opinions with their sense of who they are. For instance, “I am someone who supports policing” or “My belief about policing is part of what makes me me.” While our views clearly contribute to our overall sense of self, overidentification with them limits our ability to tolerate disagreement. When there’s no line between what we believe and who we are, a criticism of the idea can feel indistinguishable from a personal attack.
Raising the Stakes
The fourth circuit breaker can happen when students believe (often implicitly) that a comment or a question could impact their social status or their grade, or that any single conversation might determine the future or shape policy.
This can happen when contentious topics are discussed, either by teachers or by peers, as though there’s one answer that good people have and one that bad people have. Suddenly, suggesting an idea is no longer an intellectual exercise, but a marker of the kind of person the speaker is. A student, for example, who wants to know more about the context of a particular high-profile incident with the police may stay quiet if they believe that the stakes for asking a question are simply too high.
Creating a classroom environment where the stakes for students don’t feel quite so high, especially when exploring sensitive issues, is crucial. It can help them ask better questions and enjoy intellectual “play” in a way that ultimately leads to deeper thinking and more curious exploration of ideas.
This October, the Mill Institute will be launching our second Teacher Fellowship where we’ll welcome high school teachers from across the country to help us design and write education resources aimed at supporting more free-flowing dialogue in high school classrooms. Applications are open until June 15. We hope you’ll join us.
Ellie Avishai is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Mill Institute at UATX. The Mill Institute works in educational settings to explore and challenge the entrenched thinking that leads to a breakdown of conversation on contentious issues.