Improving Students’ Critical Thinking and Classroom Engagement by Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Jonathan Ryan Davis
Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Abstract

In urban high school classrooms, to better facilitate critical thinking and engagement, teachers can utilize the devil’s advocate approach, which challenges students’ existing beliefs and assumptions in order to foster a better understanding about the complexity of the issue being studied. Therefore, teachers should be aware of how to integrate this method into their teaching toolbox. This article: 1) examines why teachers should incorporate playing devil’s advocate into their classroom; and 2) offers strategies to teachers about implementation.


Introduction

Andrew Jackson was justified in disobeying the United States Supreme Court and forcibly removing Native Americans from their tribal lands and sending them west of the Mississippi River. First, the Supreme Court does not always know what is in the best interest of the country. Second, the rapidly growing southern agrarian economy required land that was underutilized by Native Americans. Lastly, Native Americans posed a threat to civilized Americans, and Jackson was looking out for Native American safety by providing them with a home away from American farmers.

The “Trail of Tears” devastated the Native American population, but history is more complicated than good and bad or right and wrong decisions. Andrew Jackson, a complex man, made policy decisions based on what he felt was best for the American people. As an urban high school social studies teacher, I felt an obligation to help my students see all sides of an issue like the “Trail of Tears.” To do this, I utilized the devil’s advocate approach.

According to Human (2008), “A devil’s advocate role is typically played by an individual who provides alternative perspectives and solutions to problems, frequently challenging group assumptions.” Applied to the classroom, playing devil’s advocate means a teacher or student takes the opposing side of the predominant argument. It may not change the students’ minds, but using the devil’s advocate approach challenges them to expand their analysis, perspective, and understanding of an issue. As Gose (2009) writes, “The utility of such teaching strategies is measured by their contribution to the overall goals of helping students learn to analyze logic and assumptions, to critique the validity and soundness of arguments, and to come to true understanding” (p. 48).

When I employed devil’s advocate approach in my classroom, students learned how to think critically by analyzing, evaluating, and creating (Overbaugh & Schultz, 2010), not just by rote memorization. To employ this pedagogical approach, teachers must be comfortable voicing and defending arguments with which they personally disagree. For instance, it may be challenging for a teacher to discuss the Holocaust from the perspective of the Nazis. When I did this with my students, as a Jew, I always shocked my students when I argued that Hitler was an articulate, revolutionary leader who should be honored for resurrecting the German economy by any means necessary. Such arguments, however, helped my students question historical issues instead of just accepting them.

In my teaching career I worked with similar populations of students in northern Kentucky and New York City (NYC) public schools: low socio-economic, under-represented students, many of whom entered high school below grade-level in the core basic skills. Therefore, my job was to raise the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills of these students to prepare them for college. By playing devil’s advocate with them in the classroom, I could make complex issues accessible in ways that enabled the students to vastly improve their skills. As a testament to this strategy, most of my students were ready for some form of college after graduating, and many of them were very thankful for the skills they attained because of the devil’s advocate approach in the classroom. As one of my former NYC students said, “When [the teacher] plays devil’s advocate it is helpful… in the end we realize [the teacher] does it for our benefit. It is very helpful for our future.”

This approach is an ideal pedagogical strategy for students in urban classrooms, like those I taught, as it helps challenge the norms and assumptions that retain the hegemonic stratification that directly affects these students. Therefore, as teachers employ critical pedagogy to challenge systems of oppression, playing devil’s advocate can enable them to help students challenge their assumptions and analyze the world through a more critical lens.

With this note from the field, I advocate for more high school educators to utilize the devil’s advocate approach in the classroom because it will increase student engagement and improve students’ critical thinking skills. To elucidate the need for teachers using this pedagogical strategy, I spoke with 18 former students who represent a range of abilities and motivation in school at my NYC high school as well a number of peers with varying teaching experiences and backgrounds.1 I also provide strategies to help all teachers incorporate the devil’s advocate approach into their teaching toolbox.

Benefits of Using the Devil’s Advocate Approach in the Classroom

In every high school lesson I taught, I integrated elements of the devil’s advocate approach to facilitate students’ critical thinking skills and enhance their engagement in the lesson. Some lessons used the approach through discussion while others applied it to textual analysis with guiding questions and texts from multiple and contentious viewpoints. If students are not challenged by their teacher or one another to defend their stance on an issue, the quality of analysis will often be superficial.

Felix Roosevelt, a veteran middle and high school social studies teacher in the New York City school system, is a big proponent of using the devil’s advocate approach. He believes: “By taking the opposing view, educators challenge students to defend their positions with deeper evidence. Additionally, forcing students to address a position that they disagree with helps them develop critical thinking skills to examine a position independent of how they personally feel about the issue.” Utilizing the devil’s advocate role has enabled Mr. Roosevelt to demonstrate an elevated expectation for his students that is apparent both through their ability to think independently and with the high percentage of students he has helped both pass state Regents exams and go on to college.

To enhance students’ ability to generate critical thinking skills like Mr. Roosevelt discusses, students need to experience instability in their thought, or as Dewey (1933) says “doubt,” in order to find answers. As one of my former students lamented: “It frustrates me [when a teacher plays devil’s advocate] because I feel as if no one is right. Once you have the perfect argument for one side, you realize that it is not as simple as it seems.” By realizing an initial point of view is more complicated, students are challenged to find a plausible, often more intricate resolution to the issue at hand. This pedagogical approach helps students see a much larger picture of complex issues. As one of my other students said: “When a teacher plays the devil’s advocate…it teaches you to come with bigger and stronger arguments to support the point you are trying to make. If it is continuously done, you will get better and are able to face any opposing argument.” By being able to tackle any opposing argument, students can grapple with all sides of every issue.

These critical thinking skills developed in the classroom through the devil’s advocate approach also help students outside of school. One of my students found playing the devil’s advocate approach is “actually a very good method for teaching because it really makes you think. It teaches students to always have evidence before speaking and you get used to doing it even outside of school.”

In addition to facilitating critical thinking skills, the devil’s advocate approach helps keep students engaged in the classroom. One of my former students believes, “When a teacher plays the devil’s advocate it keeps the class interesting, arguing back and forth, proving different points, and learning to have the ability to support your answers.” The back and forth nature of this type of dialogue does not allow students to remain passive; rather, students feel a bit uncomfortable and are eager to hear what is next or want to get involved themselves. According to one of my other students, when this approach is being used in the class, “It gets you motivated to a point where I try hard to prove my point.”

The more students are engaged in the lesson, the more likely they are to take charge of what is being taught and question one another. In a class led by Newstreet (2008) where discussion was a primary means of learning, she recorded that 21 of the 24 student responses were self-initiated. When students feel ownership of a topic, they are more likely to want to be involved in giving input, asking questions, and deriving conclusions. In this scenario, students become their own devil’s advocates, challenging each other to prove their point, which illustrates critical thinking from both sides of the dialogue, the questioner and responder. This tone is set by the teacher who maintains high expectations for student performance (Newmann, 1991) throughout the discussion, keeping the dialogue focused on high order thinking topics and guiding students to match the same level of questions the teacher models.

Playing Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom: Strategies for Teachers

Despite its numerous advantages in the classroom, the devil’s advocate approach requires a great deal of forethought and practice by a teacher. Used haphazardly, a teacher’s use of the devil’s advocate can result in a combative classroom environment that produces hostility, fights, and disengages students to the point where learning cannot occur because students fear speaking. Below are strategies to help teachers learn how to effectively use the devil’s advocate approach and facilitate dialogue in their classroom.

Establishing an Environment of Cooperative Learning

A teacher must first establish an environment rooted in cooperative learning before using the devil’s advocate approach in the classroom. Using the devil’s advocate approach unsuccessfully will result in a combative atmosphere within the classroom. Therefore, if a teacher does not establish beforehand a culture where students feel safe to disagree, productive dialogue will turn into a contentious atmosphere that inhibits learning.

Students are less likely to participate in a discussion when they feel uncomfortable with their peers, whether it is because they fear being judged by people they like or they are not comfortable speaking with peers they dislike. Fear hinders productive dialogue, and thus, teachers must create an environment where this fear is eliminated. As Hess and Posselt (2002) found, teachers can be undermined by the realities of teenage drama and peer pressure despite having the best intentions of creating a high level of equality and critical thinking in their classroom. While a teacher cannot completely mitigate the emotions of these students, he or she can establish an atmosphere where students learn to respect one another in spite of differences, allowing for open dialogue about any controversial topic.

Cooperative learning can be achieved in a classroom by the teacher creating an environment where students get used to working in groups. The group work should be structured where students must rely on one another, working interdependently, which will help them develop a comfort level with their peers (Johnson & Johnson, 1994). To create this structure, the teacher must model how group work should operate, coaching students on how to productively utilize informed judgment with their peers (Tama, 1989). Once students can achieve a positive level of respect and trust in their peers, they will be more willing to challenge each other. Moreover, a controlled environment like this can really challenge students to think critically (Berridge, 2009) while it also: “increases retention, [sic] vastly improves student self-esteem and communication…[,] increases [sic] self-esteem, attendance, time on task, enjoyment of school and classes, and motivation to learn, as well as a decrease in dependence on the teacher” (Nagel, 2008, p. 364).

Establishing an environment of cooperative learning in the classroom will take some time. According to Guskey (2007), there are a few steps teachers should follow to help implement cooperative learning in their classroom. First, students need to be given planned activities they can repeatedly practice to achieve mastery. Next, the teacher must provide students with specific feedback that elucidates what the student did well and what he or she must do to correct any errors. Lastly, the teacher must assess that the skills attained by students are of a higher level nature (Guskey, 2007, p. 20).

Integrating Controversy and Multiple Perspectives

Amrit Mehta, a former high school social studies teacher in California and current teacher educator in NYC, affirms these beliefs when he was asked about the importance of using the role of devil’s advocate in the classroom: “There is a tendency for majority opinion to drown out the minority opinion. To promote democratic discourse and engaged citizenship, teachers need to promote multiple perspectives in their classrooms.” Without these different viewpoints, students will not think for themselves.

Kincheloe (1982) concurs, believing it is a teacher’s professional obligation to present students with multiple perspectives. Yet, as Bridget Niehauser, a veteran teacher from Cincinnati points out: “I think you have to be careful about maintaining a level of credibility in the discourse, even when playing the devil’s advocate.” When taking multiple sides, the students need to feel that each side presented is believable; otherwise, they are not likely to listen to any part of the discussion. If done in a trustworthy manner, the use of dissent in the social studies classroom embodies an important value of American democracy, while also being an effective instructional technique that allows for authentic dialogue (McMurray, 2007).

For students to feel comfortable speaking openly about an issue that cultivates different perspectives, it is critical that the teacher act as a facilitator and not take control of the discussion, as may often be his or her inclination (Rossi, 2006). It is difficult for a teacher to allow his or her classroom to become authentically student-centered. If a teacher does not relinquish the desire to control the discussion, students can feel their thoughts are being stifled, which is contradictory to open dialogue. Teachers may have an end goal for the discussion and desire that students draw certain conclusions, but teachers need to trust that the students will get to their own conclusions (Rossi, 2006).

Letting go of control of the classroom is challenging for a teacher. That is why creating a classroom based on cooperative learning is key before liberating the classroom of stringent structure to allow for open dialogue. Teachers need to become tolerant of confrontation in the classroom and let students resolve their problems, despite the discomfort a student might experience. Their discomfort will motivate them to analyze problems at a deeper level and find their own solutions (Tama, 1989).

It is also important, according to Graseck (2009), “when raising controversial issues, don’t avoid the controversy” (p. 48). Controversy makes people uncomfortable, but if people are unwilling to discuss it, no authentic thought will occur. If teachers are able to cultivate an environment where controversy is encouraged, in addition to students thinking more critically and becoming more engaged in the classroom, there is a chance they will be motivated to become more politically involved (Meyerson & Secules, 2001). Once students have heightened their civic understanding through authentic debate over controversial issues, some will choose to take action, and most will be aware of different perspectives.

Classroom Activities to Facilitate the Devil’s Advocate Approach

In most classrooms, students are learning content for the first time. Therefore, it is difficult for students to harbor varying perspectives when they hardly know the topic. As a result, the best method for making students more familiar with a controversial topic and its multifaceted viewpoints is to provide students with texts that espouse differing views.

There are a few methods of employing these documents. First of all, the documents can be distributed in a “jigsaw” format, where “expert groups” learn one perspective well before teaching other small groups. Once the varying perspectives are disseminated, students will have a solid foundation to engage in a thoughtful dialogue about the issue as a whole. As an alternative to sharing out in small groups, the “expert groups” can create a poster and present their ideas to the class while the rest of the class is required to take notes on the perspective and come up with questions to ask the presenting group.

A second strategy for using diverse documents in the classroom is to break the class into groups that will create a skit or role-play that conveys the message of their group’s document(s). In this situation, students can use the following strategies from Joy Banks (2009) to successfully engage the document(s) and create effective skits: “(a) communicate and work in small groups; (b) integrate analogies from text that relate directly to prior knowledge; and  (c) rely upon their own language styles and social knowledge to interpret text meanings” (p.24). This forum enables students to bring their own personalities and experiences to the content, making the content more meaningful and helping their skits have a depth that will allow the rest of the students (audience) to better understand the topic at hand. Again, a series of effective skits from multiple perspectives will lay the foundation for a productive, authentic dialogue on whatever controversial topic is being addressed in the class.

A third method for using different documents in the classroom is having debates over controversial issues. For debates to work effectively, it is wise to break the class into groups of no more than four students, with a pro side and a con side on each issue. As these are small groups, the teacher must create multiple topics to debate. In some cases, each debate can be over vastly different controversial issues. It is also possible for a teacher to create multiple debates over sub-issues within a larger controversy.

These are just a few methods of using multiple perspectives in the classroom to further critical thinking and engagement. As long as the teacher puts the onus of thinking and conversing about controversial issues on the students, nearly any method of utilizing diverse documents can be effective.

Obstacles to Using Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

There are many obstacles to using the devil’s advocate approach in the classroom, specifically when working with diverse learners. Racquel Greengrass, a veteran NYC teacher points out one of the greatest challenges to using the devil’s advocate approach with diverse learners: “It can be counterproductive in classes with students who are either low-skilled or under-proficient in English, as they might not take away the right message from the lesson.” For instance, two of my former lower-skilled students explain: “It irritates me when the teacher knows we are right but continues to play the other side …[and] I feel you are always going to be wrong when the teacher plays devil’s advocate even though you know you are right.”

The question becomes, should a teacher withhold from playing the devil’s advocate in such classrooms or should the teacher adapt their approach? Guskey (2007) feels it is important to adapt the pedagogy with group-based classrooms, and by extension, classrooms where the onus of learning is on the student, even though it might be challenging. There are a few solutions to this problem. First of all, it is possible to differentiate the reading material for the students on a given topic (Warren, Memory, & Bolinger, 2004) as well as change the language a teacher uses to explain different perspectives of an issue. Moreover, if a teacher or students are playing devil’s advocate in a classroom with lower-skilled students, the person taking the opposing viewpoint can be transparent in their argument, stating that their argument is one of many beliefs and that no one person has the “right” answer. With this transparency, students will not feel they are being tricked or that they are always wrong. Differentiating is one of the greatest challenges as a teacher. Yet, as with any pedagogical approach in teaching, the devil’s advocate approach can be differentiated as well.

Another obstacle to using the devil’s advocate approach is that many students like positive reinforcement, to be told that they are right for providing a quality answer. Because it is the nature of the devil’s advocate approach to challenge every assumption, for students who continually rely on a nurturing environment, the use of devil’s advocate can be counterproductive. As one of my former students says: “It’s frustrating to have the teacher disagree with you instead of telling you if you’re right or wrong.” Therefore, a teacher using this approach needs to be cognizant of his or her students’ reactions to being challenged. It is important for a teacher to balance challenging student claims with supporting their ideas to maintain the environment of mutual respect they initially established to play devil’s advocate in the classroom.

Conclusion—Why the Devil’s Advocate Approach is Ideal for Modern Expectations of High School Graduates

High school graduates today are expected to be able to think critically, analyze situations from multiple perspectives, and challenge their peers in order to be successful after high school. These are considered some of the “core academic skills” required for college and beyond. According to Roderick, Nagaoka, and Coca (2009), “Core academic skills, such as writing and analytical thinking, are not subject-specific, but rather allow students to engage in work in a range of disciplines” (p. 190; Conley, 2007). Each of these “core academic skills” can be enhanced by a student applying the devil’s advocate approach. It helps students elevate their thinking, and by extension writing, to a level that will benefit them beyond high school.

All teachers are capable of integrating the devil’s advocate approach into their teaching toolbox. By establishing a classroom based on mutual respect and cooperative learning, teachers can elevate the dialogue in their classroom to facilitate critical thinking. Teachers can achieve this by discussing controversial issues, providing students with multiple perspectives, and challenging students with tough questions. In such a classroom, students will become more engaged and students’ critical thinking and writing skills will be enriched.

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  1. Pseudonyms are used for all individuals quoted in this note from the field.