Learning and Growing Through Disagreement

I have spent time recently reflecting on the frequent division and differences of opinions that are present on a wide array of issues and the way these disagreements are portrayed through social media and news sources.  I have found myself considering an educational approach, the “growth mindset versus fixed mindset,” that I believe could be an important key to encourage and foster better understanding of one another. The growth mindset, developed by education expert Carol Dweck, encourages educators to teach students about their ability to continuously learn and understand new things whereas the fixed mindset stems from students learning through unintended messaging that there is a limit to how much they are able to learn.

I had the opportunity to listen to Mawi Asgedom, an expert on social emotional learning, present the growth versus fixed mindset notion through the analogy of circles.  He explained, “A lot of people have two circles: a ‘can do’ and a ‘can’t do.’  I want to challenge you to change the ‘can’t do’ circle to a ‘not yet.’”  Since his lecture, I have used this analogy with my students every year.  I remind them, “There are things you currently can do and there are things you can not yet do, that is what we can work on: learning what we don’t yet know.”  The last part in particular makes a lot of sense, how can you expect someone to know something they don’t yet know?  So, I put my energy into helping students grow their “can do” circles and shift their mindset from thinking they “can’t do” to believing they “can’t yet do” whatever it is they want to do.  This transformation of helping students understand how to cope with difficult things comes through praising the process.  Recognizing persistence, effort, the opportunity to explore new information.  There is more focus on the process, less on the end result.

Typically, my conversations on growth mindset involve my students.  However, now that summer is here my focus for this topic has shifted.  Instead of working with students on the growth mindset approach, I have pondered the application of this notion to adults.  I have considered what life would look like if we all applied this approach to ourselves and those around us; this simple fact that people, even adults, are capable of growing and expanding our “not yet” circles of knowledge.  The understanding that none of us are at the end of our learning journey. 

In contradiction to this fact, I have observed opinions and assertions expressed on social media platforms which seem to indicate growth and change are impossible. I have read many posts which express disinterest in having conversations on specific topics, which seems to perpetuate division in areas where there could be growth and change.  In addition, I have read many strongly-written posts which conclude with, “If you disagree with me, feel free to delete yourself [from my friend list]” or “If you are offended by my opinions on [insert topic] then I don’t want you in my life.”  The divisiveness present in my social media news feeds feels overwhelming.  I wish I had easy answers to solve these intense divisions; I don’t.  However, reflecting on the divisions has given me a chance to think more deeply about how we might grow our “not yet” circles. When I acknowledge that people, myself included, are still learning and growing, that our current mindsets are not “fixed” for life, I feel hope.  

The truth is disagreements of any kind can be uncomfortable and there are so many nuanced issues that are heavy in and of themselves without adding in the difficulty of navigating disagreeing viewpoints.  However, what would life look like if we all deleted or removed everybody who thought differently from us?  If we were only around people who thought the same as we do, how could we learn from each other?  Does insulating our mindsets set ourselves up to maintain a “fixed mindset”?  Siloing ourselves with only like minded individuals, would cause us to miss opportunities to grow our “can do” circles as we would no longer be exposed to new information in the learning process.  We would essentially be limiting the information available in our “not yet” circle to even consider understanding more fully.

It is important to clarify that healthy boundaries are critical.  A favorite quote of mine, by Penny Reid, states  “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”  You are not the sole person responsible for engaging in every conversation that presents itself.  Additionally, conversation does need to include respect.  If there are people in your life or in your social media who are harmful, or their perspectives are hateful.  Please give yourself permission to remove them.  You do not need to keep people in your life who constantly tear you down.  Healthy boundaries are very important.   However, if there is a difference in opinion or someone makes a statement based out of misinformation or unknown facts, then “deleting them” removes the opportunity to learn from all of the growth that comes through disagreement, respectful conversation, and sharing knowledge.  

There have been so many times in my own journey that my perspectives have been challenged, or information I believed to be true was pointed out through conversations as flawed.  Throughout the years, I have relied on information I believed at the time to be true, only to now look back with regret on things I said based on those beliefs.  I also have made decisions based on information I believed to be true, only to find out later it was not; decisions that I am not proud of.  I don’t like to write about the fact that I have said or done things that I regret, or that my understanding or perspectives on certain issues has changed.  But, it is the truth.  And, here is the other truth: this happens to all of us! This is part of our common humanity! We all make decisions based on information in our “can do” circles, and then grow and make different, hopefully better, decisions as our understanding deepens.  If there had not been people in my life who were willing to keep the door open for me as I was learning, I wouldn’t have learned or grown as much.  If I “deleted” or was “deleted by” everyone who thought differently than me, I would have never had conversations that led to meaningful change and growth.

So, I have continued to think about the concept of the “growth mindset” and wondered what conversations would look like if this was applied beyond the educational setting. Is it possible to look at others through the lens of a growth mindset as well? What would our world look like if we recognized that someone, even on social media, “doesn’t know what they don’t know”?  What if there were more responses to create conversations, rather than the easy reaction of simply removing from our life those who hold differing opinions? If we don’t take these difficult routes to conversation and deeper understanding with those whom we disagree, how can we expect anyone to move information and understanding from their “not yet” circles? 

I recognize that I have a responsibility to continue to grow my own “can do” circle and I want to encourage others to not be afraid to grow theirs. It is okay to change your mind.  It is okay to believe that something was true and to make decisions differently when you know different.  I learn by seeking out books, videos, and podcasts about topics that I want to learn more about and about issues I know I could benefit from a broader perspective.  I engage in conversations.  I do acknowledge that meaningful conversations are challenging to cultivate via social media platforms where memes and catch phrases dominate even the most nuanced issue.  However, I have started to consider alternative approaches to navigating disagreements on social media platforms.  Instead of writing, “If you disagree with me, delete me,” maybe write, “This is important to me and if you disagree with my perspective, I would like to set up a time to have a respectful conversation [over the phone, video chat, or in-person].”  Maybe if we provided opportunities, even invitations, for conversations we all could continue to learn and grow. Maybe a focus on thoughtful, productive, healthy conversations could expand each of our “can do” circles and, maybe, the divisiveness that is permeating our social media feeds can begin to fade.

Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer.  She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.

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