In a complex world with complex problems, young people are struggling to uncover their identities. Social media and social constructs simplify thinking into binary perspectives that are limiting their capacities to grow and develop an understanding of themselves and the world. Unfortunately, some school curricula and environments may be contributing to this growing problem that directly impacts student wellbeing.
So much of students’ worlds seem to fall into a good/bad, right/wrong, preconstructed view of what they should think, believe, feel, and who they should or should not be. In this binary construct, students are not able to explore their own perceptions, opinions, or understandings because they have not had the freedom to develop the ability to observe, ask questions, discuss, and learn about differing perspectives in a constructive way. Schools should strive to create an environment that welcomes and encourages students to share, explore, and grow. In order for them to feel safe to do so, the atmosphere must not be argumentative. Rather, it must be one that approaches differences from a lens of love and learning.
It may seem easier to avoid discussing controversial topics in order to steer away from conflict and difficulty that stir emotions. However, when we participate in this avoidance, we miss out on an opportunity to teach students how to explore their feelings, have rigorous, meaningful conversations, and learn from those with differing viewpoints in a positive way. By modeling an avoidance behavior, we are inadvertently supporting this binary way of thinking that leads to a hindrance in student growth. In order to assist in students’ development, schools can create an environment where people are able to discuss controversial subjects in a respectful way that comes from a place of learning, understanding, and growing rather than judgment.
Schools should be a safe place for contemplation, evaluation, and learning and not one that prescribes what students should think and how they fit into a pre-described way of being. This freedom, or lack thereof, has a direct impact on student wellbeing. Educators should be inviting students each morning to feel strong and capable, supporting them in framing their own personalities and identities. In order to do that, they must feel safe sharing who they are in an environment designed to listen and learn without fear of others jumping into a defensive or attack mode. A safe space environment is cyclical in nature. In order for students to feel heard without judgment they must also learn to listen without judgment. One cannot occur without the other.
Students must learn to find value in the opinions, thoughts, and beliefs of others. Educators can assist in this learning by teaching students that there are 101 perspectives on the same problem. Rather than always presenting a definitive answer, issues can be explored from various angles. In addition, we must teach and model the use of kind words that are full of love rather than aggression, and that strive to unite rather than divide. As you enter your schools every day, ask yourselves these questions:
- Am I encouraging differing viewpoints and creating a safe space for them to be shared?
- Am I modeling a behavior of openness for judgment-free conversations?
- Am I demonstrating kind, accepting language?
- How can I help students to avoid defensive or aggressive language and responses?
The formation of identity and wellbeing is fragile. Schools have a responsibility to create environments that are conducive to open discussions, free from aggression, and safe for honest and authentic conversations geared toward learning, understanding, and growth. It is through this climate of successful cooperation and mutual support that we can counteract the negative impacts of binary thinking and help students create healthy identities.