The Synthesis Solution Protocol: An Early Look

June 14, 2017 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Classroom Debating, The Debatifier

Policy debate? Sure, as long as the home team always wins. Politics today . . . is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.

 —  James Poniewozik, New York Times, May 4, 2017

All those problems [e.g., economic inequality, urban violence, climate change] are serious, they are daunting, but they are not insoluble.  What is preventing us from tackling them [is that] we now have a situation in which everybody is listening to those who already agree with them, and are further and further reinforcing their own realities, to the neglect of a common reality, that allows us to have a healthy debate, and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

 —  President Barack Obama, University of Chicago Forum on Youth Leadership and Public Service, April 24, 2017


Classroom debating activates a certain social energy that is sometimes recognizable as “competition,” but is often much broader than this, and more resembles the social motivation (and even social learning) that we all experience when we any of us is performing or producing with and in front of peers.  But classroom debating is certainly not done — certainly should not be done — for competitive reasons, in order for us or for students to rank or sort each other.  Similarly, classroom debating exposes argumentative positions to the critical scrutiny of opposing positions, counter-arguments, and efforts at refutation.  But classroom debating is not done — certainly should not be done — to confer a simple verdict of “truth” on the “winning” position, and falsity on the other (or others, in multi-sided debate formats).  These are dead-ends sometimes pursued by those in the classroom less experienced with — or not fully in control of — academic argument.

Classroom debating generates heightened social motivation to learn more about an issue of importance through research, argument formulation, and critical thinking, and the performance of debate itself pushes student thinking beyond initial positions through the frisson and energy of intellectual clash and difference.  What results from classroom debating should be deeper, internalized understanding of what is most salient and crucial about an issue. Oftentimes this means that a synthesized position on an issue that combines what is truest from multiple perspectives and opening positions.

The process and resultant cognitive (and often affective) product should — at least in theory and aspiration — occur in every implementation of debate and structured argumentation in the classroom.  Teachers that are experienced with and are in command of argument-centered instruction very often attain this desired place and space in their classrooms.  Still, for several years now we have been asked for resources that help students see beyond the binaries of classroom debating into a deeper, often syncretic, understanding of the issue they are studying and arguing about.  For several years, we have been asked to provide our partner teachers with resources that help students see that debating is a learning process with the objective of reaching a higher understanding, wedded to “truth” rather than “side.”  In response, this summer we have been building the Synthesis Solution Protocol.  What follows is an account of the political and pedagogical context of this new instructional resource, and then just a word on its practical unveiling.

Politico-Pedagogical Context

We are living in an era of unprecedented hyper-partisanship in the United States.  Hyper-partisanship is coupled with an unprecedented democratization of the platforms for the expression of political speech.  Social media has become a kind of megaphone for everyday individuals, one that is monitored and directly tapped by the traditional media and established outlets of political opinion, but one that has become notoriously polarized and cacophonous.  Instead of serving as a forum for and laboratory of democracy, in many ways modern American technology seems to be teaching young people an invidious lesson about politics and engagement: viewpoints are predetermined; every issue is deeply polarizing; opposing viewpoints are forever; political discourse isn’t about arguments and evidence and facts, it’s about emotion, ideology, and naked self-interest.

For the sake of our democracy, something has to be done.  The nation needs to address the issue of hyper-partisanship and bitterly polarized political rhetoric on multiple levels and on several fronts.  If we cannot communicate with each other politically, we cannot achieve democratic solutions to our most urgent problems.  If young people in their formative years are exposed to incessant and uncivil rancor, and irreconcilable disputes, they will learn to be deeply disengaged from civic life and involvement.  The way out of the deep ravine into which our democracy has must include an education component designed to help in particular secondary school students to see for themselves an alternative to current political rhetoric and culture, and to learn the skills to help them “be the change” to that culture, and effect the change in their own individual lives, in their own communities, and in the larger American landscape.

Analytic, evidence-based, rational, objectively-adjudged argumentation and debate must be part of the education component of our societal response to this crisis.  We must not recoil from the means by which Western democracy has tested the viability of ideas, and strength of evidence to support them, since Pericles and Cicero, because current debates so often degenerate into tribal polemics.  Our crisis underscores the need for more training in the application of logic, analytical reasoning, and evidence evaluation in our schools and colleges, not less.  And, further, national standards and expectations are placing ever more weight on teaching the academic rigor and critical thought that argumentation brings to secondary instruction.

But more and better debate in the American secondary school classroom will not by itself answer at the education level the urgent need to heal our civic life.  Even excellently reasoned, seriously researched debate, when enacted in our current climate, runs the risk of proliferating what social psychologist Daniel Kahane calls “motivated reasoning,” and entrenching what communications theorist Jeffrey Maynes has called the “backlash effect” (i.e., responding to a strong critique of one’s position with an even more strongly-held original conviction) borne of “cognitive bias.”

What we so critically need – and what the Synthesis Solution Protocol will aim to begin to produce – is a pedagogical model for secondary school classrooms that attaches rigorous, robust, and evidence-based debate on the crucial questions of our time, with an equally rigorous, subsequent stage of this inquiry process, in which the opposing sides work together through a protocol of acknowledgement, concession, and synthesis.  Guided in part by the feedback of an educator-judge, or a panel of their peers, student participants in the use of the Synthesis Solution Protocol will apply their honed critical thinking, creativity, and content knowledge to propose synthesized positions on the issue.  Those new positions – aiming to transcend opening and sustained binaries and oppositions – will be evaluated on how well and how extensively they capture as much as possible of all sides’ underlying value system, their argumentative warrants, and their priority concerns.

Over the coming weeks we will be rolling out, implementing, testing, assessing, and refining this “post-debate” instructional strategy and approach, with a series of prototypes of the Synthesis Solution Protocol on some of the most pressing hot-button issues in second school curriculum today, within the civics, social science, English, history, and science curricula.

The Synthesis Solution Protocol has the prospect of helping further develop how critical thinking and argumentation are being taught and practiced in Argument-Centered Education partner high schools.  Beyond that, it is a needed antidote to the breakdown our civil society has experienced in public sphere debate, aimed at the generation just entering that sphere – the very generation President Obama has said hold the key to righting the American ship of state and steering through and past the sharp and rocky shoals that threaten its very being.

A Word About Unveiling

Argument-Centered Education will be holding a workshop on the Synthesis Solution Protocol, entitled “Beyond Debate,” on August 16th, part of the Chicago Public Schools’ Social Science and Civic Engagement Department Summit (contact Janeen Lee for registration details).  And we will be previewing protocol tools on The Debatifier later in the summer and into the beginning quarter of the 2017/18 school year, being developed now for partner schools and teachers.   Contact us for more details at any time.