Inviting students to take a stand and disagree

Well-crafted discussion questions can carve out spaces for disagreement. They can even encourage it. But cultivating the type of respectful disagreement that helps students grow academically and personally is tricky, especially when students feel strongly about particular issues. In this video, Tim McCarthy models the verbal and nonverbal behaviors that help his students learn how to “disagree without being disagreeable.”


Timothy Patrick McCarthy, Lecturer on History and Literature

Student Group



Harvard College


Stories of Slavery & Freedom

Group Size

16 students

  • Be explicit with your students about how you hope disagreement and dialogue might function productively in the classroom
  • Model how to acknowledge what students say (even when you might not agree with it) and how to present contrasting ideas in constructive, respectful ways
  • Encourage students to disagree with thinking, not people -- to challenge ideas rather than attacking one another
  • when students appear reluctant to disagree openly, try to tease out underlying points of disagreement
  • Research of structured classroom debates that push students to take and defend positions illustrates how this active learning exercise can engage students, help them deepen their understanding, and improve their communication skills (Oros, 2007)
  • In debate format exercises, where students have the opportunity to agree or disagree with a statement developed by the instructor (e.g., agreeing or disagreeing with flag burning as a form of political expression), discussing why students choose to take a particular stance can promote the questioning of unexamined assumptions and lead students to challenge long-held beliefs (Cohen, 1993)
  • The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University offers tips “Facilitating Effective Group Discussions” and, notably, how to manage potential problems that might arise in discussions
  • A post from Stanford’s Tomorrow’s Professor blog describes how instructors can frame disagreement as a valuable learning opportunity rather than a source of bitter contention