Evidence-Based Arguments

Last weekend I conducted a 4-hour seminar about English speaking at one of the local universities here. It was not my first time doing this, so I can safely assume how the students would participate (although I still reserve a space for the contrary to happen): students were mostly passive, didn’t quite respond to my questions or requests.

It is one of those common things that university students do, but I didn’t want to conform to this abnormal norm. So I tried my level best to encourage them to speak up and speak out, but continuously challenging their minds and emotions with questions and requests (e.g. asking them to fill up the front seats).

3 hours into the seminar, I wanted to start our last session: the discussion session. The basic idea is that I want them to use this opportunity to practice their English speaking. In the previous 3 hours, I tried to convey the message to them that it is not about getting it right all the time, but it is simply about trying and believing that you can at least try. That was all I asked of them and that is what everybody should expect from them: try your best.

I began the session by opening the floor to any questions, hoping that the questions might spark some interesting discussions. To my disappointment, they were still pretty much in their comfort zone. It is not surprising though. I can understand that it can be difficult to escape the comfort zone and 4 hours might not be enough to fully motivate a person to jump out of the zone. There were some questions being asked, but none that I can stretch into a long, interesting discussion.

Amidst the gaps of silence, I was thinking about what I could do to get the ball rolling. Somewhere in the process, I had an idea: ask them to tell me about what they have read in the past week. It could be anything: from blog posts, to Facebook statuses, tweets, or news articles. It is unlikely that they haven’t read any of those in the past week, considering that practically all of us are on the internet nowadays.

After a few beats of silence, a student stood up to bring an issue to light. He read about the 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers who might enter this country, and he continued by highlighting his concern that it might not be a good idea. Seeing that the atmosphere in the room had changed a little bit after that topic had been raised, I saw an opportunity: let this be the topic for them to talk about.

So I instantaneously assumed the position of the mediator. I accepted the student’s opinion as a valid one and I made his opinion the starting point of the discussion. I asked the other students if they have their own comments to add. Another student stood up, to disagree with the previous student. In my head, I thought this was great! Not only did this topic encouraged them to speak English, but it also encouraged them to think critically and to disagree politely.

Of course, I had to maintain a level of neutrality and mediate the discussion because there were instances where it got a bit heated. But this is a good exposure for them, to learn how to maturely discuss and disagree. The whole session was dedicated to just this discussion and I was satisfied with how it went.

After hearing a few opinions from a few students (some agreed and some disagreed), I reminded them not to be enemies with each other just because of a disagreement. Even though the topic is an important topic, but it is petty compared to their friendship and unity. Thankfully, I observed no hard feelings among them.

What is interesting to me personally was how they constructed their arguments. We know that a good discussion depends on having good arguments. Whether they want to agree or disagree with the idea that 1.5 million foreign workers will enter the country, their arguments must be and should be based on evidence and not emotional sentiments.

For example, one student argued that having more foreign workers in the country would harm our safety. I assumed correctly that he was referring to crimes committed by these foreign workers. While still maintaining my neutrality, I raised a simple question: do you know the official statistics of crimes committed by foreign workers in this country? No answer. To be honest, I don’t know the answer myself.

My point is simple: you can’t draw a general conclusion based upon a few incidents. It is undeniable that we have cases where foreign workers committed criminal behaviours in this country, but is the number significant enough to warrant an outcry? I asked a follow up question: do you know the official statistics of crimes committed by locals? Also, no answer. I don’t know the answer too.

An argument that is not based upon facts is exposed to making flawed conclusions, sometimes dangerous ones. The conclusions that we make affect how we feel and our emotions affect how we behave. So it is not a simple thing to sweep under the rug. If for example we make a flawed conclusions about the 1.5 million foreign workers, then how we treat them might be far from what is just.

Just like in the discussion with the students, I didn’t proclaim to support any side because I don’t have the hard facts myself. I don’t know if opening our doors to 1.5 million foreign workers would be a good idea or not. What I do know is that whether we like it or not, it is our human responsibility to uphold a sense of justice in our dealings and in our arguments. We should not let our emotions blur our good judgment about what is right and what is wrong.

All in all, it was a good session and a good exposure to the students about how to maturely discuss matters of importance. At the very least, it gave me an idea of how to “force” students to speak in English.