Helping students think for themselves

By Tyler Allred

Have you noticed that some young people have a lot of opinions (you might even say too many), and some hardly have any at all?

I was one of those kids that was never satisfied with an answer. I would incessantly be asking, "why?":

"Why are we stopped?"
 "Because the light is red"
"Why do we stop at red lights?"
"Because that's the law"

"Why do we have laws?"
"Tyler, you need to stop asking questions!" 

It usually only lasted 3 or 4 rounds. I didn't need to be encouraged to be more inquisitive; what I needed was someone to show me how to ask better questions.  

Young people need intentional adults who will model for them what asking questions looks like, and encourage them to remain inquisitive and open.

This is done best if we’re committed to each other as a community. After all, thinking for ourselves does not mean sitting in solitude and thinking by ourselves. 

Our culture is trying (and failing) the social experiment called “the autonomous individual.” Our social media, technology-saturated world helps promote a myth that pressures us to be completely independent while remaining fully “connected” to our “friends” (just so long as I don’t have to make eye contact!). There’s also this phenomenon I call the “hipster paradox”. You know, where everyone is trying to be so unique and “different,” that they all end up looking exactly alike! 

Instead, we need people who can interact with those different than themselves, learn to ask good questions, and find both distinction and common ground exciting and beautiful. As we realize how diverse and varied our world is, the most important thing we can do is to know more about our own story. I tell students, “We need you to be you, inside a community of people that are not like you.” We need students who know how to make friends and learn from others of different race, gender, faith, politics, and nationality. Because too many of us only surround ourselves with people who look and think just like us, we're tricked into thinking we’re “unique.”

Here is one idea for you to lean into, as an adult hoping to raise up great people:

Try asking, and answering, the following with your student(s):

“What’s something that you believe (about life, politics, faith, etc.) that you think I don’t believe?”
“What’s something that you don’t believe (about life, politics, faith, etc.) that you think I do believe?” 

Approach that kind of conversation in an open posture of learning- neither you or the student needs to “defend” their views. It’s simply a time to learn. Both of you may be surprised at what makes you similar and what makes you different. See how those contrasting, shared beliefs might help you gain more clarity about yourself and the other person. 

Finally, this should be done in person, with good eye contact and spoken words with a living, breathing, person. By engaging in this kind of conversation, you're stepping into the best role for helping someone to grow up.

Tyler Allred has spent over a dozen years developing high school and college students into self-aware and high-capacity leaders. He's a leader, speaker, trainer, and writer. If you get on his good side, Tyler will bake you homemade sourdough bread and let you babysit his two beautiful daughters. You can connect with Tyler on LinkedIn.