A recent “Grey Matter” piece in the New York Times Sunday Review entitled “This Story Stinks” takes a look at the impact comments have on people’s perception of content (in this case, nanotechnology). The goal of the study being reported on was to better understand how civil and uncivil comments on blogs, digital newspapers, or other Internet hosted domains shape readers’ reactions and opinions.
They split up their study subjects into two samples, both of which read the same article on nanotechnology and then different sets of comments to the piece. The authors, Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele write,
Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
While the focus of this particular study was on Internet user comments, and on a very specific subject topic, it would not be hard to see how these micro trends might play out in schools and classrooms.
Do student comments influence how other students perceive an activity, information, or learning experience?
Can civil or incivil discussions supplement or distort students’ perceptions of knowledge, opinions, and even themselves?
To these questions, I would resoundingly answer, “YES!”
The language of schools and learning communities very much shape the culture, attitudes and norms of any particular institution or group. If our goal is the cultivation of life-long learners who are capable of collaboration, creativity, and effective communication toward solving problems, civility must not only be embraced by schools as a worthwhile theory, but actively taught, modeled and practiced.
As this study suggests, incivility breeds polarization. And as we have seen all too often in Washington D.C., polarization breeds paralysis. Before “achievement,” we must consider the intellectual, social, and emotional well-being of each and every student and stop at nothing to ensure students feel safe to listen, share, and learn.