Lesson 3/4 ➯ Controversial Topics

© NEXT School


This lesson presents the latest academic research which shows how The Art of Critical Thinking increases (rather than decreases) health and happiness. We briefly look at controversial topics, such as a meat-free diet, climate change skepticism, war, the current mainstream model of schooling, and we learn about how the academic and scientific movement is objectively evaluating controversial topics to increase personal and global wellness.


Encyclopedia Britannica defines cognitive dissonance as: “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information”.

Being able to critically think about controversial topics is an essential part of The Art of Critical Thinking because, when we do, we are forced into this important process of cognitive dissonance.

Presented with reliable data that strongly challenges our worldview, we are directly challenging our preconceived beliefs and assumptions. These preconceived ideas are the result of our conditioning, and our conditioning is the mainstream narrative, which we have been educated to accept as fact through the systematic repetition of a given message.

For example, in 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) grouped processed meats with cigarettes as a group 1 carcinogenic after reviewing more than 800 peer-reviewed studies and concluding that “there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans”.

WHO also concluded, based on the evidence, that non-processed red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans” and Harvard University’s School of Public Health recommends we “Limit red meat, and avoid processed meats”. However, since most of us have been born into a narrative that promotes the consumption of meat as normal and part of a healthy diet, we may reject and explain away this evidence with a comment like: “They are always changing their minds”.

In even more extreme cases, we may avoid and not even look at the evidence, such as in the case of 9/11 and the evidence that supports the hypothesis that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition when compared to the evidence supporting the official hypothesis that they were not.

But if we are developing and mastering the ability to form objective opinions and make informed decisions (The Art of Critical Thinking), we cannot “reject, explain away, or avoid the new information”. Instead, we explore all sides of an argument with open-minded examination, and we accept reliable evidence as a possible new truth – a new narrative.

These moments raise our awareness (or our consciousness). We experience firsthand to what extent our conditioning is shaping our decision-making and our perception of reality. They expand our minds, and open our world to new possibilities, which is essential for creating new neural pathways (as mentioned in the previous lesson) that increase health and well-being – whether on a personal and/or global scale.

Lee Spiegel, writer and researcher of controversial topics for Huffington Post, states in the documentary film Travis, “No matter what your perception of something is, or your belief, or your opinion, or your speculation, … just follow where the evidence takes you, and no matter where it leads you to, no matter what kind of an outcome or result, whether you like the outcome of not, you will always stay credible if you follow the evidence”.

As we practice, cognitive dissonance occurs less and less, enabling us to spend less time living in the mainstream narrative presented in the previous lesson, and more time living in the solutions-focused narrative introduced here.


The University of Nottingham prepares international students with the academic skills to be able to study a degree by tutoring how to “write an academic paper on a controversial issue”. Students learn how to write a controversy paper based on a heated debate within their own discipline in order to develop a deep level of criticality, or critical thinking.

In 2013, Oxford University and Victoria University of Wellington produced a film with classroom resources to tackle the controversial issue of climate change skepticism. On their partner website, it states “classroom teachers have the opportunity to support students at all levels to think about issues that are large and complex and affect us all” because “wicked problems are problems that are incredibly complicated and difficult to solve” and “involve environmental, economic or political issues”.

In 2016, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) published a collective statement signed by 1796 academics (as of January 5th, 2017) stating that in the USA, “Alarmingly, justifications for a Muslim registry have cited Japanese American imprisonment during World War II as a credible precedent” and “It is not just that we are at the cusp of what may be a massive rollback of civil rights and liberties, but our culture is also mired in confusion about facts vs. misinformation and a rebellion against knowledge and critical thinking”.

In the same year, Professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, Tariq Ramadan, spoke about the Iraq war and ongoing ISIS attacks stating “what happened there and what is happening now is connected to policies that were decided in Washington and decided in London, which had nothing to do with human rights, had nothing to do with freedom and democracy; it was all about interests and geostrategic interests”.

A 2014 study by professors at Princeton and Northwestern universities found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence”, concluding:

[we] need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1 percent? the top one-tenth of 1 percent?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. … We hope that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.

In April 2018, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University took the opportunity during a televised debate on MSNBC about the 2018 missile strikes against the Syrian government to state: “I think we have to understand how this happened. This happened because of us. … We started a war to overthrow a regime. It was covert. It was Timber Sycamore. People can look it up”.

According to the mainstream narrative, for example, the war in Syria began because people armed themselves and formed groups to defend themselves against Assad’s regime; yet, with a little more investigation online, we discover that the CIA was secretly arming rebels and, according to a 2017 report published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Program (OCCRP), member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, the Pentagon continues to do so.

In collaboration with the Spencer Foundation which measures “the quality of civic and political engagement”, Stanford History Education Group have designed paper and digital tasks for classroom use to help students progress as they learn to evaluate information online, stating in their 2016 executive report on civic online reasoning, “At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish”.

Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Allison Butler, is on the team of Mass Media Literacy (MML) and board member of Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME). MML are educators who provide resources “to ensure that all Massachusetts students are taught the critical thinking skills needed to engage with media as active and informed participants” while ACME, founded in 2002 by more than forty media literacy educators from around North America, offers resources both old and new.

Project Censored list academically Validated Independent News stories (VINs), select the top 25 stories for their annual book on news not reported in the mainstream, and provide resources to take VINs, critical thinking and media literacy into the classroom.

The Global Critical Media Literacy Project (GCMLP) is a collaborative initiative launched in 2015 by Project Censored, ACME and the Media Literacy and Digital Culture course at Sacred Heart University which analyses the “unprecedented amount of media content and digital technology that targets students”, and provides a free resource guide for educators.

Project Censored’s Director, Mickey Huff, is professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College and lecturer in communications at California State University, as well as critical media literacy consultant for Tribeworthy, an online platform that allows users to rate news articles and sources for trustworthiness using critical media literacy skills.

Ultimate Civics have developed Activating My Democracy, a free American Civics unit for middle school and high school students after founder Dr. Riki Ott, while teaching at Occupy camps in 2011, realised people lacked the skills to actively engage in creating a functioning democracy.

The Media Education Foundation produces documentary films that inspire critical thinking about the social, political, and cultural impact of mass media, and The Representation Project uses their documentaries on media to provide two separate eight-week courses for schools that help students “identify, critique, and analyze media messages and images that are targeted towards them” and “utilize their Social Emotional Learning skills” to communicate issues related to stereotypes.

In 2017, 147 schools across 15 countries started piloting Think Equal, a new international social-emotional learning curriculum that develops empathy, critical thinking skills, appreciation and celebration of diversity with a vision to ending discrimination and violence, while Teaching Tolerance provide educators with resources that emphasise anti-discrimination, anti-bias and help schools educate children to be active participants in a diverse democracy.

In collaboration with Stanford University’s d.school, Project Wayfinder encourages students to explore world-awareness, self-awareness, and focus on purposeful action through their toolkit for educators, and The Future Project turns schools into “vibrant, engaging places” where every student can learn how to “imagine and build a future of their choosing” with skills that “bring their dreams for self, school, and society to life”.

The QUESTion Project, a semester-long elective designed to give adolescents space to wrestle big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most on their journey through life, is offered in schools that value “a holistic approach to education”, while the Fostering Purpose Project, developed by researchers at Claremont Graduate University, also provides toolkits designed to help young people discover their purpose in life.

In conjunction with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, The Adolescent Moral Development Lab, directed by Associate Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, Kendall Cotton Bronk, are currently investigating the relationship between purpose and gratitude – with an aim to develop tools for schools.

MITRA is a Vipassana meditation programme promoting mental well-being widely used in state schools in India which can be applied to schools anywhere, and The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are also building on initial research on emotion regulation to create a prototype of their own mindfulness-based integrated training curriculum.

According to Stanford University’s d.school, an integrated training curriculum does not fully address the fact that the high school model “was designed over 100 years ago to create and manage a skilled workforce for the Industrial Revolution” and “is stuck in time – as segregated, myopic and inflexible as ever”.

Over the past few years, they have prototyped two new school designs based on self-directed (student driven) learning: an up-and-running public Design Tech High School which focuses on students solving real-world problems using design thinking, and up-and-coming Design School X, which is a “deep equity consciousness and design thinking” model designed on “belonging and becoming” for all students.

NEXT school in India agrees that our traditional system of education is in need of a much needed upgrade. NEXT is India’s first Big Picture school. Big Picture Learning was established in the USA in 1995 with the sole mission of putting students directly at the centre of their own learning. Today, there are over 65 Big Picture network schools in the USA and many more around the world.

Founded in 2002, Shikshanter is another school in India that focuses on learner-centred approaches to education, including social-emotional learning, co-existence with nature, and democratic participation.

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) has been helping people find and start student-driven, learner-centred educational alternatives since 1989. Today, they are a primary hub of support for worldwide educational alternatives, including Montessori, Waldorf (Steiner), homeschooling and democratic education “in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults”.

The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) explain that “this movement, away from coercive schooling and toward Self-Directed Education, has been inching along for decades. It has not yet taken flight because most people still don’t know about Self-Directed Education and the success of those who have taken this route”.

Open Learning Exchange believe that by shifting to a personalised yet globally connected solutions-focused form of learning, education can be “the key factor in reducing inequality, fostering gender equality, promoting cross-cultural understanding, and contributing to peace”; through their Planet Learning online platform they provide free education “in schools throughout Nepal, Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda, with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Somali refugees in Kenya, and village health workers in Uganda”.

The University of Michigan Sustainable Food Systems Initiative engages “students, faculty and communities at local and global levels”; for example, in 2017, Frances Moore Lappé of Small Planet Institute, which seeks “to identify core, often unspoken, assumptions” because “human beings see the world through culturally defined filters” or “mental maps” that take our planet “in directions that none of us individually would ever choose”, delivered a talk about the solutions to the crisis of world hunger to students, faculty and the community, and it was posted online.

Zoe Weil, founder of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), explains in her 2011 Tedx talk how “there is actually just one system that we just need to tweak a little bit, and if we do that, we can solve every problem in the world; and that key system is schooling”.

Today, IHE are attempting to bridge the gap between an integrated training curriculum, new schools and the growing popularity of self-directed online learning. Teachers can learn online how to integrate IHE’s Solutionary Program into their classrooms, and IHE also provide accredited graduate programmes in affiliation with Valparaiso and Saybrook universities that accelerate and deepen people’s critical thinking, humane education and change-making skills.

A 2013 report by the European Commission about “the mainstreaming of ICT-enabled innovation for learning in Europe and beyond”, concludes that there is “increasing frustration and puzzlement as to why education has not really changed in any significant way despite the rapid advances in technology” and calls for an ecological approach to education.

A 2016 report by Western Sydney University and Plymouth University’s Outdoor and Experiential Learning Research Network (OelResNet) explains “Over the past ten years there have been five significant reviews conducted around the focus of children learning in natural environments in the UK and further abroad” which show “outdoor learning can, and has made, a significant impact on improving children’s quality of life” in relation to health, well-being, and “character capabilities” such as empathy, creativity, innovation, and “their capacity to be successful learners and active contributing members for a sustainable society”.

As such, while schools such as Earth School operate separately from mainstream schools and Forest Schools offer nature-based learning to schools, Nature Schools are one example of mainstream schools adapting to the latest scientific research by taking their classrooms outdoors.

Examples of existing solutions-focused schools, colleges and universities that are solely committed to teaching personal and global wellness include Una Escuela SustentableXploration CentreSchumacher CollegeSwaraj University, Peace Boat Global University, Paititi Institute, and the United Nation’s own University for Peace.

Online e-learning courses include Intro to Permaculture, Permaculture Circle, l’université ColibrisCompassion CourseSolutionary Program, Ubiquity University, Gaia Education, Guardian Alliance Academy, Wim Hof MethodPalouse Mindfulness, Wizard Activist School, Udemy, and edX including the u.lab courses on personal and global transformation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


This section has briefly looked at such controversial topics as a meat-free diet, climate change skepticism and war, and in more detail at the advancement of the current mainstream model of schooling.

First, this lesson demonstrates that the academic and scientific community clearly believe that the ability to form opinions about controversial topics based on objectivity and open-minded examination is essential for a healthy and happy society.

There is clearly a very active and passionate academic and scientific movement helping and encouraging people inside and outside the classroom to be able to critically think about controversial topics, explore cognitive dissonance, raise awareness, and experience firsthand to what extent conditioning is shaping our perception of reality and decision-making, so that we can open our mind to new possibilities.

Second, this academic and scientific community demonstrate that only by evaluating all information on any given topic, including the facts and evidence not presented through the mainstream narrative, can we make informed decisions about topics like diet, climate change, war, and education that increase health and happiness on a personal and global scale.

Third, these academics and scientists who conclude that we should avoid meat, climate change is human-activity induced, war is not about freedom and democracy but rather about geostrategic interests, and that education should include social-emotional learning skills, such as world-awareness, self-awareness, purposeful action and real-world problem solving, are doing so with empirical evidence (objectivity), and the actively pursued goal of moving humanity forward in a direction that increases health and well-being for people and the planet.

Taking the more detailed example of education: while the mainstream narrative educates us to think about the world through the lens of “problems, conflict, prejudicial categorisation of others, and fear” (as demonstrated in the previous lesson), critically thinking about a topic like education has led to a new holistic view of education that focuses on solutions, cooperation, acceptance of others, and love.

Finally, these academics and academic institutions demonstrate that when the actively pursued goal to increase health and well-being is present, forming objective opinions and making informed decisions leads to a new, solutions-focused narrative that increases (rather than decreases) personal and global wellness.

Through the process of evaluating education with open-minded objectivity, for example, holistic solutions-focused education – in which people learn to put their own health and well-being, and the future of their own lives, into their own hands – is increasingly being put into practice inside and outside mainstream schools, and becoming the new narrative.

This solutions-focused world exists now; it is just as real as the narrative focused on and causing problems presented in the second lesson. We just do not hear about it.

Thus, this lesson continues from previous lessons by demonstrating that the reality presented in mainstream media is indeed just a chosen story we are educated to accept as fact, and that solutions-focused academics and academic institutions have the purpose to objectively evaluate this narrative in order to increase personal and global wellness.

This lesson primarily (though not exclusively) focuses on the research taking place in the USA due purely to lesson length and the sheer expanse of research available globally, but this movement towards a new narrative of personal and global wellness is worldwide.

The final lesson will show you how to use all the knowledge from the last three lessons to be able to delve into the new narrative of health, happiness and well-being yourself.

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