The Mill Institute at UATX and Tim Urban challenge students to think through differences
The Mill Institute at UATX
Feb 26, 2024

The Mill Institute at UATX and Tim Urban challenge students to think through differences

Educator Ellie Avishai explains how the Mill Institute at UATX and ‘Wait But Why’ blogger Tim Urban’s ‘idea labs’ shake up settled thinking in the classroom.

Ellie Avishai
Ellie Avishai
Mill Institute at UATX

We founded the Mill Institute in 2022 to provide training and resources to teachers and advisory support to administrators to navigate contentious topics with students and throughout their school communities. We named ourselves after the English philosopher John Stuart Mill to honor his insight that “he who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” As Mill writes, the ability to engage with opposing ideas sits at the heart of a free and open society.

In the fall of 2023, the Mill Institute launched our first Viewpoint Diversity Challenge. We provided high school teachers with a resource kit to take one hour at the start of the school year to talk with their students about discussing hard social and political topics together as a class. 

When we asked teachers to tell us why they registered for the challenge, we heard the same things again and again: “I want my students to be able to think for themselves,” “My students aren’t always able to see other perspectives,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “I am very concerned about the conformity of thinking at all schools and in education in the U.S. in general.”

The Mill Institute helps educators create dynamic classroom cultures where students do not self-censor, even when discussing hot topics like race, gender, equality, or more recently, the conflict in the Middle East. 

Our mission goes beyond promoting “civil discourse.” Our focus is not limited to tools that help people listen actively or speak more respectfully. Instead, we focus on how people think about contentious topics and what kind of culture we produce together through that thinking.

Blogger and author Tim Urban introduces ‘idea labs’ as sites of creative disagreement

Writer and author Tim Urban, the mind behind the popular blog “Wait But Why” and the new book What's Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies, offers a great visual depiction of how thinking affects culture. 

Urban describes two different kinds of communities or “intellectual cultures,” an idea lab versus an echo chamber. In the echo chamber, Urban explains, the goal is to preserve a “sacred set of ideas.” The culture is safe for these protected ideas, but dangerous for anyone who might challenge the orthodoxy. The result, says Urban, is a collective dumbing down of the group. In the echo chamber, we lose the ingenuity arising from collective human thinking.

Idea labs do the opposite. They are safe for individuals who disagree, challenge, and express their individuality, but dangerous for the ideas themselves because all thinking must withstand scrutiny. Idea labs are places of intellectual play. They are communities where people can vehemently disagree and then go out and grab a beer together. They are the essence of knowledge creation.

Albert Paulsson ran the Mill Institute’s Viewpoint Diversity Challenge with his students at Vertex Partnership Academies.

Find out how you can engage with Tim Urban, The Mill Institute, and UATX at SXSW EDU here.

In our viewpoint diversity challenge, we show students a Tim Urban cartoon (minus the swear words) about the difference between idea labs and echo chambers. Then we ask students to discuss articles ranging from a reparations proposal in San Francisco to competing narratives about the founding of the state of Israel. 

When students grapple with larger questions about their classroom culture – Do we want to be an echo chamber or an idea lab? How do we challenge our settled thinking? What does a scholarly search for truth look like in action? – they are more equipped to dive into contentious conversations together because they have established a shared learning goal.

The Mill Institute will join forces with the broader UATX community to sponsor Urban's SXSW EDU speaking engagement on March 5, 2024. Urban, the mind behind the popular blog "Wait but Why," will tackle the crucial topic of "How Educators Can Help Fix What's Wrong with Our Society '' in the event's main hall at 12:30 PM for SXSW EDU badge holders and expo attendees.

Urban, a recent transplant to Austin, embodies the city's intellectual renaissance. He expressed his gratitude for UATX’s partnership: "I appreciate the support of UATX in helping me get my message out, and I'm glad the message is connecting with the higher education community in Austin. It gives me hope to see efforts like UATX starting to grow."

Non-badge holders can register for a chance to meet Tim Urban and attend the session for free. 

On Wednesday, March 6, The Mill Institute will host a "lunch & learn" demonstration of their Viewpoint Diversity Challenge at the UATX Scarbrough campus at 6th Street and Congress Avenue. Sign up for a chance to sit in and discover how you can bring these tools to your classroom!

Mill Institute staff will also be on hand at SXSW to meet educators and education leaders who want to create more spaces of open inquiry at their own schools.

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