To aid in your conversations about current events, I have adapted Aristotle’s Five Common Topics of the Dialectic, renaming them “The Big 5” for our purposes in exploring news media. These five topics give us “locations” (the Greek word “topikós” means place or location) for our conversations. Maybe you educate your child primarily at home through the classical method of education from which these topics come and know them inside and out. Maybe you teach in a public or private school and you want to pursue more conversation-driven learning in the classroom. Maybe learning through conversation is entirely new territory for you, and you need a tool to assist you in your post-school day chats. For any parent, educator, or adult mentor of kids and teens, these categories help us build a foundation and draw out the knowledge our children have previously built—and they are easily applied to news media.
Asking our children questions refreshes their thinking and integrates their learning. Their answers not only allow us to identify gaps in their knowledge and shed light on any faulty thinking. Presuppositions and biases all come out when we ask non-anxious questions, gently probing and stretching their thinking, attitudes, and even actions in the world.
“The Big 5” (defined below) are: definition, comparison, circumstance, relationship, and authority.
In any conversation (formal or informal), make a good start by asking: What are the key terms and what do they mean? For young children, definition supplies the basic grammar (or foundation) for any subject and gets them into the healthy habit of clarifying their terms. I will ask my seven-year-old, when she’s telling me a story about school “what do you mean when you say_____?” to get her thinking about words and meaning—to show her the importance of what she says and what she means (“say what you mean and mean what you say”).
If two people can’t agree on the definition of whatever they want to discuss, the conversation cannot move forward constructively—it cannot be meaningful. From the news, we might choose to engage the subject of “abortion rights”—an example we use in Concurrently: A process for evaluating shifting words and meanings. A critical reader will recognize immediately the two terms involved: “abortion”: the deliberate termination of a pregnancy whose expected outcome is a new human life, and “rights”: a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way. Synthesizing the two terms to make one we might land on “abortion rights”: the legal entitlement to deliberately terminate a pregnancy whose expected outcome is a new human life.
Once we establish a shared definition, we pursue further discussion, tracing our subject through the remaining four topics. If, however, participants in the conversation hold to different definitions, the conversation becomes devoid of meaning. For example, the word “woman”: an adult female human being. If the person opposite you defines “woman” as a state of being that is chosen or self-assigned, along with the term itself we lose the meaningfulness of the entire conversation or debate.
SIDE NOTE: When faced with a conversation at impasse, children will need different tools—for example: permission to resist being drawn into argument. They may need coaching to speak Truth in love and consider the person across from us as an image bearer, trapped in a lie. Equip them to discern when to walk away from divisive conversations—especially online—or how to engage such conversations with grace and truth.
How does the story/subject compare, contrast, or connect with other stories on the same or similar issues? Regarding “abortion rights,” we might compare different news agencies’ reporting on abortion. What do each of the stories claim to be true? How do our founding documents, specifically the constitution, establish rights for the citizens of our nation? Do we see a foundation for the right to an abortion in the Bill of Rights? What other stories or documents can we connect to this story?
Circumstance allows us to make connections to what we know of history and culture. What is the cultural or historical context? What field of study supplies further context for the story we are learning about? When did this happen? What else as going on at the time? What has happening in other parts of the world at that time? Carrying on our discussion of “abortion rights” we might discuss advances or abuses in medicine, political parties and their values, different countries’ views on or practices related to abortion. Sometimes it is easier to come up with the questions than the answers that inform our thinking. Taking the posture of co-learner, be ready to say “I don’t know—let’s find out!” and use whatever resources you have available to explore more deeply [for insight as to how to use internet sources well, refer to our discussion on Concurrently]
Once we establish how a topic is connected to the rest of the world, we talk about its cause and effect in the world. All knowledge interconnects––more like a tangled plate of spaghetti than a neat shelf of organized boxes. What events of history preceded, caused, or influenced this story or event? What will this story or event affect (what are the effects we might expect)? For “abortion rights”: What caused abortion to be viewed as a right? What legal precedent exists? Which institutions first promoted abortions? Why? What motivated early advocates of abortion? What philosophies fed into the thinking of abortion advocates? Then we ask: how did these decisions affect the world? How did it affect family life? The workforce? Our relationship to government? Our relationship to God? The expression of government (political system)? Our nations’ posture toward the church? The practice of medicine? Etc.
Not only is the topic of our example difficult, these questions are obviously hard ones that younger kids will not yet be ready to tackle. But even elementary aged kids will hear tough topics in the news and need beginning conversations. Young children can handle definition and comparison with good coaching, laying a foundation for the more challenging conversations ahead.
Authority is the final category, and includes our Ultimate Authority: How do we know this information true? Who said it was? How does scripture speak to this topic, provide context, help us understand causes, and in all other ways inform our understanding? How does our understanding of God’s authority challenge our thinking, feeling, and action in this area? Here we learn to source and support our thinking through trustworthy resources (see episode 11 of Concurrently), including Biblical authority, instead of leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).
When we enter into conversation with our children over challenging material in the news, we equip them with critical skills for future learning and interactions with college professors and peers, workmates and neighbors. Even tackling one topic per day provides solid practice, laying the groundwork for constructive conversations which glorify God, increase our maturity in Him, and winsomely make Him known.