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Practicing Purposeful Skepticism

Submitted by Jack Byrd, Jr., Cuda Zmuda, & Eric Schmucker

New initiatives are often met with skepticism, which can be unproductive when based upon resistance to change. Purposeful skepticism, however, can be valuable when it opens up thinking and leads to improvements. This activity illustrates how to share skepticism with others in a purposeful way.

average rating is 5 out of 5, based on 1 votes, rating(s)
Red neon light question mark on dark wall

Learning Goal

  • Practice asking questions to better understand what is being proposed and to constructively imagine what can be done to improve the proposal.


Set Up: Prepare for the Activity

Select a scenario from the collection of What IF…Scenarios, choose one of the sample scenarios shown below in Step One, or create your own based on a topic that is relevant for your group.

Organize participants into small groups (4-6 ppl).

Begin by introducing the learning goals of this activity.

Step One: Review the Scenario (5 min)

As a full group, invite a participant to read the scenario aloud while others read along. It may be helpful to share the scenario on an overhead screen if meeting in-person or use the share screen function if meeting virtually. Participants may want to read quietly and have a copy to refer to details later in the activity.

After reviewing the scenario, ask if there are any questions.

Sample Scenario No. 1: A Study Lab Proposal

As enrollment dropped at a major state university, the retention of students became a top priority. An analysis of the retention challenge led to a realization that failures in math and lab science courses were a leading cause of the dropouts. The university had learning centers for these courses but they were rarely used. A focus group with students led to a proposal that all first year students would be required to participate in a controlled study environment four hours per week. Tutoring would be provided and attendance would be monitored and built into the grade in the freshman seminar.

Sample Scenario No. 2: EV Recharging Proposal

The owner of a high-end townhouse complex wanted to provide recharging stations for the growing number of electric vehicles owned by the townhouse residents. Since the townhouses themselves did not have outlets for recharging, the owner proposed to have a set site area where residents could recharge their cars. Since the number of recharging stations was insufficient for all residents to use at one time, reservations were needed. Also some recharging stations were reserved for specific makes of vehicles. The owner feels this is a viable solution until more residents own EVs to warrant costly retrofits of all the townhouses with outside electric outlets.

Step Two: Generate Skeptical Concerns - Round One (10 min)

In small groups, ask each participant to answer the following two questions:

  • What assumptions are being made in the proposal or scenario?

  • What skepticism do you have about these assumptions?

Assign one participant in each group to record the assumptions and the skepticism shared, in the format shown below, on a shared surface that can be seen by all participants.

Image of table format

Step Three: Generate Skeptical Concerns - Round Two (10 min)

Ask each participant to independently share one response to the following two questions in a round robin style:

  • What might go wrong with the proposal?

  • What might be the possible impact?

Instruct the assigned notetaker in each group to record the responses, in the format shown below, on a shared surface that can be seen by all participants.

Image of table format

Step Four: Share Changes to the Proposal (10 min)

Invite each participant to independently write down their thoughts in response to the following question:

  • Assuming we continue to explore the proposal, what changes would you like to see?

Ask each participant to share one response to the question in a round robin style. Instruct the assigned notetaker in each group to record a brief summary of these responses so that all participants can see each idea.

Step Five: Share Improvements Needed to Say Yes (5 min)

Ask each participant to respond to the group using the following lead in:

  • I could say yes to the proposal if…

Step Six: Debrief as a Full Group (10 min)

  • How did you feel about sharing your concerns in this activity?

  • How did your understanding and feelings toward the proposal change by the end of this activity?

  • How would you have responded to this proposal if you didn’t work through this process? What would your initial response have accomplished?





Critical Collaboration

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average rating is 5 out of 5

May 28, 2024 at 1:33:05 AM

average rating is 5 out of 5

May 28, 2024 at 1:31:01 AM

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February 14, 2024 at 1:03:34 AM

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February 14, 2024 at 1:02:20 AM

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February 11, 2024 at 3:55:15 AM

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January 4, 2024 at 7:22:22 PM

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December 12, 2023 at 11:56:40 PM

average rating is 5 out of 5

Lori Britt

October 3, 2023 at 5:00:05 PM

Have done this in the past, but today a group really blew me away. I did this as a Fishbowl with 7 students taking roles. Prior to the converstaion they could seek input from a few other students about what which decision they think the person in their role would support and why. I also asked them to come up with some things that were concerns for them. This 10 minute of prep time helped my role play participants really embody and feel confident in their roles. Great discussion about what deliberation looks like in practice and about how power can impact conversations and how a facilitator can try and minimize these power imbalances. I used the scenario above and assigned these roles (I was not sure my students woul be able to consider roles that would offer different perspectives): • Facilitator (non-voting) • Mayor • High school teacher • 17-year-old high school student • Transportation planner for the region • Local business owner • Economic development office for the region (your community and the surrounding communities served by the train) • 50-year-old who lost his job last year and who has been on unemployment

average rating is 4 out of 5


September 20, 2023 at 5:18:02 AM


average rating is 5 out of 5


September 20, 2023 at 5:17:25 AM

very good

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