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Hot Topics, Civil Discussions
“Without dialogue, self-government cannot exist.”—Paulo Freire
If you watch TV political news coverage, listen to talk radio, or read blog comments, you’re exposed to lots of opinion. It’s often heated, and often uncivil. Have we lost the capacity for thoughtful debate? It’s true that all views matter in a democracy, but it’s also important to express views civilly. The most interesting discussions may be the loudest, but the most effective discussions are based on genuine knowledge and mutual respect.
It is possible to talk about controversial issues in civil and productive ways so that students bring a healthy amount of passion to the classroom without treating one another harshly.
It’s easy to understand why classroom teachers might shy away from leading their students in discussions of controversial issues. If the discussion is not well managed, students’ feelings can get hurt. Angry parents might call. School staff might come under fire. But if young people don’t learn the elements of civil debate in school, where will they?
UW–Madison education professor Diana Hess says the need for discussing controversial political issues in school is more important than ever. Research shows that adults in the United States increasingly socialize with only like-minded people. Their friends tend to be ideologically homogeneous. Such circles don’t offer much opportunity to explore different perspectives. In a democracy where informed decision making relies on difficult discussions, that’s a dangerous trend. We need to be taught how to debate, Hess says. It’s not a natural skill. It takes lots of practice.
Schools are good venues for discussing controversial political issues for a number of reasons. First, schools offer courses in social studies, English, history, and civics, where controversial issues fit naturally. Second, students are more likely to encounter diversity in school than elsewhere. Coming from many neighborhoods, their classmates bring different ideological, religious, and social perspectives. Third, discussing and teaching controversial political issues offers high payoffs. Students who engage in well-managed discussions learn how to make and defend an argument and analyze others’ positions in constructive ways. They develop a better understanding of important knowledge, especially content that is difficult. High-quality discussion requires and produces intellectual rigor. Yet in many schools it’s difficult for teachers to engage in this kind of teaching. Barriers include teachers’ lack of preparation, recent trends in schooling that emphasize low-level knowledge, and community climates that hinder consideration of differing viewpoints.
Teaching Civil Debate
For years, Hess has written about the science and art of leading classroom discussions of controversial issues. She finds that the most effective teachers require their students to prepare, using high-quality material. They frame the discussions within a structure students understand and ensure that a range of perspectives gets aired. To create a classroom climate that honors both controversy and respect, successful teachers insist that students learn and use one another’s names, starting early in the year. This may seem trivial, but high school students frequently tell Hess how unusual it is for a teacher to insist that they learn their peers’ names. Teachers may or may not share their personal opinions in these discussions, depending on circumstances. Hess says that teachers on both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum can lead robust discussions without ruffling feathers.
Observing such classrooms leaves Hess “more convinced that teacher skills and enthusiasm are key.” A recent study by Hess and colleagues involved 1,000 students from 21 high school social studies classes in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. One particularly effective teacher used a format called Town Meeting. In large-group discussions, each student assumed the role of a person with a particular perspective on a contentious issue. The teacher encouraged students to represent positions that differed from their own. She also made sure that the roles covered a wide distribution of viewpoints.
The teacher began by showing students a videotape of an excellent Town Meeting from the previous year. She occasionally stopped the video and pointed out exemplary contributions. She brought particular attention to how students showed one another respect by listening carefully and not engaging in personal attacks. She noted how students built on one another’s comments, used one another’s names and respectful terms for direct address, asked others to participate, stayed in character, thought on their feet, and used facts as the basis for their statements.
During the Town Meetings the teacher measured students’ content knowledge of the issue, their role portrayal, and their effectiveness as a discussion participant. Effective participation includes respectful listening, asking questions, and providing more elaborate responses. She made sure her students understood that “participation” does not simply mean the number of times they spoke.
Hess found other examples of effective practices. Some teachers combined several classes and created simulations of state legislatures in action. Some teachers used small-group models structured around a particular academic controversy. Because teaching though issues discussion is tricky, it’s best if a school provides its teachers with professional development specifically on this skill, with ongoing support available as they begin to try it.
For more, see Hess, D. (expected publication 2012). Courting democracy: Teaching about constitutions, courts, and cases. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hess, D. & McAvoy, P. (2011). The political classroom: Ethics and evidence in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York, NY: Routledge. Winner of the 2009 Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award from the National Council for the Social Studies.
[Adapted from the article, “Promoting Respectful Schools,” Educational Leadership (69, 1), Sept. 2011, pp. 69–73.]