Synopsis: Civics classes in many grade schools and high schools aren’t the same as they were 20 years ago, when teachers lectured on “how a bill becomes a law” to a roomful of bored students. These days, kids are more likely to discuss and debate some of the most pressing issues of the day. We talk to two educators about how some schools are teaching students how to debate correctly, how discussion of hot topics can foster understanding of diverse points of view, and the long-term benefits for students who engage in thoughtful, civil, debate.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Diana E. Hess, Dean of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Paula McAvoy, Program Director for the Centers for Ethics & Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both guests are co-authors of the book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education.

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The Political Classroom: Teaching Civics

Gary Price: The teaching of social studies in the US is changing and it’s not just because technology in the classroom is replacing old-fashioned rolled maps and posters with computers and Google. There is a movement on to create an atmosphere where students learn to debate current political issues in a thoughtful and civil way. In their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education, Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy show how schools and students of different , racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds are learning to listen to opposing views and promote their own on a wide variety of topics. Hess is Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin Madison. McAvoy is program director at the Center for Ethics & Education at the university. For their book, Hess says they researched social studies classes of all types — from lecture to discussion to what they called “best practices” — to see how teachers were presenting civics lessons today.

Diana Hess: I think we have a number of innovations in how civics is taught especially in high schools that are really quite promising. So the old-time civics that some of us may recall when we were lectured to about how a bill became law, which, in fact, had nothing to do about how a bill really became a law, and we are expected to memorize a lot of information, just spit that back out on tests. You know that still happens in some classrooms, unfortunately, but what we’re finding is that there are more teachers who are interested in using civics classes as a way to help students become engaged politically and civically. So that the classes that we studied, for example, in “The Political Classroom, where many teachers were engaging in discussion of what we call highly controversial political issues.

Price: Hess says that in the best practice classes lessons were not just about government policies and procedures, but discussions of controversial topics among the students. What made these classes different from regular discussions is that the teacher didn’t just throw out a topic and have the students weigh in on it.

Hess: Teachers did a number of very specific things. One is that the discussions were not spontaneous or ad hoc. The discussions were planned in advance, and students very carefully prepared for the discussions.  So they came in knowing a lot about the issue and also thinking a lot about what they wanted to learn about the issue, or what their initial point of view was. In those discussions as well, teachers had established strong civility norms. So students had a good sense of how to engage in a way that was going to be productive, and how to make sure that we were going to produce more light than heat, so to speak.  Also in these classes, teachers have a variety of ways of making sure that lots and lots of students participated. You know, in a lot of high school classes there may be three or four students who always have their hand up and they’re always participating, while the other students stay silent. That was not the case in these best practice classrooms. There was much more widespread discussion.

Price: Teachers sometimes had to assign points of view to students, especially in classrooms that weren’t diverse. Paula McAvoy says that in these situations teachers had to work a little harder playing devil’s advocate or assigning roles for students to play.

Paula McAvoy: In an ideal classroom, if you were going to set up for a discussion, we would like to see a diversity of students around all those dimensions: you want class diversity, you want religious diversity in the classroom and that would really be a great situation. It would be challenging for the teacher, right? So he or she will have to really teach those students how to listen to each other. The reality is that in most public schools in the United States, we’re segregated along those dimensions. So in urban schools you have majority Black and Latino kids, or students of color. In the suburbs, you have more middle-class kids and they’re not hearing from working-class kids, and the predominately white schools are not hearing from the students of color. So one challenge for American schoolteachers is that while we would want ideally to have everybody’s voice heard in a discussion, the reality is that they’re not always going to be in your classroom. And so you have to really think about how to incorporate those other voices in a way that makes people attentive to everyone’s views in the society at large.

Price: You might think that airing a view that’s diametrically opposed to others’ ideas could cause trouble outside the classroom. Hess says that learning to discuss in the best practices classrooms didn’t bring out this kind of behavior when the day ended.

Hess: We saw some very spirited discussions where students were clearly very personally invested in what their perspective was. And yet they were able to have very good relationships with other students right afterwards. So we did see some of that. And we also saw some spillover where students would report that they were talking about political issues outside the classroom. So, we had one group of students who talked to us about how they were on a bus to a, I think it was a volleyball game, and something had come up in class that day and they continued the discussion on the volleyball bus, which, you know, we know is not very typical. Most young people do not talk about politics all that much. So one of the outcomes that we found in the study was in classrooms where teachers were teaching students how to do this in a high-quality way, it often caused students to report to us that they were talking with their parents or other relatives or with friends outside of the classroom.

Price: Certain religions see some topics as “hot button” issues, and these can be especially touchy to discuss in class.  McAvoy says that some teachers steer clear of discussions on abortion, the death penalty, and same-sex marriage, but the students who did tackle these issues often picked them as their favorites.

McAvoy: That when we surveyed students after they left high school and asked them which issues do you remember talking about in class, the ones that you said were the most common ones: abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty. Kind of these issues that are both political and often moral issues. And students love talking about those issues. They’re often the ones that they’re most engaged in.  If you give students a chance to pick what issue do you want to talk about, they’ll often gravitate towards those issues. Now certainly they’re tricky issues, and teachers need a lot of skill in structuring those discussions so that they go well, so that everyone feels heard. You know, and oftentimes you need to be willing to step in and regulate student speech so people can say various kinds of things in some of those discussions. But we think that it’s really important to have those discussions in classrooms precisely because there is a teacher there to help facilitate.

Price: Hess agrees and says that even in religious schools these topics can be discussed civilly, intelligently, and with respect for opposing views.

Hess: In an evangelical school we encountered a teacher who wanted his students to maintain their faith for sure, but also wanted students to engage in discussing authentic controversies. So this teacher really wrestled with how to do that in a way that was responsible. So certainly in the religious schools the tone was somewhat different. But you know, that being said, it was interesting to us about how much the teachers in the religious schools realized that even if the students might be in a school that had strong norms or strong values around certain issues, the students weren’t always going to be in that school.  And so in one of the evangelical schools, for example, the teacher taught in such away to make sure that when the students went off to a public university that they wouldn’t be shocked by hearing perspectives that were different than what they would traditionally hear in the school or at home.

Price: Hess adds that some teachers got some pushback from parents, and said that sometimes educators exercised “prior restraint” in choosing topics. She says that if done well, discussions on tricky subjects aren’t a problem.

Hess: We actually had an interesting experience a couple of weeks ago when we were working with a group of teachers. And one teacher said, ‘Well I could never talk about a particular issue,’ and another teacher from the same school said, ‘Well I do.’ And so I think what we need to be worried about is that we don’t just anticipate problems and therefore not engage in things that if they were done well, probably would work just fine. What we found was that when people got a lot of pushback from parents or from the administration, it typically was because something went wrong with the discussion. Students weren’t well prepared or the civility norms weren’t enforced. That when teachers were doing these discussions in a high-quality way, and when they were really serious about creating and enforcing civility norms, there weren’t that many complaints from parents or from administrators. And we also found that in some schools that administrators were just wonderful, because they understood that this was a form of civic education that was really important and powerful. And so when parents would complain, administrators would really have the teacher’s back.

Price: Both Hess and McAvoy say that the best practices can be part of any school — and not just for advanced placement students. McAvoy adds that when young people become good at understanding and appreciating debate on controversial issues, and turn that passion into action, it can have long-term effects.

McAvoy:  You think of the youth activity around Ferguson, or around Occupy Wall Street young people are often involved in political campaigns. I think unfortunately a lot of times when high schools require service for graduation, students often get encouraged or pointed towards the more volunteerism around civic issues, versus getting involved in political campaigns or political action. And it would be great if students were invited to do more of that because we know from research that when you do that at a young age, that really sticks with you and you become a more politically aware and involved adult when you have opportunities like that early on.

Price: Hess says that the key to best practices in discussion is the teacher, and how well he or she is prepared to instruct students on the most effective ways to talk about the major issues of our time.

Hess: Teachers really matter here. This simply does not happen in classrooms without teachers who are highly skilled. But teachers can be taught how to do this. This is not something you’re born with. This is something you can learn how to teach well. And we’ve seen lots of examples of teachers who start off doing it with lots of challenges and then over the course of a couple of years become better and better especially if they have access to this high-quality professional development, So one  to one of the things we say at the end of the book in the final chapter is that if we want more teachers to do this and do it well, we really have to support these nonprofit organizations that are providing lots of opportunities for teachers because, you know this isn’t easy to do, as you can imagine.
Price: Hess says that if teachers want to find out more about the different professional development opportunities available in political discussion, they should visit the websites of organizations such as the Mikva Challenge, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Center for Civic Education. Of course they can also pick up Diana Hess’s and Paula McAvoy’s book, The Political Classroom, available in stores and online. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site that I’m Gary Price.