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Teaching students how to engage in civil discussions about important issues is even more essential in an environment as polarized and politicized as America is today. 

By Joan Richardson 

Kappan: You started your career as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Ill., which is in suburban Chicago. That was 1979. I wonder, what were your earliest experiences in teaching about controversial topics in that first high school classroom?   

Diana Hess: I had the good fortune of being hired at a very large school, well over 4,000 students at the time. This high school had a large social studies department, and the leaders in the department had been taught by Fred Newmann and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Newmann was one of the developers of the Harvard Social Studies Project, which was an important, federally funded project in the 1960s that created a particular approach to teaching secondary school students to learn and deliberate about controversial public policy issues in the context of historical examples, case studies, and contemporary themes. It was very rigorous and an extremely well-researched approach to teaching controversial public policy issues. 

So when I came into that school in 1979, the core courses were based on that approach. I lucked out when I was hired into a place that had an extraordinarily good and innovative social studies program. All of the social studies teachers were very well-trained discussion leaders. I was essentially told in a nice but firm way that it was my job to learn how to lead high-quality discussions of important historical and contemporary questions and issues. And I had about a year to do that, or they would have let me go. They wanted to be sure they had people who were going to teach in this tradition — and they provided a lot of coaching so I could learn.  

It’s one reason why I wanted to come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My earliest conceptions of what it meant to be a social studies teacher were based on what my mentors had learned here. 

Kappan: What did they teach you about how to approach controversial topics in the classroom? 

Hess: One of the things I learned is that there were highly specific frameworks for how to do this. It’s not something that every teacher needs to create on their own — or needs to be idiosyncratic to specific classes or contexts. There was a clear sense of what good practice looked like and that to do it well you needed a clear sense of what you wanted students to learn and what it meant for them to learn those things. 

So if you were going to talk about a public policy issue in the Harvard model, you had to be clear whether something was an empirical question or whether it was a policy question.  

For example, if we were going to deliberate today whether we should have a single-payer health system, there are all kinds of empirical questions you’d want to address. But there are also questions related to values and policy.  

Define your terms 

Kappan: You and a team of graduate students did a lengthy study of how 21 high school teachers in three states approached the teaching of controversial topics. The book you coauthored about this work with Paula McAvoy is titled The Political Classroom. Let’s pause and define some of the terms you use in your work, starting with a “political classroom.” 

Hess: Paula and I define it as one in which young people are being taught how to seriously consider questions of how we ought to live together.  

Kappan: Draw the difference between having a political discussion in class and having a partisan discussion. 

Hess: What you want in a political classroom is what we call nonpartisan political education. We want young people to learn how to talk about public policy issues. We want young people to understand the political system and how it operates. This is critical. 

There’s nothing wrong with kids learning about partisan perspectives in school. In fact, you couldn’t do civic education without kids learning about partisan perspectives. 

There’s also nothing wrong with people being partisan. We know that people who are partisan are more likely to participate politically. What would be a problem, and we have really good evidence from our research on this, is to teach kids as if there were a definitive answer to a question that should be taught as an open question of public policy. 

Kappan: In The Political Classroom, you and Paula distinguish between empirical issues and policy issues, and also between open issues and settled issues. Help me understand the differences between those questions.  

Hess: Settled issues are questions for which there is broad-based agreement that a particular decision is well-warranted. Open issues, conversely, are those that are matters of live controversy.   

Empirical questions are those that can be answered through systematic inquiry requiring observation or experimentation — such as whether climate change is occurring. Policy issues are what we should do as a matter of policy — they are broader than empirical questions. For example, what we should do to stem the problems caused by climate change is a policy issue. 

We argue that if you teach a settled question as an open question, that’s inauthentic and problematic. For example, the questions about whether climate change is occurring and whether climate change is caused by human behavior — those are empirical questions, not policy questions, and they are settled questions, not open questions. We know the answer, and it’s yes and yes. If we engaged students in deliberating whether climate change is occurring, that would be highly problematic. On the other hand, debating what we should do about climate change is both a policy question and also an open question. 

Another example is the question of whether we should have a single-payer health care system. That is a classic political issue in the best sense of the word. It’s a great question. It’s important. It’s authentic. People are actually talking about this, and there are multiple and competing possible right answers. In other words, it’s not an empirical question for which there is a clear answer. 

The good news is that many teachers understand this and want to engage kids in genuine deliberations about real political issues.  

Spontaneous discussions are almost always low quality, and they’re low quality because not enough people know enough to participate well. 

Leading a class discussion 

Kappan: How do teachers set up classrooms that enable students to explore and deliberate about their differences? What’s the practical guidance that you give teachers about how to structure those discussions?   

Hess: The first thing is to make sure discussions are planned and prepared for, not spontaneous. Often, for a variety of reasons, largely due to Hollywood, there is this sense that if something is spontaneous, it’s better. There could be nothing further from the truth with respect to classroom discussion of controversial issues. Spontaneous discussions are almost always low quality, and they’re low quality because most students will not know enough to be prepared to participate. So the participation among students is uneven and unequal and the quality of those discussions is not as rigorous and interesting. 

Kappan: You’re saying that students literally walk into class knowing that the discussion about a certain topic is going to take place, and they’ve been assigned to prepare for that discussion. 

Hess: Yes, absolutely. But you can’t prepare too much. Otherwise, you find yourself at the end of the school year and nobody’s ever had a discussion. You don’t need to know everything to discuss something. In fact, if you know everything, you probably don’t need to have the discussion about it.   

What we’re trying to do in these discussions is expose young people to multiple and competing ideas. One reason you want preparation is that you want students already to have been exposed to multiple and competing ideas before they begin the discussion. You also want to ensure that everyone is ready to participate because if that’s the case, you’re more likely to have more participation in the discussion. You want students to hear many ideas during a discussion. 

When democracy is reduced to warring political camps, one reaction can be to keep the political out of schools; as a consequence, students are not taught how to deliberate about their differences. 

 The Political Classroom, p. 20. 

Kappan: Does that mean that you want students to come in prepared to take a particular position on an issue or just that they read widely so they’re familiar with many arguments? 

Hess: The question of whether you want kids to come in with an already formed opinion is something I’ve changed my mind on over my career. When I started teaching, I was really interested in having kids come in knowing what their opinion was. Not that they would stick with that opinion necessarily but just that they would have thought about it enough to have an opinion. I’ve changed my mind on that. 

In a time that’s so hyperpartisan and hyperpolarized, we want to model for students the importance of being willing to change one’s mind. It’s hard for someone to take a public position on something and then change their mind.  

Now, when I do professional development with teachers and I’m modeling for them what I want them to do with students, I never ask for their opinion at the start. I will never ask for a show of hands of how many believe this or how many believe that. Sometimes, I’ll ask at the end, or I’ll ask people to write down at the beginning of where they’re leaning. But I won’t ask them to publicly disclose that. That’s because I want them to avoid doing that with their students. 

Sharing a point of view 

Kappan: That gets right to the question of whether teachers should share their personal point of view about a controversial topic with students. That’s probably one of the stickiest issues that teachers face, and it comes up for teachers in English classrooms, science classrooms, history classrooms, health classes, almost every subject. And parents, of course, worry that teachers will share their viewpoint and try to indoctrinate students to the teacher’s viewpoint. Tell me what you learned about this from your research. 

Hess: In our research, we did not see a relationship between whether teachers shared their own views and the quality of the discussions in the class. We found that there are some teachers who do share their views with kids and their discussions are just fabulous, and there are some teachers who withhold their views, and their discussions are also fabulous. So there is no relationship between a teacher’s decision about whether to share or withhold their views and the quality of the discussions. 

But we were studying older students (ages 17 and 18). I suspect it’d be different with younger students. 

I know a lot of parents believe that if teachers share their views, students will adopt those views. A lot of teachers believe that, too. But we did not find that. We had pretty rigorous ways of assessing that and never saw evidence of that. 

But there was one exception: If students were in a class with a teacher who shared his or her views, students were more likely to say that it’s a good idea for teachers to do so. 

Overwhelmingly, the high school students we studied wanted to hear their teachers’ views. That being said, one of the things that was very troubling was learning that teachers who share their views are more likely to have those misinterpreted by students who are low SES. There’s also some evidence that having teachers share their views depressed the participation of students who are low SES.  

We know there’s a strong relationship between students’ social class and their literacy practices so that makes sense to us. 

Kappan: So students generally like knowing what their teacher’s viewpoint is about a controversial topic?  

Hess: Yes, and teachers can share their views without pressing their views. We interviewed hundreds of students and learned that what they didn’t like was having a teacher who pressed their views on students. Simply sharing their views wasn’t bad. 

But we also learned that students thought teachers who didn’t share their views couldn’t share their views because their First Amendment rights were being restricted. Of course, that isn’t true.  

What really resonates with kids is the principle of people being able to talk about their beliefs.  

We also know that kids don’t like being treated as if there’s only one answer to something that is controversial. We want students to hear multiple and competing views, and they want to hear them. But we also want them to learn how to evaluate them rigorously. 

Kappan: What kind of guidance are districts giving teachers these days in this highly polarized era? And what are you hearing from teachers about the difficulty of having these discussions in this environment and whether they’re encountering restrictions on what topics they can address in class? 

Hess: What I’m hearing from teachers is that it is different. It’s a lot more challenging. They’re more likely to live and work in a homogenous community than they used to be. And this is really hard work to do when that is the situation. 

Schools are being influenced by the same kind of hyperpolarization and demonization that we see in society writ large. Teachers who are paying attention to this are very concerned about providing opportunities for students to do something that they really aren’t experiencing in the world outside of school. 

To be honest, many students are not having these kinds of discussions in their own families, even when parents think they have created open environments at home. We have to keep school as the place where we can do this because it’s not as likely that students are going to participate in such discussions in other venues.  

Kappan: It strikes me that teachers who are working in such a homogenous environment have to have a very high level of self-awareness to be able to recognize that they might be part of the echo chamber and that they have to resist that in order to educate their students. 

Hess: Yes, you’re absolutely right. And teachers also have to have a very good understanding of why they should be teaching in this way in the first place. We want teachers to deliberate about what issues should be taught as open issues and settled issues. That’s more important than ever right now because there is so much debate in the United States about questions that we thought were settled. But how you teach these really matters.  

Teachers should also know that learning to do this is hard, but it can be learned. This is not an art. This is something that teachers can learn how to do. We can teach them how to get better at leading discussions among students. 

Free speech in class 

Kappan: Where do teachers draw the free speech line in a classroom discussion in terms of what students are allowed to say in a class? What’s the line between free speech and hate speech? Are there some views (e.g., those of Nazis) that are so objectionable that teachers should exclude or censor them? Or should the classroom be a wide-open forum for all ideas from all corners and expressed in all ways? 

Hess: Teachers often talk about civility and about teaching and enforcing civility norms. Some of these are not that difficult. You can’t personally insult people. You can’t use epithets, etc. 

What becomes difficult is when one student considers something a genuine and legitimate perspective on a controversial issue and another student considers that same idea insulting.  

We often assume we know what would be personally insulting to students. For example, we could assume that discussions about immigration might be sensitive for immigrant students. But we might not know that discussion about same-sex marriage would be sensitive for some students in class who have parents in same-sex relationships. We think we know what would be personally insulting to a student but oftentimes we don’t. We don’t really know the story of every student.  

Kappan: Are there topics that teachers should avoid discussing because they might be offensive or uncomfortable for students? For example, talking about undocumented students in a classroom that might include undocumented students or talking about closing the borders to refugees when you have refugee students in your class?   

Hess: The mere fact that a topic is going to be more sensitive for some students than others is not the only reason to take it off the table. If teachers avoid sensitive issues in the classroom, that doesn’t mean students won’t be talking about them. As one kid said to us, what do you think we talk about in the hallways? Other students told us that, at least in the classroom, you can have a high-quality discussion that’s respectful with some norms of civility around it. 

But that also doesn’t mean that every issue needs to be included in the curriculum — and sometimes it is better not to. Teachers can say this isn’t the right time to have that discussion. 

The mere fact that a topic is going to be more sensitive for some students than others is not the only reason to take it off the table. 

But if we avoid issues because they will be particularly sensitive to some students, we’re going to end up avoiding a whole lot of the topics that are most important for our democracy to make decisions about. 

The best teachers we worked with struggled with this. They also did a lot to ensure that discussions were as civil and as high quality as they could possibly be. They worked to make sure students were ready for the discussion. They talked to students before and after class. In the real world of this kind of teaching, this is one of the dilemmas that teachers have to confront. 

This is not new. I remember confronting this when I was a new teacher in 1979. But it has become particularly tricky now because we have become so polarized and because the civility norms outside of school are so challenged.  

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JOAN RICHARDSON (@KappanJoan) is editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine. 

R&D appears in each issue of Kappan with the assistance of the Deans Alliance, which is composed of the deans of the education schools/colleges at the following universities: George Washington University, Harvard University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, Teachers College Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.

Originally published in December 2017/January 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 15-20. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.