“When democracy is reduced to warring political camps, one reaction can be to keep politics out of schools; as a consequence, students are not taught how to deliberate about their differences.”
Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy published the book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, in 2014 based on research conducted during the transition from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama. In the introductory chapter, the authors describe how political polarization was playing out in K-12 schools at the time. Given that society has become even more polarized, revisiting their central argument that schools are, and ought to be, political sites may prove instructive for teachers thinking about ways to help their students understand and engage with the political landscape of our times. Students in K-12 schools will encounter opposing views and need to prepare for participation in a democratic society, and the political classroom is one that helps students develop their ability to deliberate political questions. Hess and McAvoy provide actionable steps for how to best set up a classroom that encourages open inquiry, deliberation, and dialogue across differences to achieve effective discussion of political and controversial topics.
Based on school and classroom observations, interviews with teachers and students, and pre- and post-course surveys of students in three states—Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—at a total of 21 schools, Hess and McAvoy shed light on how political classrooms are structured, and how deliberation can be organized and encouraged among students with diverse perspectives.
The authors articulate the aims of a political classroom by first outlining what they are not. The aims are never neutral because they represent the purposes and values that undergird schooling. Second, the aims are not the same as outcomes. Outcomes are observable skills and behaviors that can be assessed, which are necessary, but to achieve literacy, for example, students must develop an appreciation for text and the skill of argumentation. Third, aims are different from content. Courses usually have a particular set of skills and information that students are expected to master as part of a class, but teachers should also teach students to “think like a historian” for example, which would require them to look at primary sources and engage in historical debate.
For Hess and McAvoy, the six aims of the political classroom allow students to develop an appreciation for key democratic principles that are necessary for students to have meaningful political discussions. For example, encouraging students to deliberate as equals helps them understand the principle of political equality―that all citizens should be allowed to contribute to decision-making. Teaching students the knowledge and skills to make well-reasoned decisions and engage in deliberation, where they will encounter views that are different from their own, reflect and respond when their views are interrogated, consider relevant evidence, and practice argumentation, fosters their autonomy and their appreciation for the values of liberty and freedom. Asking students to consider their personal positions on policy questions in relation to those of their peers’ helps them understand political tolerance and the importance of protecting reasonable views even if others find them objectionable. Similarly, providing students the space to articulate why they hold particular views, listen, and reconsider their preferences in light of other people’s concerns and rights helps them develop the principle of fairness and prepares them to enter conversations with the intention of finding the best solution. Fostering student understanding of competing ideologies underlying controversial issues and competing views about democracy will help them place the arguments they hear and their own views into the larger political picture to achieve political literacy, which includes weighing evidence and understanding how issues align with fundamental disagreements about the ideal democratic system. Finally, encouraging students to be informed and concerned about particular issues and political outcomes develops their interest in democratic activities, which is a crucial starting point to develop the principle of political engagement―a central aim of the political classroom.
Best Practice Discussion: The Ideal Political Classroom
Based on their research, Hess and McAvoy recommend what they call the “best practice discussion” as the ideal political classroom. In this type of classroom, students engage in discussion of controversial political issues more than 20% of the time. These discussions involve students preparing in advance, significant student-to-student talk, and high levels of student participation.
The best practice discussion classroom is the ideal for preparing students to engage in civil political talk in adulthood. The researchers found that best practice discussion classes were better suited to teach political talk because they socialized “students into seeing disagreement as a normal part of democratic life, while students in lecture classes were left to assume that most people agree about political issues.” The students in these classes noted that they appreciated hearing the views of their peers and reported that these interactions contributed to their learning. Students in best practice discussion classrooms were much more likely to articulate the importance of considering other points of view before making decisions than students in teacher-led discussion or lecture classes.
The teachers of best practice classrooms challenged the pitfalls associated with divisive and simplistic thinking and were successful in teaching a habit of open-mindedness. They modeled and taught the norms of civil discourse by structuring activities so that students had multiple opportunities for practice. This approach to teaching is best illustrated by one case study the authors describe: Mr. Kushner.
A Case of Political Friendship
Hess and McAvoy describe three case studies to illustrate their findings, but Mr. Kushner: A Case of Political Friendship merits our attention because his best practice political classroom addressed the two challenges that are top-of-mind in schools today: political polarization and social inequality. The authors outline how Mr. Kushner addressed these topics by describing the norms, culture, and teaching methods of his Contemporary Controversies high school course. The course was an elective and non-tracked—i.e., open to all students―and enrolled students from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds and academic trajectories. Notably, participants indicated in the survey that the school population leaned politically left and mentioned in interviews that the town was a “liberal town;” thus, ideological diversity was lacking in the school and Mr. Kushner’s class.
Mr. Kushner’s priority, as identified by the researchers, was to structure learning to promote the principles of political tolerance and fairness, which the researchers framed as political friendship. He wanted students to move from holding views based on self-interest to considering how fellow citizens are affected by various policies. Furthermore, he wanted students to think about policies as “binding to the rest of society” so that students would consider what costs they are passing on to others when they hold particular views and advocate particular positions. Disagreement among students often involved adding nuance to politically left ideas; because of this, Mr. Kushner structured activities so that conservative views would be included in the discussion. Notably, the academic diversity of a non-tracked course meant that some students were more prepared for the demands of discussion than others. This dynamic, along with the racial and socio-economic diversity of the class, meant that Mr. Kushner needed to artfully create a climate that fostered trust.
Classroom Norms and Structure to Develop a Climate of Trust
Mr. Kushner did a variety of things in his class to construct a positive classroom conducive to political talk. He centered classroom instruction around discussion; gave students the power to determine which controversial issues would be covered; fostered relationship-building among students; established a classroom culture of fairness and civility; purposefully introduced viewpoint diversity into course content; and retained the human element of politics. I outline these norms as described by the researchers to provide a guide for developing a classroom conducive to balanced and respectful discussion of political issues. The researchers did not assert that Mr. Kushner’s class was perfect in achieving the aims of a political classroom, but his approach was aspirational.
- Desks were arranged in a U-shaped formation. This could take the form of “gallery view” in Zoom classrooms.
- There was heavy emphasis on discussion, and class time was spent moving between small- and large-group activities, watching documentaries, and doing research.
- There were no textbooks.
- The class generated a list of about 20 contemporary controversies, then students voted for the ones they most wanted to investigate.
- As long as they were civil, Mr. Kushner only interjected with probing questions to elaborate or clarify―discussion was both a skill that was being developed and a tool for learning course content.
- Kushner met one-on-one with students throughout the course and held a “social day” once a semester in which students brought food, were instructed to talk to classmates they didn’t know, and developed discussion questions.
- The class had a “we” dynamic. The students learned from their peers and experienced political talk within a democratic community that was structured to encourage conversation across social differences.
- Kushner modeled civility through his teaching and countered the prevailing view that those who disagree are “crazy.”
- Students were expected to be civil and fair with each other, and participation was encouraged.
- Students were encouraged to be candid, but flippant remarks, such as calling an idea “dumb,” was not tolerated.
- Readings presented competing points of view, which included newspaper articles, internet resources, and Supreme Court cases.
- Debates were structured to deviate from issues that were “peg-holed ideologically;” for example, instead of focusing on the abortion divide between pro-choice and pro-life, Mr. Kushner focused on whether the father should be informed if a woman chooses to have an abortion.
- Kushner played devil’s advocate and did not reveal his personal views. As a result, students reported that his class was one of the few where they actually learned both sides. Students enjoyed not knowing what the teacher thought because then the curriculum seemed more open to investigation, which made the class more challenging and engaging.
- Kushner brought in guest speakers to expose students to different views. He did this not to change their minds, but to give them an authentic political experience of engaging in discussion with someone who holds a different position and to practice listening and responding in ways that promote goodwill and respect.
Political Classrooms to Reduce Political Polarization
Hess and McAvoy present concrete proposals for schools and teachers regarding how to create the conditions for political classrooms to flourish. The goal of a political classroom is to be as authentic as possible to the real-world political environment, while teaching students how to engage civilly without succumbing to the polarization that often marks political talk. The researchers provide five recommendations for how to effectively construct political classrooms:
- Teachers should be treated like professionals. The researchers noted that teachers who were treated as professionals were granted substantial authority, expected to deliberate with colleagues to make curricular decisions, provided high-quality opportunities for professional development, and held accountable for the quality of their decisions and for what students were learning.
- Teachers should be aware and continuously learning about what is happening in their fields. Political classrooms emphasize teaching students how to discuss controversial issues that are authentic to contemporary politics. These issues are constantly changing; thus, teachers need to stay abreast of the issues.
- Teachers should clearly articulate their educational aims for their students. Skillful teachers align their pedagogical approaches and curriculum toward the development of aims that match the school context, and they are thoughtful about the democratic values and dispositions they intend to develop in their students.
- Teachers should work as a part of a team to construct curriculum, not simply deliver someone else’s content as autonomous actors. Professionals learn with and from their colleagues about how best to approach educational aims, content, and skills; thus, teachers should engage in genuine deliberation about what and how to teach with colleagues.
- Teachers bear much of the responsibility of creating a political classroom, but the support of administrators is key. The researchers noted that successful teachers reported little pushback from parents and other community members when they included controversial political issues in their classes because they had the support of their department chairs and principals.
These recommendations and the insights from Mr. Kushner’s class provide useful guidance for how to develop a political classroom. Having political classrooms at the K-12 level lays the groundwork for students to enter higher education and the workforce with a deeper sense of the role of citizens in a democracy. As a result of these classrooms, young people will be armed with the skills necessary to have discussions that are less polarizing and more constructive, which is vital to improve dialogue and democratic decision-making in the public and political spheres of society.