The Importance of Controversial Conversations in the Classroom
Updated: Jan 3
The following is adopted from a research paper proposal I'm working on... which might some day morph into my dissertation proposal. I thought the literature review aspects of the proposal were interesting, so I adapted it slightly for you all here. If you're a huge nerd, there's a lengthly(ish) reference list at the end. Enjoy!
The American system of democratic governance is a complicated though theoretically profound system for running a country. By vesting political power equally in all citizens, channeled through elected representatives, the best ideas for governance can be found through rational and empirically driven discussion, debate, and compromise, rather than through the tyrannical whims of a single powerful ruler. American democratic governance creates a marketplace designed to surface the best policies, ideas, values, and leaders as agreed upon by a majority of citizens. But America has, of course, always struggled to execute this vision, and assumptions this vision makes about the ability of citizens and politicians to behave in a strictly rational manner have long failed to be true. For nearly three-quarters of the country’s existence, women and non-white citizens were systematically disempowered through a myriad of oppressive practices. Today, efforts at voter suppression continue. Federal political institutions designed to be managed by independent, rationally minded operatives soon gave way to the herd mentality and group loyalty of partisan factionalism, which hampered their ability to find and execute the best ideas. Today, partisanship has only worsened (Klein, 2020).
Further obscuring the functioning of this marketplace of ideas for governance are recent trends related to trust. By multiple measures, social trust has fallen dramatically since peaking in the 1960s (Clark, 2015). The cultural salience of words like “agreement,” “compromise,” and “responsibility” have followed a similar trajectory (Putnam & Garrett, 2020). Trust in news media, a vital source of information sharing, has been low and falling steadily for two decades, with over 50% of Americans having little or no trust in mass media and troubling partisan divides in media trust growing (Brenan, 2020).
What is to be done? America’s public schools have long been seen as playing a role in structuring and maintaining the quality of democratic governance. Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey both wrote extensively about the importance of the civic mission of schools: providing important political knowledge and practice with democratic problem-solving, as well as moral instruction to guide the future of the nation. As recently as 2012, the American public continued to affirm that preparing students for citizenship is one of the most important purposes of schooling (Gainous & Martens, 2012). Yet, despite all of this civic training and education, American’s remain unhappy with the functioning of their government. For more than a decade, over 70% of the American public has disapproved of Congress’s handling of its job (Gallup, 2020), and the statistics cited above have not improved. What can schools do?
Numerous studies have demonstrated that schools can increase students’ civic knowledge and encourage students’ present and future civic engagement (Galston, 2004; J. Kahne & Middaugh, 2008a, 2008b; Joseph Kahne & Westheimer, 2003). In fact, schools are often more effective than families, religious organizations, and clubs at educating students about civic structures and procedures and at promoting active engagement in politics (Parker, 2010; Shah et al., 2009) because schools “contain more ideological diversity than one would expect to find in a family, church, synagogue, mosque, or club” (D. Hess, 2004).
Much research has investigated what schools can do to best support this civic mission. Recommendations often emphasize the need for inclusive, democratic school climates and active discussion of civic topics rather than passive lecturing about them. Particular emphasis is placed on the importance of discussing controversial political topics in class as a means of fostering community and mutual understanding, of developing practice with respectful disagreement and compromise, and of enhancing belief in core democratic values (Avery et al., 2013).
But there are worries that most schools are not utilizing these best practices. Teachers fear pushback from school leaders, parents, and the public, are rarely encouraged to improve civics teaching methods, and receive little or no training on how to meaningfully engage students in conversations on controversial topics (Apple, 2013). Beyond this, there are worries that the skill of moral reasoning—an important aspect of civic education—is often ignored almost completely in public schools.
Here, I will first introduce the importance of civic and moral education and then survey the literature on the effectiveness of controversial conversations in developing civic competence and engagement, as well as the prevalence of such conversations.
Motivation: Civic and Moral Education & Democracy
A democratic system of government, in which political power ultimately stems from the nation’s citizens, depends on the existence of a critical, well-informed, and active citizenry. In America’s early history, this fact was recognized and framed in terms of avoiding a decay of the nation’s new and fragile democracy into tyranny. Citizens can vote out corrupt or authoritarian politicians before they have the opportunity to destroy democracy, but they can only do so if they are aware of what is happening and of their ability to stop it (Pangle & Pangle, 2000). Today, the importance of a well-informed citizenry is often framed in terms of the quality of public discourse and the ability of the government to act. In an age of heightened polarization, obstructionism, and increased political stakes, it has become more difficult to engage in meaningful political discussion and reach productive compromise. This is true for members of congress struggling to pass meaningful and effective laws, but it is also true for individual citizens struggling to understand their fellow citizens and build connections and community across ideological divides.
Given the important role citizens play in maintaining a healthy democracy, public schools have long been identified as a tool for educating citizens and maintaining democracy. Public schools, freely available to every child in the country, provide an essential educational foundation for all students. Such skills as reading, writing, and numeracy are necessary in order to follow and understand political events. While there are important and noteworthy shortcomings in the ability of today’s public schools to give students these essential skills, including troubling achievement differences along racial and socioeconomic lines, most schools dedicate massive amounts of time and resources toward developing and refining students’ abilities to read, write, and understand mathematics.
Other important civic skills have been less well emphasized, however. Civic education once made up a significant portion of the typical American high school curriculum, with as many as three required courses in addition to civic lessons integrated throughout the curriculum. Despite soaring rhetoric about the importance of civic education, President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind Act furthered a nearly century-long trend of prioritizing skills marketable in the labor market over civic education (Butts, 2006; McClellan, 1999). Today, most states require only a single semester of “government” for graduation (Gibson et al., 2003).
This single semester-long course has a lot of expectations on its shoulders. It needs to familiarize students with important aspects of civic knowledge—the structure and processes of government. It needs to instill in students a belief in the value of democracy and an intention to engage in democratic processes. Beyond this intention, it needs to provide knowledge of how to practice active engagement, and opportunities to practice doing so. On all these fronts, American civic education is struggling or failing, despite much evidence indicating that it can do better.
Civic knowledge is low for most students in American schools. The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) measures student proficiency in several subjects, including civics. Approximately once every four years, a nationally representative group of students from across the country takes a standardized test to measure their civic knowledge. In 2014, only 23% of students were considered proficient in civics, and only 2% of students were considered advanced. While 74% of all students demonstrated a basic level of competency (the second lowest category), there are troubling racial disparities in civic knowledge. About 84% of white students can demonstrate a basic or better understanding of civics. For Hispanic students, this number falls to 61%. For black students, this number is 55% (NAEP Civics Performance 1998–2014, 2014). We are failing to give all of our students the knowledge they need to be the active citizens our country requires, but we are failing many students of color even more so.
Why are we facing such discouraging results? Stuffing the entire civics curriculum into a single semester-long course certainly doesn’t help. Such a cramped timeline incentivizes teachers to use less effective teaching methods in order to fit in the required curriculum. Studies show that civics courses that feature explicit teaching about voting, actively discuss current events, and cover a wide variety of civics topics (rather than focusing exclusively on the mechanics of government) correlate significantly with both increased civic knowledge and increased civic interest (Niemi, 1998; Torney-Purta, 2002).
Beyond the civics classroom, schools can give students practice in civic participation through school government and newspapers and through regular service-learning opportunities. These structures and practices give students practice in engaging with civic procedures and with their community and are thought to increase both the desire to gain more civic knowledge and to take civic action. As most students’ first experience with the rules and norms of public institutions, schools also serve a formative role in shaping how students understand their place in and relationship to the political world. Cultivating an inclusive and democratic school climate is thought to help promote long-term civic engagement and a sense of self-efficacy (Bruch & Soss, 2016). And indeed, Bruch and Soss show, using data on student experiences of school and later data on these students’ civic outcomes (voting, reported “civic participation,” and trust in government), that students’ differential experiences of authority and peer relationships are significantly correlated with each of the civic outcomes measured.
Controversial Conversations in the Classroom
Classroom discussions of controversial political issues have been found to be a particularly effective tool for promoting civic knowledge, interest, and engagement in students. In the context of the classroom, a controversial issue is “one that relates to phenomena on which social opinions are divided, whereby different groups in society offer distinct interpretations and solutions” (Leib, 1998). Conversations about controversial issues are proposed as an important pedogeological tool for promoting civic awareness, interest, and engagement. Practice with engaging in civil conversations about controversial issues with the goal of reaching understanding and compromise is not only useful as practice for engaging in such conversations as a full citizen but can also help improve other important civic outcomes.
Done well, these conversations include “the serious and thoughtful consideration of conflicting views on controversial public issues for the purpose of decision making” and are distinctly different than debate. “In a debate, there are winners and losers; the goal, in fact, is to win the debate through verbal sparring, characterized by the skillful and clever arrangement of arguments and counterarguments … The goal of civic deliberation, however, is not to ‘win.’ Instead, the goal is to arrive at the best possible solution to an issue through the thoughtful consideration of alternatives. In deliberation, the group seeks to uncover the best possible rationales for alternative positions, ferret out their weaknesses, and consider the possible short- and long-term consequences associated with positions.” (Avery et al., 2013).
A plethora of studies have found connections between classroom discussions of controversial issues and important civic outcomes, including higher political knowledge, interest, trust, and participation (Andolina et al., 2003; Conover & Searing, 2000; Hahn, 1998). Others have found that such conversations in schools promote democratic values (D. E. Hess, 2009), political interest (D. E. Hess & McAvoy, 2014), tolerance (Beckerman & Cohen, 2017), and active citizenship (Lemish, 2003; Lin et al., 2016).
Unfortunately, in too many American high schools these sorts of conversations are not taking place in a structured manner. There are mixed findings on how often students report engaging in conversations about current events (often the closest thing to a controversial conversation measured in studies). A 2008 study of high schoolers in California found that the most frequent answer to a question about the frequency of political conversations was “a little” (J. Kahne & Middaugh, 2008b). A 2011 study about discussion of current events provided more optimistic results, with 74% of 8th-grade students and 81% of 12th-grade students reporting having discussed current events in their classrooms at least one or two times a month (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). Even when these conversations do happen, however, they are rarely in-depth (Joseph Kahne et al., 2000; Nystrand et al., 2001, 2003; Torney-Purta, 2001), and many low-socioeconomic status, immigrant, and urban students are especially unlikely to be presented with the opportunity to engage in such conversations (Conover & Searing, 2000; J. Kahne & Middaugh, 2008a).
Part of the issue is that teachers and students alike seem to hold a strange definition of “discussion.” What teachers describe as “discussions” are often more characteristic of recitation (Alvermann et al., 1990; Larson & Parker, 1996), and both students and teachers subscribe to minimalist conceptions of discussion in which “the mere fact that students state their opinions in class (and feel free to do so) constitutes a discussion” (Avery et al., 2013). Rather than substantive engagement in complex issues in which students share their views, explore other perspectives, investigate evidence, and construct rigorous arguments, students are instead being presented with opportunities to briefly parrot talking points.
The Importance of Moral Reasoning
Another aspect of controversial discussions that is sometimes mentioned but, I argue, rarely emphasized is the importance of moral reasoning as an essential civic skill. Many political issues are explicitly moral, and most trade on at least some moral foundations. Immigration debates involve not only empirical questions surrounding the effects of immigration on economic and social structures but also moral questions about the degree of moral commitment to others. Taxation debates involve questions of the effect on economic structures but also moral questions as to the role and value of private property, moral claims on the property of others, and the moral worth of the uses of taxation. What are our obligations as a community and a nation to provide for the housing and healthcare of others? How far does this obligation extend? What are our obligations to protect the environment?
It is impossible to fully consider these complex issues without stepping into the realm of moral philosophy. Debating these issues, which are at the core of the political project, requires one not only to have moral beliefs and convictions but to investigate the justification and validly of these moral claims, and those of others. Doing so requires practice navigating moral differences, getting to the core of disagreements, and attempting to bring others over to your side. As philosopher Diane Jeske put it in her book on the importance of moral philosophy, the complexity of the world requires “citizens who can think for themselves, and can enter into civil debates on complex moral issues with others who have opposing positions, citizens who can analyze arguments, and perhaps most important, see when no argument has been forthcoming…citizens who can think beyond mere efficacy, self-interest, and slogans” (Jeske, 2018).
Schools certainly engage in moral education through the presentation of agreeable moral platitudes to young elementary school students (“don’t steal,” “treat others with respect,” “be a team player,” etc.), through observation of teachers and school leaders as moral role models, and through implicit socialization into a set of moral standards. But explicit, formal education in moral reasoning is rarely mentioned as a goal for public schools. It is this often-overlooked form of education in moral reasoning that is a necessary component for democratic civic education.
While simple moral platitudes received early in education certainly qualify as moral education, and serve as important baselines for moral reasoning, they can only carry students so far and are particularly useless in the face of complex political questions. The world is an incredibly complicated place, both empirically and morally, and figuring out how to apply a moral standard in the ambiguous and uncertain situations the world so often presents is no simple process. That is, simple moral standards are rarely simple in practice. Providing students only with agreeable moral standards, even when well justified, will leave them ill equipped to navigate a complex world where agreeable moral platitudes cannot be easily applied. It is precisely this complex world into which students will graduate and need to navigate their entire life.
As students face more complex social arrangements, new forms of relationships in work and romance, and social media, simple reminders to “be kind” are both easily forgettable and largely uninformative. What does the moral platitude “be kind” require when you know others are cheating on a test, when you see a poor coworker stealing from work or a fellow student abusing a forest creature, or when you are ready for sex and your new romantic partner isn’t so sure? Being kind is a great starting point to address each of these situations, but it is far from a complete solution.
When students become full citizens, the complexity of moral issues they face becomes even larger, and the moral platitudes even less helpful. How far does the requirement to respect others extend? To neighbors whose beliefs are very different than yours, and who don’t even speak English? To undocumented immigrants? To citizens of other countries? To plants and animals? Does “being a team player” really require that you pay so much of your income in taxes? Why should you have to pay to send others’ kids to school? For others’ healthcare? Explicit education in moral reasoning can help students address these difficult questions by providing frameworks through which one can recognize situations in which morality is relevant and deliberate thoughtfully on one’s moral commitments and obligations while considering differing perspectives and moral frameworks.
How can schools and teachers provide this training and promote moral reasoning as an important civic skill? Part of the answer surely lies in our previous discussion of civic education. Just as engagement in meaningful discussions about controversial political issues has been shown to improve students’ knowledge of and interest in civic life, so too can engagement in moral topics improve moral reasoning. Several studies have found that targeted interventions focused on developing the skill of moral reasoning can provide a sustained improvement in participants’ moral reasoning ability (Chen & Chan, 2020; Cummings et al., 2010).
This ends rather abruptly because the actual paper proposal jumps to some methodology mumbo-jumo at this point. Hopefully you found this interesting (and maybe you even feel encouraged to engage your kids in some controversial conversations to develop their moral reasoning!). Feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or comments; I'm always open to feedback.
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