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Discussing Controversial Public Issues in the Classroom

Illustration, Detective, 19 April 2010, Flickr CC

In her article “Discussing Controversial Public Issues in Secondary Social Studies Classrooms: Learning from Skilled Teachers,” Diana E. Hess sought to discover what successful teachers do when they lead conversations around politically-charged topics. What are their goals in the classroom? Which particular strategies do they employ to initiate discussions? And how do they ensure that students continue to learn content during such classes?

Hess, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, observed three middle and high school social studies classes in conducting this study. Keeping careful notes on factors like participation patterns and the content of discussion, she also conducted interviews with teachers and collected materials that were used in the planning and execution of lessons.

What Hess found was that although discussion looks differently across classrooms, effective instructors employ a set of common practices to keep conversation topical, safe, and dynamic.

A Reason for Teaching Discussion Skills

Preparing students for successful discussion is time consuming, and some teachers may think that it is simply not worth the trouble. But the teachers in this study did not see discussion as merely another way to teach content. To them, teaching for discussion was every bit as important as teaching with discussion. In other words, successful discussion leaders believe that learning discussion skills is an important teaching goal in itself and that, as Hess puts it, “participation in discussions is a democratic good in its own right.” In helping students develop those skills, teachers created clear classroom guidelines for their students, acted as facilitators rather than participants, and encouraged students to articulate their positions directly to each other.

Shared and Varied Practices

As with many aspects of teaching, there are different ways to lead effective discussions. One teacher strongly believed that students must read a core of common content, for instance, while another assigned different texts on the same topic. All three teachers had students participate in creating discussion guidelines and looked to encourage students to talk to one another and “own” the discussion, rather than merely address the teacher. Grading students’ participation in discussion presented a dilemma, and two teachers saw it as a means of valuing discussion and holding students accountable (and used a rubric to assess students), whereas another saw it as too inauthentic to be included. However, all three routinely debriefed discussions. Significantly, all three teachers used a model for discussions, planned them well in advance, and expected students to thoroughly prepare.

Risks and Support

Teachers often express a lack of confidence with regard to discussing controversial topics in the social studies classroom. They worry about student feelings, about parent reactions, and about administrator responses. Teachers at these schools had a distinct advantage: they were supported by the larger school environment and taught in alignment with the values of the school community. Still, they did choose topics carefully and kept their own personal views muted (even if their views did shape the selection of particular topics).

In the Classroom 

  • Embrace the idea of teaching for and with discussion. While discussions can help students learn important content, discussion skills are valuable in their own right and help students learn to participate in democratic discourse. So don’t get frustrated if students occasionally spin their wheels.
  • Find a model that works for you. Maybe that means something off the shelf—like the Public Issues model from Harvard University or Mortimer Adler’s Socratic Seminar. Or develop your own model for classroom discussions.
  • Include students in the process of developing clear discussion guidelines.
  • Have students prepare and read for discussions. Having students complete an “entrance ticket” in order to participate helps ensure this preparation. Students who do not complete such a ticket are assigned observer roles.
  • Debrief the discussion. Either immediately after the discussion or the following day, help students understand what went well and what can improve. Consider shifting the debriefing responsibility to them eventually.

Sample Application 

During one seminar, it became clear that most students were in agreement about the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Pentagon Papers case. One student, however, dissented, and that view was protected implicitly by classroom guidelines, as well as explicitly by a supportive teacher.

Teacher: There’s our lone conservative, this time. We actually don’t have to support Logan, but let’s … pretend to do so for a minute. Okay? Let’s try to construct and give credence to the argument of the [other side].

Taking this minority view seriously, the class discussion then veered in a new direction.

Teacher: “So, what should the New York Times have done when Daniel Ellsberg came to them with boxes of stolen government documents? If Logan steals a TV and gives it to me, and I know that he stole the TV, have I done something wrong?

Several Students: Yes.

Teacher: Is that the same thing as what the New York Times did with the documents?

Student: They didn’t know.

Student: Oh yes, they knew.

Student: But they thought the public had a right to know.

Teacher: Doesn’t one of the justices say something to the effect that there is this right to know right now and the New York Times feels this responsibility to provide that information? Who said that?

Student: Page 749.

Teacher: [reads excerpt] “Did the Times do the right thing?”

Student: It’s like this pull—they were publishing stolen documents which was basically not the right thing to do but yet it was important to let the public know what the government was doing. I have a question, did anything happen to the New York Times as a result of this?

For more information 

Hess, Diana E. "Discussing Controversial Public Issues in Secondary Social Studies Classrooms: Learning from Skilled Teachers." Theory and Research in Social Education 30, no. 1 (2002): 10-41.

Hess, Diana E. “Discussion in Social Studies: Is it Worth the Trouble?” Social Education, 2004: 151-155.

See here for a guide on document-based discussions and this guide for using structured academic controversies.

See this entry with ideas about promoting discussion and this entry that links to a video of a high school text-based discussion.

This Ask a Master Teacher lists helpful websites for locating perspectives and information on controversial public issues.

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