More Politics in the Classroom

Type: Article
Topics: Advocacy & Policy, Communications & Public Relations, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2018

A case for deliberately staging discussions on controversial topics to reawaken our society’s civil political discourse
David Campbell, right, a professor of American democracy at University of Notre Dame, writes about the importance of effective citizenship education for the young.

Because I am a political science professor, I was once asked to speak to my son’s 5th-grade class about the upcoming presidential election. This was in the heat of the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama and John McCain were squaring off against each other, and the nation was abuzz about Sarah Palin.

I like a challenge so I decided I would explain the workings of the electoral college. This was no small feat for any group, let alone grade schoolers. I dutifully prepared a demonstration on the electoral college that involved splitting the 5th graders into “states” of varying populations. So far, so good. But then I made a mistake. For the purposes of the lesson, I opted not to use Barack Obama and John McCain as the candidates on the ballot. Instead, I brought plush toys representing fictional characters (Arthur and Francine, from the public television program “Arthur”). I even came up with campaign platforms for the two candidates.

I thought — wrongly, it turned out — that these students were too young for real politics and that it was better to avoid the actual campaign. The students were polite as I explained the electoral college. But I could see their attention was fading when I presented the platforms of both Arthur and Francine and asked them to vote for one or the other. Instead, they wanted to talk about the actual presidential campaign. Once Obama and McCain came up, they quickly forgot about the plush toys. These 5th graders were electrified as they spoke over each other with excited comments and questions about the presidential race.

I had learned a lesson that, I am embarrassed to admit, I should already have known. We do young people — and our democratic society — a disservice when we try to shield them from politics. Instead, our young people need to learn how to engage in discussion about controversial topics, including elections. I use the word “need” deliberately, as no less than the future health of American democracy rests on a reawakening of civil political discourse. That may sound dramatic, but we live in dramatic times.

A Civility Crisis
The U.S. is experiencing a crisis in civility. Increasingly, people with opposing political perspectives do not engage in rational, respectful dialogue or any dialogue at all. In our polarized age, fewer and fewer places exist where Americans of different political stripes come together. Because conversations across political lines are rare, when they do occur many people find them unsettling. Should disagreements arise, the conversation often devolves into rancor — or worse. (Does this sound like anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner with extended family?)

Schools remain one of the few institutions where our young people can be exposed to the rational discussion of competing points of view. As Americans hunker down into ideological bunkers, it is more imperative than ever that young people learn how to express their point of view civilly, while listening to — and perhaps even learning from — the other side. Furthermore, truly democratic discourse can only proceed with agreement on some fundamental facts. In the words of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, young people must learn that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

In short, young people need to be exposed to the cut and thrust of political discussion and disagreement in the classroom. Cold, hard empirical evidence shows us why. Numerous studies have shown that when teachers allow students to discuss and debate current issues, students become more knowledgeable about politics and more likely to envision themselves as participating in politics. This makes sense. Lessons are more engaging and memorable when they involve real issues, just as I learned from those 5th graders.

My own research shows that open, respectful discussion within the classroom is especially effective for engaging students of a lower socioeconomic background, thus helping to close the social class gap in political engagement. Numerous other studies find that when people engage in meaningful conversation with those who have differing political views, they can develop greater tolerance and respect for those who hold those opposing views.

Equipping Educators
I will be the first to acknowledge that leading discussions on controversial topics is easier said than done, which is why teachers need to be trained in how to do it well. In other research, I have found that teachers are less likely to foster an open classroom climate when their students have diverse racial backgrounds, no doubt because they fear provoking controversy. Yet it is in diverse classrooms that these discussions are needed more than ever.

A good place for both teachers and administrators to start is the book The Political Classroom by education professors Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy. Based on their extensive research, they offer guidance to teachers for promoting nonpartisan classroom deliberation. Similarly, educators can consult the online One and All initiative from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which includes advice and strategies on teaching about controversial issues.

I also acknowledge that some teachers will be wary of having discussions of controversial issues in their classrooms, at the risk of raising the ire of parents. This is a real concern and only underscores the need for teachers to be models of civility in the classroom. It is also why administrators need to have their teachers’ backs if parents complain. Parents need to hear that teachers who introduce the discussion of controversial issues are engaging in sound pedagogical practice.

Diversity of Views

In introducing politics to the classroom, it is important that teachers themselves model respectful dialogue, which admittedly can be a challenge. In the wake of the 2016 election, there were a handful of cases around the country of teachers who were disciplined for expressing their political views. In the absence of the full facts about these cases, I am unable to say whether these teachers stepped over a line. I can say, however, that teachers should not consider the classroom a forum to expound on their own views, but instead as an environment where students can express theirs.

Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean teachers need to keep completely silent about their own opinions. In their research, Hess and McAvoy conclude that effective classroom discussion can be conducted both when teachers do and do not disclose their own views. Whether to do so is a matter of professional judgment, as sometimes disclosure can close off further discussion while in other contexts a teacher’s opinions can contribute to the diversity of views in the discussion.
The key, though, is that teachers do not dominate the conversation, but instead maintain an open and respectful tone in the classroom. By doing so, they will not only serve as role models for their students, but also will be in a more credible position to correct erroneous or hurtful statements that students may make.

Obviously, the precise nature of a classroom discussion will differ according to the students’ grade level. I would not expect a 5th-grade class to discuss issues with the same depth as high school seniors. However, as I learned from my son’s 5th-grade class, our young people can handle a lot more than many people think. 

Indeed, by gaining experience in lively but respectful political discussion, I am hopeful that our young people can teach the rest of the nation a lesson in civility we desperately need to learn.

Additional Resources

Author David Campbell suggests these informational resources relating to his article.

» Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), housed at Tufts University, has a website full of information on civic education based on high-quality research.

» National Center for Education Statistics published a report on the NAEP civics, history and geography exams.

»Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion by Diana Hess, Routledge

»Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation, edited by David Campbell, Meira Levinson and Frederick Hess, Harvard Education Publishing

»No Citizen Left Behind by Meira Levinson, Harvard University Press