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March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn
To contribute to a democratic society, students need to learn to express their own views and listen to those of others with civility.
In early 2010, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released a proposed revision of the state's social studies curriculum. Critics immediately pounced on the apparent omission of U.S. history before 1877 from the high school course of study. As a professor of social studies education in North Carolina, I spent several months exchanging endless e-mails and sitting through meetings with colleagues, both at my university and throughout the state, listening to people passionately argue that the proposed revisions did not provide students with the historical knowledge that they needed.
During one particularly rancorous meeting, I remember thinking, "Does it really make a difference?" I don't mean to belittle my colleagues' passion—in fact, I share their concern about ensuring that students obtain a wide breadth of historical knowledge. However, I believe that when we consider what students really need to learn, we should think less about specific content and more about the way educators teach content in their classrooms.
Given the tone of much public discussion in the United States today, it is not surprising that many Americans say they are not interested in political issues (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002). Cable news programs, radio talk shows, and blogs often seem to take the attitude that it's insufficient to simply advocate one's own views; rather, one needs to simultaneously denounce opposing viewpoints as ideologically "wrong" and people who advocate those viewpoints as morally inferior.
Too often, secondary school classrooms mirror this ideological intolerance. To successfully participate as citizens in a 21st century society that is becoming increasingly pluralistic, students need to be able to respectfully discuss controversial, moral, and political issues.
Of course, most teachers would probably say that they already create ideologically tolerant environments in their classrooms. But is this really the case? During the 2008 presidential election, I studied government teachers in three demographically and ideologically diverse high schools (Journell, 2009). All of the teachers claimed to have "open" classrooms in which students could articulate a variety of views and beliefs without fear of reproach. Yet, during my three months at each school, I repeatedly observed political intolerance that was either ignored by teachers or actually perpetuated by the school environment.
For example, at Roosevelt High School, whose student body overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in the presidential race, references to Republicans were often met with a chorus of boos and insults; any student who declared himself or herself a Republican or even advocated Republican views risked becoming a pariah. The resulting polarization was perhaps best exemplified by the Roosevelt student who, after making an impassioned argument in favor of the death penalty for convicted terrorists, quickly added, "But, I don't want to be a Republican!" By the end of the semester, the school climate had become so partisan that students who supported John McCain appeared to go into hiding. One student told me that she remained silent about her political beliefs in class because she feared the possibility of physical violence.
Similarly, at St. Thomas High School, a private Catholic school, Democrats' views on abortion rights and gay marriage were seen as immoral, to the point where some teachers told students they would be committing a sin if they voted for Obama. Instead of encouraging discussion of these issues, the school administration chose to censor displays of pro-Obama rhetoric, such as a newspaper article on the candidate; they also refused to hold a mock election because they feared Obama would win. Such measures were implemented despite the fact that many students at St. Thomas considered themselves Democrats.
The problem at these schools was not that students, teachers, or administrators held certain beliefs; it was that these dominant beliefs were rarely challenged. The resulting lack of productive deliberation created an atmosphere that was, at times, overtly intolerant.
Research in both education and political science has shown that ideologically homogeneous groups naturally, and often subconsciously, grow increasingly committed to their shared beliefs. When opposing viewpoints are not presented as rational alternatives, such groups tend to grow intolerant of other viewpoints (Hess & Ganzler, 2007; Mutz, 2006).
That's why, regardless of the demands created by high-stakes testing, schools need to make time and space to teach students the skill of civil deliberation. By doing so, schools will more effectively train students in the skills and dispositions necessary for productive citizenship in a democracy (Macedo et al., 2005).
One of the negative ramifications of No Child Left Behind and the accountability movement is a teach-to-the-test mentality that severely limits the amount of discussion many teachers allow in their classrooms (Parker, 2006). When teachers do use discussion, their aim is usually to engage students in content rather than to teach students the value of collegially exchanging ideas. Parker and Hess (2001) make the distinction between teaching with and for discussion. The latter, they argue, allows students to "appreciate discussion as a set of abilities, as ways of knowing, and as a civic forum" (p. 286).
The good news is that research suggests tolerance can be taught to adolescents within education environments (Avery, Bird, Johnstone, Sullivan, & Thalhammer, 1992). For this to occur, however, educators must change their curricular goals and make discussion an instructional goal in itself. Many students have minimal exposure to ideological diversity and little practice discussing their values and beliefs with others. Learning how to respectfully deliberate with others requires practice.
However, simply increasing the amount of discussion in a class does not necessarily ensure the development of tolerance among students. In a study of high school government classes, Hess and Ganzler (2007) found that classes that included regular opportunities for discussion but lacked ideological diversity actually became more intolerant. Students in these classes used discussions to reinforce their shared viewpoints and denounce opposing viewpoints, often by oversimplifying issues and resorting to ideological clichés. Tolerance for diverse viewpoints developed only in classes in which discussion was regularly present and in which there was a healthy mix of ideological positions.
Of course, there are some classrooms in which a majority of students share the same views. However, teachers can take steps to introduce ideological diversity in even the most homogeneous of classes. For example, in my 2009 study of the 2008 presidential election, a few of the teachers gave their students short surveys about on their political views; the results helped students to realize that their own ideologies were complex and did not fall neatly into categories commonly thought of as liberal or conservative.
Even on a day-to-day basis, teachers can help facilitate ideological diversity in their classrooms by asking students to consider other points of view and to empathize with individuals with whom they might disagree, and even by playing the devil's advocate when necessary. These strategies help students discover that even those with whom we disagree share many values and beliefs that bind us together.
Once teachers establish ideological diversity, they also have a responsibility to model respectful discussion (Parker & Hess, 2001). Chances are, the ideological "discussions" that most students have been exposed to outside school—such as cable news commentaries and dinner table conversations—have often lacked the ideological diversity and reciprocity needed to foster tolerance. Therefore, opening a classroom for discussion without first showing students how to respectfully deliberate may be detrimental to teachers' greater civic goals.
One of the teachers in the election study regularly facilitated discussions in which he asked probing questions that forced students to refine their political statements, as the following discussion of tax cuts shows:
Mr. Ryan: Now, I don't think welfare should be eliminated, and not all conservatives think that welfare should be eliminated. And not all liberals think that welfare should be expanded. We can't look at it as extremes, which is what a lot of people do.
Katherine: But doesn't the top 1 percent of the world's wealthiest people own the greatest percentage of wealth in this country? So what is the big deal if they are taxed more?
Mr. Ryan: I see your point, but they are already taxed a lot. Are you saying everything should be equal?
Katherine: Not equal, but I agree with Obama. If you are making $50 an hour, you have more money to throw around than if you are making $10 an hour. If they earn it, good for them, but they should be able to share it.
Holly: I know several people who are on disability, and they just sit around and collect money and don't try to get better, and I don't believe that people who work hard for their money should have to give it to lazy people who just sit at home and collect it.
Katherine: Just because you aren't rich doesn't mean you don't work hard.
Holly: I agree, and there are people who are rich who don't work hard, who inherit money, like Paris Hilton, but I think most people work hard, and I don't think it is fair.
Mr. Ryan: Well, not everyone on disability or welfare is lazy, but it is a catch-22.
By questioning Katherine when she claimed that it was no "big deal" to tax wealthier Americans, Mr. Ryan enabled her to reexamine her ideas about tax policies. The question then led to a frank exchange between Katherine and Holly about welfare in which both students seemed to move closer to the center. For Holly to acknowledge the validity of Katherine's remark and pose a counterargument that was markedly softer than her original insinuation that people receiving welfare were "lazy" represents progression toward tolerant political dialogue. It is also worth noting that Mr. Ryan acted more as a facilitator than a discussion leader, interrupting only to clarify information, pose questions, and debunk political stereotypes.
To effectively model tolerant deliberation, teachers must be willing to share their own values and beliefs with their students, a proposition that many teachers find terrifying or inappropriate (Hess, 2004). Instead of striving for neutrality in the classroom, teachers should instead practice committed impartiality, which means they should be willing to express their own political and social views without trying to convince their students that they are right (Kelly, 1986).
For example, Mr. Ryan told his students at the beginning of the semester that he was a strong conservative and planned to vote for McCain. He regularly disclosed his political opinions but usually concluded by asking his students, "What do you think?" He frequently entertained opposing views from his predominately liberal class, as the following example that occurred before the first presidential debate shows:
Mr. Ryan: What is supposed to happen tonight?
Several Students: The debate.
Barry: My dad said they put their campaign on hold because of the economy.
Mr. Ryan: Who is "they"?
Several Students: McCain.
Mr. Ryan: He said something needs to be fixed with the economy before they spend time on politics and debate. Obama said it's only an hour and a half and that a president needs to be able to balance more than one thing at a time. What do you think?
Charlotte: I think they should debate.
Ruth: Our class is only an hour and a half; I mean, it's not that long.
Mr. Ryan: Yeah, and it's not like these guys can't get flights. What if McCain doesn't show up? Will it hurt him?
Several Students: Yeah.
Mr. Ryan: I see where he is coming from, but I think most Americans will see this as being scared to debate, and it will probably hurt him. I am guessing that he will show up.
Charlotte: Does McCain think the country will go into recession in an hour and a half?
Mr. Ryan: Well, McCain says we need to be doing our job—although when you are a senator running for president, you aren't going to be doing your day job anyway.
Elizabeth: The other way to look at it is to show up and prove why you deserve the job.
Mr. Ryan: That is a good point. So I guess we will see what he does.
Mr. Ryan clearly did not have any problem acknowledging counterarguments his students made and even agreed where he felt appropriate. Moreover, Mr. Ryan did not act as though he needed to have the last word; rather, he concluded the discussion by acknowledging that there was no truly correct answer to whether the debate should occur.
As this example illustrates, committed impartiality requires teachers to model appropriate ways of articulating personal beliefs while respecting others' opinions. Tolerance, just like any other academic skill, can be taught—but only if properly modeled and supported through continued practice and refinement.
As states and school districts across the United States continue to fight their battles over curriculum content, educators should not be satisfied—even if their state standards include the content they desire—unless schools make a commitment to also promote the values of ideological diversity and tolerance. Without exposure to diverse points of view and training in the dispositions required for successful civic participation in a democratic society, students will be unable to effectively use the content knowledge they learn to its fullest potential.
Avery, P. G., Bird, K., Johnstone, S., Sullivan, J. L., & Thalhammer, K. (1992). Exploring political tolerance with adolescents. Theory and Research in Social Education, 20, 386–420.
Hess, D. (2004). Controversies about controversial issues in democratic education. PS: Political Science and Politics, 37, 257–261.
Hess, D., & Ganzler, L. (2007). Patriotism and ideological diversity in the classroom. In J. Westheimer (Ed.), Pledging allegiance: The politics of patriotism in America's schools (pp. 131–138). New York: Teachers College Press.
Hibbing, J. R., & Theiss-Morse, E. (2002). Stealth democracy: Americans' belief about how government should work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Journell, W. (2009). Teaching politics: A study of high school government courses and the 2008 presidential election. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Kelly, T. E. (1986). Discussing controversial issues: Four perspectives on the teacher's role. Theory and Research in Social Education, 14, 113–138.
Macedo, S., Alex-Assensoh, Y., Berry, J. M., Brintnall, M., Campbell, D. E., Frago, L. R., et al. (2005). Democracy at risk: How political choices undermine citizen participation and what we can do about it. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
Mutz, D. (2006). Hearing the other side: Deliberative versus participatory democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Parker, W. C. (2006). Public discourses in schools: Purposes, problems, possibilities. Educational Researcher, 35(8), 11–18.
Parker, W. C., & Hess, D. (2001). Teaching with and for discussion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17, 273–289.
Author's note: School names are pseudonyms. The excerpts from Mr. Ryan's class are also included in forthcoming articles in Educational Studies and the Journal of Social Studies Research.
Wayne Journell is an assistant professor of secondary social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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