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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

Debates and Conversations: From the Ground Up

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In Mr. Xander's American Government course, 21 high school seniors sit in a U-shaped formation. Mr. Xander walks around the room, posing a series of questions:
M<EMPH TYPE="5">r. X<EMPH TYPE="5">ander: Last time, we talked about Plessy vs. Ferguson. What did equal protection mean in 1896?S<EMPH TYPE="5">tudents: Separate but equal.M<EMPH TYPE="5">r. X: And what did it mean in 1954?S<EMPH TYPE="5">tudents: Integration.M<EMPH TYPE="5">r. X: Right, the meaning of equal protection changed. Is it OK for the interpretation of equal protection to change?S<EMPH TYPE="5">tudent 1: Well, the interpretation was false to begin with, so if they interpreted it wrong once, they can be wrong again.M<EMPH TYPE="5">r. X: Who was right and who was wrong—the court in Plessy or the court in Brown?S<EMPH TYPE="5">tudent 2: The second was right.M<EMPH TYPE="5">r. X: Why?S<EMPH TYPE="5">tudent 2: The first one didn't protect rights.
In this exchange, and throughout most of the hours we spent observing Mr. Xander's class, there was quite a bit of student talk—but nearly all of it was directed at the teacher.
Typically, Mr. Xander began with a question and then pushed back on students' answers to dig more deeply into their thinking. When the students seemed ready, he offered a new question designed to puzzle them and encourage them to reexamine their views. Such methods do get students thinking deeply about issues, but something important is missing from the discussions this approach engenders.

What's Missing?

Studies of classroom discussions have found that high school teachers rarely give students opportunities to talk to one another (Nystrand, Wu, Gamoran, Zeiser, &amp; Long, 2003). When we asked Mr. Xander why he channeled discussion through the teacher rather than designing activities that let students interact directly, he explained:
I'm reluctant to let kids start deliberating early in a class, because I'm not sure they know how …. I don't think kids at the high school level have enough between their ears to have a purposeful deliberation. I think they have to have some stuff in their heads first before they start hollering at each other.
This comment highlights several common reasons that teachers avoid student-to-student exchanges. Some teachers worry that students don't know how to talk to one another productively about issues. Others believe that students don't know enough content to deliberate well. Mr. Xander's final words hint at another worry: that if teachers don't control the conversation, it will get too heated.
In our view, however, for a classroom discussion to be of high quality, students must be prepared; must discuss controversial issues (with competing points of view); and must talk to one another as well as to the teacher.
There are classes where such interchanges happen. In our study of 35 high school social studies teachers, we found 18 who had students discuss controversial political issues. Of those, 7 used an approach similar to Mr. Xander's, but 11 used discussion strategies that teach students how to talk to one another in large and small groups. We here describe one standout example of such discussion that we saw at Adams High, a suburban public school outside a major midwestern U.S. city that serves students from working- and middle-class backgrounds.

Passionate, Civil Exchanges

Since 1993, all seniors at Adams have participated in an American Government course centered on a simulation of a legislative process. This simulation immerses students in a culture of political talk. Throughout the semester, students research current problems and issues, write their own bills, and decide what position they'll take when various legislation comes before student-run committees—and eventually, for a floor debate in a "Full Session" of the legislature. Although the activity is a simulation, students are expected to make political decisions on the basis of their own views, rather than role-play the views of others. Teachers try to stay as true to the U.S. House of Representatives' legislative process as they can, while keeping the activity manageable. (For instance, although real Representatives can add riders to bills, students can't because it would make the process unmanageable for teachers.)
One day during this simulation, 200 Adams seniors gather in the auditorium to engage in a Full Session. They've been preparing for this day for many weeks, and their excitement is palpable as they arrive decked out in "business dress." Democrats gather on the left side of the auditorium, Republicans huddle on the right, and the handful of Independents mix in where they choose. On the stage, the Speaker of the House sits at a table reviewing the docket with the Sergeant at Arms, while party whips brief their members. In the balcony sit underclassmen and invited community members. When everyone is ready, the Speaker lowers the gavel and calls the session to order.
On the docket today is a bill to increase the minimum wage. The bill's author, a Democrat, rises to speak first. His opening argument refers to a series of statistics, projected on a screen behind him, showing increases in the cost of living over time compared with growth in wages. After the Speaker warns him that his two minutes are nearly up, the mock legislator concludes by asking, "If the cost of living goes up, why don't wages?"
The next speaker, a Republican, goes to the microphone to rebut, delivering a similarly polished and fact-filled speech. She argues that increasing the minimum wage hurts consumers (who will pay more for goods and services) and workers (who may lose their jobs). Next, the Speaker recognizes several more students, who raise new arguments and rebut others. At one point, a student from the English as a second language program speaks in support of the bill by drawing on personal experience: "It's tough to live on the minimum wage …. You shouldn't judge what it's like to live in poverty unless you have experienced it." Her Democratic colleagues erupt in applause.
Debates like this one are notable for several reasons. The exchanges are passionate, but completely civil. Students monitor the structure and tone of the activity: It would be difficult for an outside observer to locate the three government teachers, who sit in the back of the auditorium. The students who make arguments have clearly researched and prepared well for the event. Diverse views are represented. Democrats outnumber Republicans, but the opinions expressed span the spectrum.
Adams High teachers value equity, so this course is nontracked and required for all seniors. The school reasons that all young people should learn the skills for political engagement and have the opportunity to participate in challenging activities. And if deliberation is to be truly democratic, students need to hear the full range of views within the community.

How They Got Here

The fact that these seniors have so much control over the topics they address and the facilitation of their discussions is remarkable. One way teachers have created a culture that's comfortable with student-directed discussion is by explicitly strengthening students' discussion skills all semester. Let's examine how they do so.
Adams teachers scaffold the government course so that, as the semester progresses, they slowly move from center stage into the background. Scaffolding structures learning so that students gradually build knowledge and skills. Teachers provide pedagogical supports that enable students to reach more advanced skills and acquire deeper knowledge than they could do independently. As students begin to master the knowledge or skills, these supports are gradually pulled back until students can independently engage in the work.
The teacher-directed techniques Mr. Xander used are good scaffolds to support the development of student-directed discussion. Indeed, we saw many teachers use such techniques to get students comfortable sharing their ideas with the class. Too many teachers, however, never removed this scaffold and gave students the opportunity to discuss directly. If one aim of democratic education is to prepare students to deliberate together about political issues, then these teachers are keeping the training wheels on.
We're not arguing that the teacher plays no facilitative role in the ideal classroom discussion. But we suggest that teachers make it a goal for students to become less dependent on the teacher for carrying a discussion forward. The process Adams High teachers follow as they guide students through this simulation provides one example of a curriculum that moves students toward more independence in discussions.

Phase 1. Practicing Civil Discourse

In the opening weeks of the course, teachers provide a foundational understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties, and the advantages and limitations of identifying as an Independent. They also establish the norms of discussion.
During this portion of the course, the teachers take center stage in their classrooms as they model how to discuss controversial issues and facilitate discussions. They explicitly teach the norms of civil discourse. Teachers emphasize the importance of disagreeing with an idea without attacking a classmate, and they institute a modified form of parliamentary procedure that includes addressing one another as "Representative X" and establishing time limits for comments. Students practice these norms through discussing controversial questions, such as whether same-sex marriage should be recognized or whether the United States should adopt a flat tax.
Initially, instructors use a heavy hand as they facilitate, pushing students to articulate better reasons for their positions and playing devil's advocate to make sure competing views are aired. After their teachers model facilitation for a few days, students practice managing the in-class discussions. They take turns acting as chairperson, which means taking responsibility for enforcing parliamentary procedure and determining who should speak.
Throughout these sessions, teachers are active coaches, holding students to high standards for how they facilitate and participate in discussions. The formality of the modified parliamentary format helps equalize the classroom dynamic. Everyone must learn new, defined ways of speaking, which makes the norms explicit and helps those who are less comfortable speaking. Requiring that everyone take a turn at chairing also means that the teachers don't simply rely on students with experience to assume leadership roles in the simulation, but instead train all class members to play these roles.
Students are required to regularly post comments to an online discussion board open to all students enrolled in American Government that semester. This provides another space for students to learn civil discourse. Teachers regulate the boards, talk to those who post offensive or hurtful comments, and, if necessary, temporarily suspend students from the activity.

Phase 2. Investing in Issues

Three weeks into the semester, once students have become accustomed to the norms of civil discourse and had the opportunity to discuss issues and party platforms, they participate in "Declaration Day." They declare publicly whether they will be allied with a political party or be Independents. Each student attaches an index card containing his or her name, explanation of political views, and party affiliation to a line representing the political spectrum posted along a wall in the library. Posting their card shows they have stepped into the public sphere and are invested in the simulation.
Classroom activity now shifts to authoring bills and moving them through committees. Students work in small groups to identify an issue they would like to tackle, ideally one that's also being discussed among the wider public. They do extensive research on the problem and potential solutions.
Next, they craft a bill they believe will address this issue, post it to the online discussion board, and prepare to shepherd it through the committee process. The committees in the simulation aren't specialized; each receives bills on many issues. Students are assigned to committees in a way that ensures diversity across class sections and party affiliations.
Student groups are given a lot of leeway to write a bill that they care about. This means that teachers need to be ready to help students research and develop an argument for whatever topic they choose. Certain topics—such as the death penalty and abortion—recur every semester, but students sometimes make less obvious choices, such as video game censorship.
Once bills are written, they move through student-facilitated committee hearings. On the day of the hearings, students are in charge. Each bill's authors introduce it to the committee and answer questions. Teachers encourage students to invite community members and policymakers to speak as expert witnesses for bills, and some of the invitees send letters of support or, occasionally, come to answer questions before a committee. Each committee debates the merits of the proposals before it, considers amendments, and then votes. Bills either "die" or move forward to the Full Session.
Although they're explicitly taught the norms of civil discourse and facilitation in the first phase, students don't master them right away. As students write and discuss their bills, teachers have new opportunities to reinforce these norms and skills, and students practice them multiple times. Civil discourse becomes deeply ingrained as a social norm.

Phase 3. Debating in Full Session

Twice each semester, the students are released from their other classes so they can participate in the Full Sessions. During these floor debates, the teachers hand control over to the party leaders, who set the docket, organize who will speak for each bill, and whip up their votes. Getting a bill passed on the floor of the Full Session is considered a major accomplishment; once votes are tallied, cheers and high fives await the authors of successful bills.
The Full Sessions are the capstone activity for the course and a way for teachers to assess how well they've prepared students to handle political discussions and debates. When the Full Session goes well, teachers can feel confident that their students have learned a great deal about facilitation, civil discussion, and the issues of the day.
Gabe, an American Government student, explained how the skills and knowledge he learned during the simulation gave him the confidence to engage in political discussions:
I [can] stand up and say, "This is what I see and this is what I understand myself." And … present that to other people, and be respected for it. I feel very encouraged to talk to anybody about any subject and say, "This is where I stand."

Try It Out

Although the program at Adams High is unusual, some of the strategies Adams teachers use can be adopted by any teacher who wants to improve students' ability to engage in high-quality discussions with one another.

Teach with and for Discussion

Many teachers recognize that few of their students begin the school year with highly developed discussion skills, but they are unsure about how to help students develop those skills. Instructors often adopt a "sink or swim" approach in which students are expected to participate in discussions with little guidance. Not surprisingly, these discussions rarely go well.
Discussion advocates argue that teachers need to think of high-quality discussion both as an instructional method that helps students more deeply understand content and as a valued learning outcome in its own right—to teach "with and for discussion" (Parker &amp; Hess, 2001, p. 274).
To teach for discussion, teachers should give students clear directions for how to participate in in-person and online discussion of issues. They might explicitly teach the norms of civil discourse and rules of parliamentary procedure, as Adams teachers did, or use resources available on the website Deliberating in a Democracy, created in 2004 to promote the skills of civic deliberation among high schoolers.

Define a High-Quality Discussion

The structure of the Adams High simulation gives teachers and students a clear understanding of what a good committee discussion or floor debate looks like. Teachers interested in teaching for discussion will likewise need to have a clear conception of the types of discussions they want students to have and to identify the necessary skills. For example, if teachers want students to articulate and debate their views about a political controversy, students will need such skills as supporting their views with evidence, weighing the potential consequences of a proposed course of action, asking peers to clarify a point, and disagreeing civilly with another student's view.
Typically, students need to be explicitly taught these skills and provided with supports as they attempt to use them. We've seen teachers give students a list of sentence starters ("I agree with most of what ___ said, but I also think that …"); show students videos of good discussions; and provide discussion rubrics. Teachers also use Socratic seminars, town hall meetings, and structured academic controversies to give discussions form and help learners understand what's expected of them.

Provide Feedback

When teachers are explicit about what they expect to see in discussions, they create a common language around which to give students feedback. Some teachers grade discussions; others provide written comments several times a semester; and others debrief discussions with the class, asking students what aspects of the discussion did and didn't work. These are all useful ways to communicate that discussion matters—and that it is a skill everyone can improve upon.
The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects include discussion as an important learning outcome, lending support to those who've long advocated better-quality discussion in school. As teachers develop discussion-rich curriculums, we urge them to do so with an eye toward the skills and supports needed for students to engage in great discussions with one another.
Authors' note: All names of teachers, schools, and students are pseudonyms. The research reported here was partially supported by the Spencer Foundation. The views and interpretations expressed do not represent those of the Spencer Foundation.

Nystrand, M., Wu, L. L., Gamoran, A., Zeiser, S., &amp; Long, D. A. (2003). Questions in time: Investigating the structure and dynamics of unfolding classroom discourse. Discourse Processes, 35(2), 135–198.

Parker, W., &amp; Hess, D. (2001). Teaching with and for discussion. Teacher and Teacher Education, 17, 273–289.

End Notes

1 In our forthcoming book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (Routledge, 2014), we discuss students' experiences at Adams High in more detail.

2 Additional strategies to teach for discussion are available in Diana Hess's book Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Routledge, 2009).

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