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Political discussions in the classroom are important and definitely belong there

A qualitative study conducted by two educators has shown that political classroom discussions lead students to be more politically-engaged citizens.

Political discussions in the classroom are important and definitely belong there

I remember what some of my social sciences classes were like in high school. We focused on the reading material, learning only the "facts" and sparing no time for discussion (political or otherwise). It was only when I joined my school's debate club that I learned the importance of discourse and critical thinking. That's what all students should be learning in their classrooms. However, some people — educators and teachers alike — believe that political discussions don't belong in the classroom. But they couldn't be more wrong. After an extensive four-year study of classroom political discussions between the years 2005 and 2009, two professors determined that classroom political discussions prepare students for much-needed civic participation in the future. Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education, and Paula McAvoy, an assistant professor of the Social Studies Education at North Carolina State University, analyzed dozens of classroom discussions to see if they influenced students' future civic engagement and behavior – and they did, KQED reports. 


The researchers agreed, "[Political classrooms] seek to teach young people to see each other as political equals and to inculcate them into the practice of reason-giving and considering how their views and behaviors affect others.” They argued that high schools should not be partisan, but should definitely be political so as to fulfill their "democratic mission." Through their study, they discovered that more political classrooms encouraged students to learn and then refine skills like listening, questioning, and evaluating arguments. These are all important skills that children will use in their adult lives, especially when it comes to performing their civic duties such as voting.


But these discussions, Hess and McAvoy pointed out, should always be managed appropriately. McAvoy explained, "If the Monday morning after the Charlottesville riots a teacher just walks into her classroom and asks the students, ‘Well, what did you guys think of that?’ That’s going to be a disaster... If you let kids just shoot from the hip, it will be divisive and will allow students to just state their biases and their prejudices without any guidance." Instead, she suggests asking questions like, "How do you feel about this situation?” Or, “Do you have questions?" This will help students process how they feel and refine their thoughts. Other strategies include role-playing, supporting statements with text and research, and encouraging students to understand knowing how and when to participate. These techniques will make classroom political discussions more productive and effective.


In their recently-published book The Political Classroom, researchers McAvoy and Hess shared how Joel Kushner, a social studies teacher at Academy High School plays “devil’s advocate” in classrooms left-leaning students when it comes to topics such as abortion. This persuades students to think critically and evaluate their own arguments from a different perspective. The students also learned that there are perhaps reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue. Economist Robert Litan agrees with Hess and McAvoy. He suggested “debatifying” more subjects, encouraging schools to treat non-social science subjects—science, literature—with the "same rigorous research and argumentation practices" the former receive. Additionally, as per a study of the Chicago Urban Debate League from 2011, debaters were more likely “to graduate from high school, performed better on the ACT, and showed greater gains in cumulative GPA relative to similar comparison students." If we encourage our students to think, analyze, and debate when they're young, maybe we wouldn't have to see low voter turnout rates, annoying shouting matches on TV news channels, and a general sense of political apathy.


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