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Classroom Discussions of Hot Topics

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Diana Hess” by Joan Richardson in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2017/January 2018 (Vol. 99, #4, p. 15-20),; Hess can be reached at
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Karen Hess (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is interviewed by editor Joan Richardson. Hess describes how as a beginning social studies teacher in a large high school, she was told “in a nice but firm way that it was my job to learn how to lead high-quality discussions of important historical and contemporary questions and issues… There was a clear sense of what good practice looked like, and that to do it well you needed a clear sense of what you wanted students to learn and what it meant for them to learn those things.” One precept was the difference between empirical questions and policy questions:
- Empirical questions can be answered through systematic observation, experimentation, and inquiry – for example, Is the planet warming because of human activity? (Yes)
- Policy questions are open to debate, with multiple, competing right answers – for example, Should we have a single-payer health care system?
“The good news,” says Hess, “is that many teachers understand this and want to engage kids in genuine deliberations about real political issues.”
One misconception, aided and abetted by Hollywood movies about schools, is that classroom discussions should be spontaneous and unplanned. Hess believes seat-of-the-pants discussions are almost always low-quality because most students don’t know enough to conduct a rigorous and interesting debate and the majority of students don’t participate.
“One reason you want preparation is that you want students already to have been exposed to multiple and competing ideas before you begin the discussion,” she says. “You also want to ensure that everyone is ready to participate because if that’s the case, you’re more likely to have more participation in the discussion.” Teachers also don’t want students to come in totally certain about a particular opinion; they should be versed in both sides of an argument and prepared to change their minds if they’re convinced.
Should teachers share their own opinions on controversial issues with students? In their research, Hess and her colleagues found that with students 17-18 years old, the quality of discussions was not affected one way or the other by teachers revealing their own views. Hess is less certain about the lower grades. She found that students overwhelmingly want teachers to say what they themselves believe about issues, but don’t like it when teachers press them to accept those views or treat a policy subject as if there’s only one right answer.
She noted two worrisome findings in studies of students from low-income families: first, teachers who shared their positions were more likely to have them misrepresented; second, students were less likely to participate in discussions when teachers stated their own views.
In schools where almost everyone has the same beliefs on controversial issues, there’s the danger of teachers allowing an echo chamber in which students don’t hear opposing views. It takes a high level of self-awareness and some courage for teachers to orchestrate balanced discussions and get students outside their comfort zones. Learning to lead good discussions is hard, says Hess, “but it can be learned. This is not an art. This is something teachers can learn how to do. We can teach them how to get better at leading discussions among students.”
Where should teachers draw the line between free speech versus hate speech in classrooms? At one level, it’s simple, says Hess: “You can’t personally insult people. You can’t use epithets, etc.” But it gets more complicated when students believe they’re expressing a genuine, legitimate perspective and others consider it insulting. In addition, some areas raise people’s sensitivities – homosexuality, immigration, and other hot topics.
But if teachers avoid these subjects, students will still talk about them in corridors, bathrooms, buses, and social media. “The best teachers we worked with struggled with this,” says Hess – and they didn’t avoid difficult topics. “They also did a lot to ensure that discussions were as civil and as high quality as they could possibly be. They worked to make sure students were ready for discussion. They talked to students before and after class.”

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