Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Diana Hess: Teaching Students How to Engage in Civil Discussions about Important Issues Is Even More Essential in an Environment as Polarized and Politicized as America Is Today

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Diana Hess: Teaching Students How to Engage in Civil Discussions about Important Issues Is Even More Essential in an Environment as Polarized and Politicized as America Is Today

Article excerpt

KAPPAN: You started your career as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Ill., which is in suburban Chicago. That was 1979. I wonder, what were your earliest experiences in teaching about controversial topics in that first high school classroom?

DIANA HESS: I had the good fortune of being hired at a very large school, well over 4,000 students at the time. This high school had a large social studies department, and the leaders in the department had been taught by Fred Newmann and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Newmann was one of the developers of the Harvard Social Studies Project, which was an important, federally funded project in the 1960s that created a particular approach to teaching secondary school students to learn and deliberate about controversial public policy issues in the context of historical examples, case studies, and contemporary themes. It was very rigorous and an extremely well-researched approach to teaching controversial public policy issues.

So when I came into that school in 1979, the core courses were based on that approach. I lucked out when I was hired into a place that had an extraordinarily good and innovative social studies program. All of the social studies teachers were very well-trained discussion leaders. I was essentially 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. And I had about a year to do that, or they would have let me go. They wanted to be sure they had people who were going to teach in this tradition--and they provided a lot of coaching so I could learn.

It's one reason why I wanted to come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My earliest conceptions of what it meant to be a social studies teacher were based on what my mentors had learned here.

KAPPAN: What did they teach you about how to approach controversial topics in the classroom?

HESS: One of the things I learned is that there were highly specific frameworks for how to do this. It's not something that every teacher needs to create on their own--or needs to be idiosyncratic to specific classes or contexts. 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.

So if you were going to talk about a public policy issue in the Harvard model, you had to be clear whether something was an empirical question or whether it was a policy question.

For example, if we were going to deliberate today whether we should have a single-payer health system, there are all kinds of empirical questions you'd want to address. But there are also questions related to values and policy.

Define your terms

KAPPAN: You and a team of graduate students did a lengthy study of how 21 high school teachers in three states approached the teaching of controversial topics. The book you coauthored about this work with Paula McAvoy is titled The Political Classroom. Let's pause and define some of the terms you use in your work, starting with a "political classroom."

HESS: Paula and I define it as one in which young people are being taught how to seriously consider questions of how we ought to live together.

KAPPAN: Draw the difference between having a political discussion in class and having a partisan discussion.

HESS: What you want in a political classroom is what we call nonpartisan political education. We want young people to learn how to talk about public policy issues. We want young people to understand the political system and how it operates. This is critical.

There's nothing wrong with kids learning about partisan perspectives in school. In fact, you couldn't do civic education without kids learning about partisan perspectives.

There's also nothing wrong with people being partisan. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.