Generating Productive Political Discussions in the Classroom

03/27/2013 12:38 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2013

Recently news media across the country variously proclaimed the significance of 10 years passing since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Teachers, however, face some formidable challenges as they consider how to help students engage with and wrest meaning from this observance. At the root of these challenges lie two important questions: first, how do we generate productive discussions on contentious political issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and second, why should we do such a thing?

On the matter of how, classroom discussions of war -- or any complex and controversial topic -- pose practical and political difficulties for teachers. Research suggests that effective discussions demand a transparent purpose, great questions that are closely aligned with that purpose, and extensive preparation. They also require the explicit teaching of discussion strategies, like substantiating claims with credible evidence, and respectfully engaging with and building upon others' arguments. All of these things hinge on persistent practice and deep reflection among teachers and students, both of which are at odds with educators' mounting pressure to cover more with less.

Great questions are open-ended, lend themselves to multiple reasonable perspectives, and propagate experiential and ideological diversity. Imagine that a majority of students in a particular classroom self-identify as opponents of the Iraq War. Under such circumstances, inquiring whether the war was a success or failure likely would be less productive than framing questions around nuanced dilemmas that generate more divergent positions. For example, one could ask, "How do we know what accounts of conflict are reliable amidst the fogs of war and snap journalism?" or "How might we judge what threats to national security warrant military action?"

Not surprisingly, a random, off-the-cuff, half-period exchange on March 19, 2013 provides neither the time nor the conversational infrastructure to address such questions adequately. It also could send a clear message that such discussion is a sidebar to the regular work of covering content. This evokes a key political challenge for teachers: what Walter Parker and Diana Hess call "teaching with and for discussion" inevitably requires educators to forsake some subject matter in order to thoroughly investigate and discuss others. In other words, they will need to go off script, since formal curricula cannot possibly attend to the organic movement of tough questions and tentative responses.

This is a political challenge because teachers must make these choices consciously, in the face of policy influences like standardized testing, which increasingly affects educators' performance evaluations but is useless for assessing discussion in their classrooms. Further, political actors sometimes explicitly target for elimination the very foundations of effective dialogue. For instance, the 2012 Texas Republican Party platform expressly opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills, with their "purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs." And according to a 2007 Florida state law, historical accounts, including those of war, are not to be taught as constructed and interpreted, but rather as factual and testable.

Other substantive and procedural challenges abound. What should a teacher do when students (and perhaps their models at home) simply refuse to play by the rules of civic discourse, rejecting compelling evidence that they find uncomfortable and repudiating empathy and compromise in favor of antagonism? How might a teacher honestly represent the dilemmas of war while remaining sensitive to a student whose parent was injured in Iraq and hasn't been able to find a job since returning home? What does it take to cultivate powerful conversations about abstract things like shifts in public consciousness about the war, whose war experiences have been emphasized or hidden in the media, and why those things matter? These questions have no easy answers, and given the political pressures noted above, teachers simply might find it altogether too risky and cumbersome to ask them.

But they ought to ask them. Ultimately, teachers should help students apprehend and participate in public discourse that extends far beyond the classroom, and to do so in ways that are more socially responsible than what they often see today. Consider the science lab as a metaphor. Science educators would never equip students with explosive chemicals and then send them off into the wilderness to explore the chemicals' properties on their own. Similarly, we might conceptualize classrooms as "discussion labs," where teachers and students talk about rhetorical codes of conduct and their consequences, pausing frequently to have conversations about the conversation. It's important that teachers help students learn to monitor how they discuss political issues, and to evaluate the dangers of mixing preposterous claims, vitriol, and groupthink in the public sphere.

What can families and community members do to support these kinds of discussions? First, communicate to kids that public problems rarely have simple solutions, read widely and ask great questions, talk about contentious issues at home, and model the process of substantiating political positions with credible information. Second, recognize and confront school-institutional pressures that dissuade teachers from addressing political dilemmas. This might involve endorsing those who embrace that charge and pressing school administrators and other policy makers to provide resources for more frequent, more effective classroom dialogue.

Generating productive political discussions in the classroom is vexing, but doing so is vitally important. A central role of public education is to empower students to think deeply about how we ought to interact with each other and work toward solutions to public problems in a democratic society. And we must more fully embrace this role in our schools, no matter the topic of conversation, and despite the institutional influences that point us elsewhere.