Paula McAvoy is a professor in the College of Education at North Carolina State University. Her co-authored book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in
Democratic Education, won the 2016 Outstanding Book of the Year from AERA and the 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Education. She leads professional development workshops that help teachers learn how to engage students in political discussions. She was also the lead developer of The Discussion Project at UW-Madison.
There is a well-worn axiom that simply to measure something is to change it. Much of society is currently measuring what is seen as a more polarized society and made assumptions that our language has become more coarse, our political ideas more fixed and that there is blame to be assigned. We ponder and regret what we see as the advent of “fake news” when all we may be witnessing is the rebranding of the half-truth.
It is tempting, then, as an educator to simply opt-out, fearing backlash. Paula McAvoy, assistant professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University, argues that it is more important than ever to opt-in.
As the nation gears up for another presidential election cycle, school teachers may be wringing their hands. Political polarization, fake news, interference in our elections by foreign nations and a divisive president has turned what ought to be a lively public debate about the nation’s pressing problems into a partisan battle.
For the teacher wishing to teach students about elections — including the policies being discussed in the public sphere — it may feel like stepping into a minefield. When mentioning immigration policies, for example, should a teacher use the term “undocumented worker” or “illegal immigrant?” How will students react? What about parents? These are the sorts of judgments that vex teachers and administrators, causing some to conclude that political topics should be avoided altogether.
In our co-authored book, “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” Diana Hess and I argue that classrooms ought to be “political.” By this we mean, classrooms should be places in which students are engaged in discussions about questions that ask, “How should we live together?” This is the fundamental question of a democratic society.
Questions about how to live together include: “Who should be the next president?” and “How should the United States treat people seeking asylum?” These are appropriate topics for the classroom because schools are institutions that ought to prepare young people for democratic life.
The important question for our polarized era is not whether teachers should teach about controversial political issues, but how to do so in a way that is fair and promotes democratic ideals. I offer three suggestions for teachers and administrators about how to do this well.
Being unconditionally supportive of students does not mean that teachers never correct students. Instead, it means that the teacher is ready to use moments of conflict as opportunities to help students grow in their understanding of the issue and each other. Invite more discussion, not less. In this way, the teacher communicates, “As long as you are my students, I am unconditionally here to help you learn.”
The key ingredient to all three suggestions, and accomplishing successful classroom discussions of controversial issues, boils down to trust. Democracies do not work well without public trust. Discussions do not work well when there is no trust in the classroom. This relational aspect of teaching is often overlooked.