Paula McAvoy
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.

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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.

#BelieveInEducation

“I believe that education ought to help young people answer the question, ‘How should we live together?’”

– Paula McAvoy, assistant professor of social studies education, North Carolina State University

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.

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Classroom talk strives for a much more disciplined version of democratic engagement. In the classroom, students become a mini-public, seeking the best answers to pressing issues. To that end, students must listen to one another, evaluate evidence and claims, give reasons, ask questions, and respectfully disagree.

I think these rules of engagement for policy discussion in the classroom is essential. Hopefully, if students learn how to engage in civic dialogue in class, they will be able to take these skills into their future discussions with coworkers, families, and friends as adults. It is imperative that the country start to move away from attacking individuals for their differing opinions, and work on trying to have meaningful conversations with others that they may disagree with.

Discussions should be designed with intention, so that educational goals are met, learning is deepened and students improve their discussion skills.

This is so critical to a robust, meaningful educational experience and I was so encouraged to read this at the heart of this discussion. While the role of current events and political positions can be supplemental elements of a classroom discussion, students must maintain a mindset in which every contribution is intentional and informative, as opposed to emotional responses to the subject at hand. Any conversation with political undertones can easily get 'carried away.' However, in order to preserve the freedoms that allow politics to enter the classroom, intentionality is paramount.

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.

Civic education in school and teaching democratic values and beliefs, regardless of anyone's political stance, is key to help a young, emerging population successfully engage in political conversations in a loving, understanding, and accepting manner.

Discussion involves giving reasons and responding to the views of others. It also requires participants to be open to having their views challenged by new information and the perspectives of others.

This is such a vital activity in schools and I fear it is lacking in many regions. It is ok to learn and grow as an individual and to evolve on certain issues when presented new evidence. Too many people are unable to be open to new ideas due to polarization and it is increasingly having a negative impact on our country. This needs to change. We need more civility in civics.

The purpose of classroom talk is not to beat opponents or make others in the community feel unwelcome. Instead, students seek to investigate differences with the intention of remaining friends.

I think this would be really good especially since we live in a tome where it seems like people don't know how to talk to each other respectfully about political issues that they disagree on. If done right, this can be a good way to teach kids that it is important to respect other people's viewpoints, how to articulate their own viewpoints, and the understanding that personal experience often influences people's political beliefs.

These are the sorts of judgments that vex teachers and administrators, causing some to conclude that political topics should be avoided altogether.

I hear this often coming from educators and quite frankly, this was not something that was commonly discussed with me in the educational setting until I was in graduate school. In one of my previous education classes I shared that I had never talked about religion in the classroom until I came to Pepperdine. The first time I heard the class discussion involve religion I was worried, but then realized that it was OK to have these kinds of conversations so that we can learn more about others' world views. I think that it is important for students to learn and be engaged in these types of conversations when possible, but we also have to be sure to be mindful that the space that these conversations are being held in are safe and inclusive. I think that if teachers can create a space in the classroom where students can feel safe to ask questions then these conversations do not need to be avoided.

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.

Reflecting upon my own experience in high school classrooms, I do not feel that discussions were encouraged as much as they should be. There were very few classes that encouraged discussions, and even then it was more related to answering questions regarding what we were studying. It is so important to teach students early on that discussions do not mean to fight or attack, but to listen, grow, and learn while still being able to express our views and be respectful of the views of others. Regularly holding discussions is a great way to keep students involved and to learn where their mindsets are. If a student does have a moment of conflict, the teacher could step in and help the student think through it. It is important to engage students in critical thinking exercises early in their education journey to ensure high thinking individuals.

When an offense occurs, a teacher may be tempted to punish students for violating the discussion norms — and in extreme cases that is appropriate. But, in my experience, these are most often the comments of emerging political thinkers.

Allowing people to make mistakes, especially during their developmental years, is imperative to their growth. Our society has evolved into a consequentialist "cancel culture" that punishes people for mistakes they make, ultimately deterring people from thinking for themselves. As leaders of thought in the classroom, teachers must have the strength to promote healthy classroom discussions that will inevitably host differing viewpoints. Students who are able to listen with open ears and an open mind will benefit the most and go on to be true leaders in our society.