School of Education News

‘The Political Classroom’ a new resource for educators during polarizing times

December 04, 2014

Civics education in America is facing serious challenges in today’s highly partisan world.

On the one hand, intense political polarization is making it more difficult and riskier than ever before for teachers to wade into potentially controversial issues in their classrooms.

And yet, helping students develop their ability to deliberate political questions en route to becoming knowledgeable and engaged citizens is an essential component of our democracy.

The Political ClassroomIn an effort to help address this conundrum, Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy have published a new book titled, “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” that is based on the findings from a large, mixed-method study about discussions of political issues within high school classrooms.

"We hope this book will be a useful resource for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers who are interested in how schools can prepare young people to participate in democracy during these highly polarized times,” says Hess, a professor with UW-Madison’s top-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and the senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation. “While it is clear that engaging young people in discussions of highly controversial political issues can be challenging, the research we showcase in the book provides ample evidence for why teachers should not shy away from this form of democratic education."

In their book, Hess and McAvoy explain that teachers will make better professional judgments about teaching prickly political issues if they aim toward creating "political classrooms" that engage students in deliberations about questions that ask, "How should we live together?"

“The Political Classroom” utilizes the research findings to present in-depth and engaging cases of teacher practice. Paying particular attention to how political polarization and social inequality affect classroom dynamics, Hess and McAvoy promote a coherent plan for providing students with a nonpartisan political education and for improving the quality of classroom deliberations.

“Our book weaves together social science research and philosophic arguments that, together, guide teachers toward good professional judgments about classroom deliberations,” says McAvoy, an alumna of UW-Madison who is an associate program officer at the Spencer Foundation “Our hope is that we have made a contribution to democratic education that is more helpful to educators than a strictly empirical study and is more attentive to the complex task of teaching than a strictly philosophical work.”

A former high school teacher herself, Hess since 1997 has been researching how teachers engage their students in discussions of highly controversial political and constitutional issues, and what impact this approach to civic education has on what young people learn.  Her first book on this topic, “Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion,” won the National Council for the Social Studies Exemplary Research Award in 2009. It was in that book that Hess wrote how civic education without controversial issues is “like a symphony without sound.”

McAvoy earned her doctorate in philosophy of education from UW-Madison's Department of Educational Policy Studies. Her publications include work in democratic education, cultural and religious accommodation, and the ethics of teaching about politics. These interests were largely formed by her experiences teaching high school social studies in California for 10 years.

For more information about “The Political Classroom,” visit this publisher’s web page.

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