Discussing Controversial Issues:
Why Is Discussion Important to Civic Education?

"Discussions help me understand what the issue is and how it affects everyone."—Sarah

"If we discuss the issue, we’ll become more intent on it." —Garrett

Sarah and Garrett are eighth-graders in Lori Mable’s class at Thunder Ridge Middle School in the Cherry Creek School District. Their thoughts on participating in classroom discussions of controversial issues reflect the positive effects that such discussions can and do have on young people.

Discussion of current local, national, and international issues—especially those having relevance for today’s students—is one of the research-based promising approaches recommended in the highly regarded The Civic Mission of Schools Report (Carnegie Corporation and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2003). That recommendation is based, in part, on the recent International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement study 90,000 students in 28 countries. That study found that discussion of controversial issues in an open classroom climate is a significant predictor of:

• Civic knowledge
• Support for democratic values
• Participation in political discussions
• Political engagement

In conversations with opinion makers and educators in Colorado throughout 2003 and 2004, Center for Education in Law and Democracy staff found widespread support for improving discussion of controversial issues in our state’s classrooms. Coloradans want young people to be engaged in deliberation on important issues because the ability to take part in civil discussions of controversial matters is essential to citizenship in democracy. Coloradans also recognize the need to provide teachers with high quality professional development and materials that will assist them in their efforts.

How Can This Web Module Help?

This web module is a first effort to address the need for materials and professional development electronically. The Discussing Controversial Issues module provides a variety of tools that can be used by individual teachers or by educators planning professional development focused on discussing controversial issues.

One of the questions addressed through the research of Dr. Diana Hess, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is: What do teachers skilled in engaging students in discussing controversial issues do? The tools in this module are organized according to the answers to this question identified by Hess’s research:

• Teachers who use discussion effectively establish democratic norms in the classroom and involve students in creating a classroom climate conducive to discussion.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively teach students what discussion is and what it isn't.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively choose appropriate "live" issues.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively select discussion models and then teach students how to participate in discussion.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively prepare and have students prepare. Preparation means helping students develop a knowledge base on which they can draw in the discussion. It also means selecting materials that provide balance, exposing students to multiple perspectives on the issue.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively hold high expectations for all students to take part in the intellectual work of discussion. Engaging all students is a major challenge. In this section of the module, we look at ways to engage reticent students in discussion.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively provide meaningful feedback on discussion skills. To provide such feedback, teachers need to think carefully about how to assess discussion.

• Teachers who use discussion effectively work on their own practice—taking risks, studying discussion, seeking feedback from students and/or colleagues who observe the teacher’s facilitation of discussion. To support teachers in developing their own reflection skills and to provide a glimpse of skilled teachers’ thinking, we provide teacher reflections in this section.

To provide practical support for teachers, we also provide a data base of links to sites providing diverse views on selected issues of concern to Coloradans. The data base also includes links to discussion-based lesson plans. We invite teachers to submit your own lessons for possible inclusion on the page.

This module was developed by Laurel Singleton, CELD Associate, with the support of the Center for Civic Education. We welcome your feedback; send comments to: CELD.