Discussing Controversial Issues:
Public Issues Discussion
The public issues model, developed by the Harvard Social Studies Project during the 1960s and 1970s, rests on the idea that citizens in a democracy differ in their views and priorities and that democratic values often conflict in specific cases. The resolution of complex public issue within democratic society requires citizens to negotiate their differences through careful analysis and public discussion. Helping students develop their abilities to take part in this conversation is thus a crucial aspect of civic education. 
In the public issues model, the purpose of discussion is not to resolve disagreements—although that can be an outcome—but to help students learn to state their ideas with more precision, to develop stronger rationales for their positions, and to understand precisely how their ideas differ from those of others.

As with other models, students must come to the discussion with knowledge of the issue at hand. Thus, preparation in this model involves not only learning the skills of Public Issues discussion but also gathering background information (often presented through specific cases that represent the issue at hand) and examining strong examples of arguments that support various positions on the issue. This information can be presented in a range of ways—through mini-lectures, whole-class reading and comprehension activities, jigsaw strategies—the possibilities are numerous and can be supplemented by additional student research.

A key element in Public Issues discussion is the recognition that disagreements can be of several types and that different strategies may be needed to deal with them. In general, the kinds of questions that arise in discussing public issues fall into three categories, as illustrated below:

• Questions involving facts and explanations. These questions focus on disagreements about the descriptions or explanations of events. In discussion, factual claims can be supported by appealing to common knowledge, citing personal observations, or referring to authoritative sources. In the face of disagreements about facts/explanations, discussion can be moved forward by stipulation (participants agree to proceed on the basis of one set of factual claims, even though not all agree with those claims) or by agreeing to support their positions using other arguments. It should be pointed out, however, that fact/explanation issues over which there is disagreement offer an opportunity for student inquiry. As the examples in the chart above indicate, a discussion of a controversial public issue can identify many questions to spark student research.

• Questions of definition. These questions revolve around the meaning of important words or phrases. Resolving these questions can generally be achieved through use of an authoritative source or agreement to use a word in a specific way. While the previous sentence might suggest that definitional issues are not of much significance, that conclusion would be false. Disagreements over definitional issues are often numerous, profound, and unrecognized, contributing to discussions that go nowhere. Learning to identify that two discussants have totally different conceptions of what we mean by terrorism, for example, is an important skill.

• Ethical or value questions.
These questions deal with judgments about what should or ought to be done--judgments about rightness and wrongness. Often, disagreements about these kinds of questions have to do with which of two conflicting goods (e.g., liberty and security) should take priority. In resolving such disagreements, the public issues model would encourage students to look for compromises that violate each contending value to the least extent possible. One of the most powerful techniques for clarifying thinking on ethical issues is the analogy. Examining how an issue might be resolved in one or more related cases forces discussants to make distinctions and qualifications that strengthen and clarify their position. In the wake of the September 11 attack, many commentators drew upon Pearl Harbor as an analogy. Although it is not a particularly close analogy, its frequent use makes it a fruitful case for analysis. Cases that were more clearly international terrorist attacks (e.g., the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 or the embassy bombings) or that involved domestic terrorism (e.g., "rogue" fundamentalist Christians' lethal attacks on abortion clinics or the Oklahoma City bombing) would help students make other useful distinctions.


When students have skills in analyzing and discussing issues, they are able to keep conversation moving; instead of becoming bogged down in questions and problems, students continue to delve into the complexities of the issue.

In the public issues model, the teacher becomes a facilitator, helping students have productive conversations with one another.

 

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