Students debating

Balancing perspectives in civics education

I just listened to this podcast from the New Books in Public Policy podcast, which was an interview of Diana Hess about her new book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. There is a lot to the interview and I recommend a listen (as well as subscribing to the podcast on iTunes if you have an interest in Public Policy issues). But I just want to highlight one point today.

She describes a high school in a very progressive district where a large majority of the student population (and their families) have strongly liberal political views. The teacher was perhaps even more liberal than the students. He was teaching about abortion rights and he realized that all of his students were pro-choice and he was intensely so. To be a good teacher, he made it a point to find an outside speaker who could come in and give the pro-life side of the debate.

At first, his students were disappointed. It is much more comforting to hear your teacher echo your preexisting opinions than it is to have him question them. But the teacher realized that students would learn much more from the contradictory opinion, and by the end of the year, the students had learned to appreciate the practice.

My Take

As a teacher, I can attest to the fact that it is also more comfortable to present students with a perspective they already agree with or that will be easy for them to learn because it is aligned with what they already believe. It can be daunting to present something you know they will disagree with. Even more so when you don’t agree with the side you are presenting either. How can you do an effective job teaching it? And how will you answer the tough questions?

But it is also true that they will learn a lot more from a cogent telling of the other side. If you, as a teacher, don’t feel sufficiently able to present the opposing side, getting an outside speaker is a brave but necessary step. And admirable too. I did this last week when I taught a class on the use of color in design. I had a whole slide on why they should take everything I say with a grain of salt and gave them a folder of outside readings with alternative views. It felt good.

Your Turn

For all of the teachers out there, do you make an honest attempt to present all sides of topics your cover when there are different perspectives out there? This could be for politics, scientific issues where there are different perspectives, different economic explanations for some behavior, or whatever. As a student or when considering policy recommendations being made by candidates running for office, how carefully do you listen? Do you jump to the candidate promoting the policy you already believe in?

Image Credit: Reece Weaver

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *