Discussing Controversial Issues Study
Diana Hess, Principal Investigator
Teaching young people how to discuss controversial issues is often recommended as an especially promising approach to civic education. However, the research data on which the field currently draws is inadequate, and some of the findings are contradictory. As a consequence, while many civic educators favor the inclusion of issues discussions in the school curriculum, we do not know enough about what students learn through such discussions, how discussions should be structured to maximize valued civic outcomes, and whether participation in the discussions has long-term effects on students’ participation in the political world.
We are currently embarking on the culminating stage of a 5-year study of civic education. Two research questions guide our work:
- How do high school students experience and learn from participating in social studies courses that emphasize the discussion of controversial international and/or domestic issues?
- Do such discussions influence students’ political and civic participation after they leave high school? If so, what are the pathways to participation?
This ongoing study is housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-Madison), one of the nation’s oldest and most highly esteemed university-based education research and development centers. The study has been funded by grants from the McCormick Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and the Choices for the 21st Century Education Program at Brown University.
Data collection began in the spring of 2005. The sample includes 1,100 students and 40 teachers in three states (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). We have administered a pre- and post-course questionnaire to students and their teachers and are analyzing the data. The bulk of the data comes from observing classes and issues forums, interviewing teachers about their educational philosophies and practices, and interviewing a large subsample of students (n = 225) during the last 2 weeks of the course. The first round of follow-up telephone interviews was conducted with 402 students who graduated from high school in the summer and fall of 2006, and the second and final round of interviews with those students and up to an additional 200 students is underway and will be completed in the summer of 2009.