A study housed at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Diana Hess, Principal Investigator

The following research findings are drawn from a longitudinal study (Discussing Controversial Issues) housed at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Diana Hess, Principal Investigator. The data is collected from students and teachers using resources from the Choices Program during two school years. Data used for this report includes observations in classrooms, at professional development sessions, and at student forums, as well as interviews of 55 students and their teachers conducted at the end of the semester or school year being studied, and student follow-up phone interview data taken after the students graduated.

Note: Phone interviews include survey-type items that are analyzed with quantitative methods, and open-ended items that are being analyzed qualitatively. Final interviews were completed in summer 2009.

Research Findings

All of the teachers in this study report positive academic outcomes for students.

The teachers were unanimous in their admiration for the materials. They used words like “intellectual,” “valuable,” and  “impressive.” As one 23-year veteran teacher declared, “these are the best curriculum materials I have ever seen.” One reason for the praise was grounded in what they saw as the positive outcomes for students including: using primary sources, learning to take perspectives, developing critical thinking and reading skills, and practicing the discussion of controversial issues. Furthermore, teachers appreciated that the materials addressing contemporary issues were current, provided students with rich background information, and were written at level that is “challenging” yet accessible to most high school students. As one teacher explained, addressing current events can be tricky to teach:

“There is just so much to know. And how do you get kids into it without giving them a whole semester of background information? The Choices material provides that background information at a high reading level but it is a doable level for my students [Freshmen]. And the simulations that are provided in each of the current issue units do just what I wanted: Let’s just get in, just get involved, have a structure that gives you a reason to speak. And that will motivate people to learn as much as they can and as quickly as they can, and they will own their own knowledge and be able to articulate their ideas in a way that will be heightened by the whole experience.”

Many of the teachers shared a similar view that teaching current events to high school students is difficult because of the lack of background and that Choices provided the “historical foundation” to begin the discussion. This, they found, allowed students to take “this knowledge that they have gained from the Choices materials and [apply] it to new situations as they come up. So they are able to think on their feet.”

Teachers recognize and appreciate the quality of the Choices materials.

The fact that the materials in the Choices Program are developed by professional curriculum writers with input from renowned academics in international studies causes teachers to have confidence that the materials are sound and represent a range of perspectives. Moreover, teachers recognize that the materials are a resource that they can not create on their own.

As one teacher remarked, “I’m not a real textbook guy, especially when you are dealing with contemporary issues. So I would spend untold number of hours gleaning The Times, The Trib, everything. And then trying to come up with these interactive type lessons that basically when I opened up that first Choices, I’m like ‘oh my God! Hey, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’”

Students in Choices classes most appreciate the opportunity to engage in serious discussions in which the views of students take center stage.

Research shows that in many social studies classes there is little discussion, which is especially troubling given how much students like discussion. To students in the Choices classes the most powerful component was the quality and quantity of discussions on controversial issues. Students like discussion because they want to hear the views of other students and appreciate realizing that there are multiple and competing ways to frame and resolve an issue.

The recognition of ideological diversity in their classrooms was startling to some students who reported not having the opportunity to hear other students talk much in other classes in high school. Moreover, it became apparent to us that students who were in discussion-rich Choices classes became more comfortable with the ideal and reality of political conflict. That is, for many students the discussions “normalized” and made them less fearful of a society in which people can disagree about the best ways to solve important problems. Often the very simple realization that their views are not the “only” or even the “best” views was important to students.

For example, in a follow-up phone interview with a college senior who had participated in Choices in high school, the student said: “We would; by chance; have to assume different roles so, even if you didn’t necessarily agree with one side, it was a neat and fun challenge to think in the other person’s perspective and through that you gain a sense of empathy which becomes extremely important as you go on to college and encounter people with different views. It also helps your argument if you’re debating and have to see an argument from both sides.”

Students in Choices classes form rich conceptions of what it means to be an engaged citizen.

Quite consistently students reported that learning about real issues and building skills to engage in productive discussions of them shaped their ideas about what “good” citizens should do in a democracy. Students explained that learning about issues was an important responsibility—not just for international issues, but issues at all levels.

Consistently we hear students in the follow-up phone interviews describe how the Choices class shaped their interest in the political world in addition to helping them gain the confidence needed to keep educated about important issues. As one student told us, “it had a lot of influence on me because I feel like I can have an educated opinion on how the U.S. conducts itself throughout the world.”

For some students the Choices class caused them to consider a career in politics, and one student went into great detail explaining that becoming a teacher (just like Mrs. X—her Choices teacher) was now her career path. She recognized that one way to shape the political world was to cause young people to believe that they had a responsibility to engage as citizens.

Students learn that they have a responsibility to participate in discussions of important issues and that they need to develop the skills to do so competently.

In many classrooms students are expected to listen (typically to the teacher). In the “best practice” Choices classes students were expected to talk and teachers did not assume that talking well was an innate skill, or just a form of learning that some students did well, and others did not. In other words, teachers recognized that talking could and should be taught (similar to writing).

Students consistently reported that they learned how to talk, mentioning that the various forms of discussion (in small and large groups, with assigned versus unassigned positions) helped build their discussion skills. For some students, learning how to talk with confidence was especially powerful. One student reported that talking about controversial issues was “exhilarating. I felt powerful and confident.” Another student reported that a form of discussion in which multiple views are aired and interrogated was not something she was used to (“in my family we don’t do multiple perspectives”), but that the Choices class enabled her to feel comfortable speaking and listening.

It is important to note, however, that if teachers did not reign in students who were discussion bullies, many of the advantages of discussion-rich teaching and learning were washed out by fear and resentment of other students in the classroom.

Many teachers are drawn to Choices because it improves an aspect of their practice that they would like to develop.

Teachers like that Choices is in line with practices that they believe constitute high-quality teaching. In some instances, teachers recognized that the curriculum strengthened what they saw as weaknesses in their practice. One teacher, felt it was important for her students that she include more foreign policy issues in her curriculum “and just didn’t know how to get started.” Choices gave her and her students the background and structure she needed to bring these issues into the curriculum.

Several of the most experienced teachers are dynamic teachers who are comfortable taking center-stage in the classroom and realize that they need to give students an opportunity to speak to each other as well. In one classroom we observed, one of these teachers clearly wanted to have students discuss, but it was extremely difficult for him to give up the floor. The Choices activities actually created a structure that opened up some classroom space for the students to do more of the intellectual work.

However, it is important to note that we saw a wide range of expertise in the Choices classrooms. While most of the Choices teachers had developed what we labeled “best practice” classes, characterized by robust and engaging discussions that involved many students, some were still relying on recitation instead of discussion, and others seemed to use the materials primarily as a launching pad for teacher lectures. While the materials did help many teachers transform their teaching, it is still the case that professional development is needed to help teachers learn how to facilitate high-quality discussions.

Teachers believe that the Choices materials and pedagogical approaches work well with students of varied academic ability levels.

The majority of teachers in the study used Choices in required or elective courses that did not “track” students for previously demonstrated academic performance. In these courses there was typically a wide variation of students skills (assessed by reading grade level, comfort and experience with public speaking, and writing ability).

In our observations we found that students from across a spectrum of academic skills could comfortably use the Choices materials and that the explicit emphasis on teaching speaking and reasoning skills enabled many students to develop abilities that are typically associated with students in “upper” tracks. This is not to suggest that all students resonated equally to the materials—but that a combination of the engagement of the issues embedded in the materials (especially contemporary issues) and the highly interactive approaches proved helpful and interesting to many students.

This is an especially important finding because previous research has shown that many teachers believe that only “advanced” students can engage with challenging contemporary issues and pedagogical approaches that put much of the classroom intellectual work on the students’ shoulders.

The Capitol Forum provides students with an important opportunity to engage with diverse perspectives and is a forum for practicing the skills they have developed in class.

Students who participated in the Capitol Forum reported many strengths in this component of the Choices Program: learning from resource people; the importance of preparation to deliberate; the need to accurately “represent” the views of their classmates who did not attend; and most consistently, the opportunity to talk with students from schools and communities that are different from their own. It was this final point that we heard students note most in the interviews. As one student explained:

“It was just really nice to hear different perspectives. Like definitely the kids from the inner city and the kids from out in the country–totally different worldviews–from like, you know, from here in the suburbs there is something in the middle, I guess. It was just interesting to talk to people who were genuinely interested in these issues and coming from different perspectives and being respectful of other people’s ideas.”

But it was not only the novelty of working with students from other schools that made an impression. Students also became more aware of the challenges of creating sound policy:

“I was one of the people to get chosen to go for a conference where we would discuss different international foreign policy in the Illinois state capitol. And we got to assume different roles and it was very special and educational. [I learned] deliberation and trying to form foreign policy, whatever it may be, requires lots of time and lots of things that are often overlooked and if you try to implement one policy one way, often times that policy will choke another one, so it is very hard to satisfy everyone.”

We are a bit surprised by how specific the students’ memories are of the Capitol Forum. One student remembered the contribution of a student from another school by name (“a girl named Natalie said that. . .” ), while others could describe the procedures used (“we were in groups of 5, mixed up with kids from other schools”), the specific issues discussed, and even the names of resource people who spoke at the event. It was clear that participation in the Capitol Forum was an extremely important, and in some cases capstone, event for those students who participated.

Discussing Controversial Issues Study

Diana Hess, Principal Investigator
March, 2009

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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