Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Search
MENU
  Workshop 7: Controversial Public Policy Issues  
Home    |    Workshops 1-8    |    Tools for Teaching    |    Support Materials    |    Site Map

Workshop 7

Workshop Session
Lesson Plan
Teacher Perspectives
Student Perspectives
Essential Readings
Other Lessons

Other Lessons

Creating Strategies and Conditions for Civil Discourse About Controversial Issues
by John Allen Rossi

John Allen Rossi, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, examines several major approaches to teaching about controversial issues, explores their benefits and weaknesses, and looks at how they might be combined with a variety of constructivist methodologies. At the end of the article, Rossi presents an annotated list of instructional materials for teaching controversial issues.

In a recent column, Michael Kramer (1995) contended that civil discourse about controversial political issues was virtually an oxymoron in American society today. The media are replete with incendiary discourse designed to get attention, startle, and attack, as reflected in the dialogue on radio and interaction on television talk shows like those of Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake. For adolescents, such discourse serves as a model for how to discuss and manage conflicting perspectives on controversial issues.

In contrast with the feverish talk show efforts to stir up feelings on minor issues, numerous studies (Shaver, Davis, and Helburn, 1980; Goodlad, 1984; McNeil, 1986) report the absence of any dialogue about significant controversial issues in many high school classrooms. Yet it is a well-established tenet of social studies education that promoting civic competence requires informed, thoughtful social interaction among students about controversial public issues. The incendiary discourse in the media and the silence of the classroom pose a challenge to this tenet, obligating the profession to demand more opportunities for open, honest, and thoughtful dialogue in social studies classrooms.

This is not to say that any discussion of controversial issues will lead to civic competence. The potential for positive and negative consequences is present whenever controversy is discussed. Whether the consequences are positive or negative depend on the conditions under which the controversy occurs and the way it is managed. In other words, classroom context and climate are extremely important variables in promoting the abilities and dispositions necessary for an informed, thoughtful, and caring citizenry. In this article, I will not focus on what those abilities and dispositions might be. Other articles in this special section [Ed. Note: Social Education, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1996] define them. Instead, I will first provide an overview of approaches and discussion formats advocated in the teaching of controversial issues. Second, I will propose a set of contextual conditions in which these approaches and formats might best promote civic competence.

Major Approaches to Teaching About Controversial Issues
Four major approaches to teaching about controversial issues frequently appear in the literature--problem solving, public issues, decision making, and moral reasoning. Each approach contains a set of clearly articulated goals and a framework for classroom practice derived from theoretical premises. In addition, each approach offers the teacher a choice of a variety of discussion formats (e.g., role-playing, debating, class discussion) when implementing the approach in the classroom. In this section, I will describe and provide examples of the four approaches, leaving a discussion of the choice of formats to the next section. Although differences among the four approaches should not be exaggerated, I will explore a few of the subtle differences among the approaches.

Problem Solving
The term "problem" has several definitions. Dewey (1933) defined problem solving as a condition wherein individuals experience a state of doubt or perplexity about a question or situation that triggers the active search for knowledge that will solve the conflict. The purpose is for students to hypothesize, collect and organize data, and draw conclusions about problems for which there is no definitive answer. Although certain values may influence the conclusion drawn by students, the purpose is not for students to make value judgments about the problem. Adapted from Dewey (1933), the problem-solving approach follows five steps: (1) creating a puzzle, dilemma, or state of doubt about a topic; (2) stating the problem in the form of a question (e.g., what explains this?); (3) generating some hypotheses from students about the problem; (4) testing the validity of the hypotheses through collecting and organizing data; and (5) asking students to draw a tentative conclusion about the problem based on the evidence available.

For example, in an international relations class, the teacher might organize a series of lessons around the question, "When should one country intervene in the affairs of another country?" The teacher would present the students with two scenarios for U.S. intervention in international conflicts, one in the Gulf War and the second in Bosnia. The teacher then poses the question, "Why did the United States intervene militarily so quickly in the Gulf War and not in Bosnia?" Students would generate a series of hypotheses from their existing knowledge and begin a search for information from a variety of sources about the two scenarios to test their ideas. Eventually, each student or group of students would draw a conclusion about the problem posed by the question.

Public Issues
Dating back to the Harvard Social Studies Project (Oliver and Newmann, 1967), the purpose of the public issues approach is to help students analyze and discuss persisting human dilemmas and value conflicts related to public issues, both historical and contemporary.1 The analytical framework entails the investigation of a policy question by analyzing the factual, definitional, and moral components of the policy under consideration.

For example, an investigation of Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 requires the analysis of the following questions: (1) Was the bomb militarily necessary? (factual); (2) What was meant by the term "surrender?" (definitional); and (3) Was it morally justifiable to kill Japanese civilians in order to save the lives of American soldiers? (moral). In the public issues approach, students research and discuss these questions as they move toward taking and defending a position on the policy question--should the United States have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? The approach views the classroom as a community of learners in conversation, eventually making value judgments about enduring public questions.

Decision Making
Decision making can be defined as the making of reasoned choices from among several alternatives (Cassidy and Kurfman, 1977). The steps in the approach include (1) defining the situation that requires a decision, its origins, and the goals of the decision maker; (2) identifying available alternatives and their good and bad consequences; and (3) selecting an alternative and assessing how it best fits the goals of the decision maker (Cassidy and Kurfman, 1977). Like the public issues approach, decision making explores value conflicts and judgments, but, unlike public issues, its focus lies more in identifying the range of available choices.

Again using Hiroshima as an example, this approach would ask students first to define the situation and goals of the United States in July 1945. Then, students would identify and predict the consequences of possible alternatives like invading by land, detonating a demonstration bomb over a deserted island, offering the retention of the Emperor as a condition of surrender, and the dropping of the bomb. Like the public issues approach, the predicting of consequences often entails a consideration of disputed factual and moral questions. Finally, students would choose the most desirable alternative given the predicted consequences and the goals of the United States. A recent adaptation of this approach is The Choices for the 21st Century Education Project established by the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This project has designed curricular units that ask students to assess the choices on a number of foreign policy issues, ranging from U.S. policy in Vietnam to keeping the peace in the post-Cold War world.

Moral Reasoning
Drawing on the research of Lawrence Kohlberg, this approach seeks to advance the quality of student reasoning about ethical dilemmas. It contends that student reasoning becomes less self-centered, less conformist, and more attuned to the legal rights of others and the well-being of society if exposed to properly led discussions of moral dilemmas (Lockwood and Harris, 1985). These moral dilemmas can be derived from history (e.g., Rosa Park's choice not to move to the back of the bus) or from the real-life experiences of students.2

Beyer (1976) proposed a multi-staged strategy to guide such moral discussions: (1) defining and clarifying the dilemma; (2) asking each student to take a tentative position on the dilemma; (3) dividing students into small groups to identify reasons for their position; (4) conducting a class discussion that defends, challenges, and probes the reasoning; and (5) extending the reasoning to the larger moral question raised by the dilemma. In the case of Hiroshima, the discussion might concentrate on the moral dilemma confronted by atomic scientists, military leaders, and the State Department prior to Truman's decision. Was the dropping of the bomb morally justifiable? Does the fact that the bomb would shorten the war and save lives justify the means used? Was the atomic bomb any more immoral than regular incendiary bombs? Was the bomb a means of punishing and gaining revenge? If so, is that morally justified? Although students may struggle with definitional and factual questions and propose options in the process, the emphasis of moral reasoning lies in probing the moral justification for behavior.

Back to the Top


© Annenberg Foundation 2014. All rights reserved. Legal Policy