Controversy in the Classroom – A Compelling Introduction to a Pedagogy that Can Democratize 6th – 12th Grade Instruction

November 17, 2015 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Classroom Debating, Differentiation, Professional Capacity Development, The Debatifier

University of Wisconsin – Madison Dean of the School of Education Diana Hess is a national leader in argument pedagogy and civics education (and also an academic partner of Argument-Centered Education). Her first full-length publication, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (Routledge, 2009), helped make her reputation and forge her current trajectory of influence.  In this review we’re going to investigate the close connections between the work’s pedagogical theories and 6th – 12th grade argument-centered instruction.

Professor Hess extols the civic and democratizing importance of structuring argument about controversial issues in middle school and high school.  She presents a bevy of evidence for this conviction; one example is the 2003 report from the Carnegie Corporation titled “Civic Mission of the Schools,” which she quotes:

Studies that ask young people whether they had opportunities to discuss current issues in a classroom setting have consistently found that those who did participate in such discussions have a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communication skills, more civic knowledge, and more interest in discussing public affairs out of school.  Compared to other students, they also are more likely to say that they will vote and volunteer as adults (28).

Controversy in the Classroom provides an especially vivid quote from a teacher involved in one of the work’s referenced studies, developing the idea that arguing in discussion and taking part in classroom debate is essential for airing out differing ideas and views, and is in some ways a prerequisite for students coming to their own independent thinking on important issues that we teach in our classrooms.

I think a real important critical thinking skill is the ability to take a different position and to argue it with credence and credibility.  I think it’s an incredible skill for citizens, enlightened citizens in a democracy, because it’s rare that issues are completely black and white.  It’s important to give minority voices a really serious airing in a classroom.  Because then people will give their true opinion.  I think it’s also real important to have kids take on different viewpoints as a way of better understanding their own viewpoints.  Doing the work of seminars is trying on ideas (119).

In one of the work’s most compelling sections she delves into the politico-pedagogical questions surrounding the decisions we make about how to frame the topics, issues, controversies we want our students to make arguments about.  In short, she asks: what is at stake in our determining exactly what the debate should be about?  Should students be debating about climate change in an environmental science or current history course, for example, or is the very act of saying that the issue is open for debate a biased political act?  Gay marriage, evolution, Shakespeare’s authorship — these are additional examples that come readily to mind as settled or closed topic, no longer central or salient as portals of inquiry into the deeper reaches of our content areas. Her fundamental point is that we’re making highly resonant decisions every time we frame an issue for argument and debate, every time we formulate a debatable issue.

There is perhaps no decision more important than determining whether a topic is a matter of legitimate controversy in the first place. . . . As an educator who advocates the inclusion of controversial issues in the curriculum, I frequently encounter the view that all topics should be presented to students as controversial so they can decide which view to support.  I find that view irresponsible.  Our job as teachers is to make the best judgements we can about the content of our courses.  It is a challenging task that will be done with more integrity if we make public our decisions about what questions we present as open or closed and the grounds on which those decisions are based (120-122).

Another important point made in Controversy in the Classroom is that it is essential for schools, networks and districts to invest in high quality professional development and instructional resources to make teaching controversies practical and efficacious at scale. Building classroom learning around debatable issues and controversies salient to the curriculum is too close to the core of what all classes should be doing to leave it to the preserve of the most ambitious, energized teachers in a school. School leadership should make it a principle of their operation to provide every teacher the training and support needed to adopt these professional practices and begin to hone and master them themselves. It is essential that professional development to support this democratizing controversy-driven instruction attain three standards.

(1) It must distinguish argument-based instruction from other forms of discussion that occur in the classroom. Argumentation requires the engagement of contrasting, competing, and contradicting ideas. This is also a core tenet of Argument-Centered Education.

(2) It must incorporate high-quality curricular resources. ACE adds the standard that those resources should be developed collaboratively with classroom teachers and should be curriculum- and unit-specific, rather than imported from external providers.

(3) It must be ongoing and school-embedded (167).

A review of a book on teaching controversies might lose some credibility if it were to omit intellectual conflict entirely. Professor Hess begins in this volume plying a theme that has become somewhat more prominent in her later work – namely, the importance of ideological diversity in the classroom. To be precise, the issue in this work is introduced in Chapter 5, “Diversity in Our Midst: Ideological Diversity in Classrooms and Its Impact on Controversial Issues Discussion,” and not very pointedly. “Our survey data showed that students in ideologically diverse classrooms were more likely to report that they have a good understanding of political issues, and somewhat more likely to report feeling positive about expressing their opinions in a group” (84). Identifying developed ideological positions, however, among 6th – 12th graders is often less than meaningful, because students’ political views are still developing. Further, even within groups of students with ideological commonalities, there are often still many sources of difference and controversy. Think here of the fractiousness of intra-party disagreements in the Congress, or in certain political constituencies. And if identifying and evaluating argumentation is a central focus, there are many ways to do this that don’t require ideologically polarized or highly heterogeneous student groups.  In short, ideological diversity doesn’t seem to merit the full attention that Professor Hess has given it.

Overall, too, this work leaves the reader wanting more. Particularly from the standpoint of upgrading educational impact by emphasizing argumentation, one would like to see this work dig further into how controversies are engaged by students – some more on the nuts and bolts of the way controversies are taught, the ways students build arguments on the issues, the ways that arguments are refuted, compared, evaluated, resolved. Which instructional practices, for example, are most crucial to achieving the democratizing and learning benefits of a classroom culture that is rich in controversy and argument? In this way, this work feels like an array of elegant appetizers at a prestigious reception: very well worth consuming, and in a sense illuminating, but also suggestive of a banquet more filling and robust.

Nevertheless, the work ends with a convincing declaration that the stakes are high in our work to build argument about important issues into the center of our courses – “to teach with and for discussion,” that is, using classroom argument as a vehicle for content delivery, in addition to teaching students how to better argue and discuss as its own widely applicable and transferable skill.

Democratic education without controversial issues discussions would be like a forest without trees, or an ocean without fish, or a symphony without sound. Why? Because controversies about the nature of the public good and how to achieve it, along with how to mediate among competing democratic values, are intrinsic parts of democracy.  If there is no controversy, there is no democracy.  It is as simple as that.  If we want democratic education to be both democratic and educational, then we have to teach young people about controversial political issues (162).

So in debating key contestable and controversial issues in our classrooms, we’re saving (or at least advancing) democracy.  That’s a project well worth doing – now, in a time when democratic and egalitarian values feel under siege from without and within, more than ever.

In all, Controversy in the Classroom is a compelling introduction to a pedagogical approach — teaching through controversies and argumentation — that has the potential to democratize education, both by connecting our students to robust civic dialogues that our democracy depends on, and by training our students in the discourses of power that influences those conversations most definitively.