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May 29, 2007

discussing current issues in schools

(Chicago) Surveys consistently find that most American students discuss current events in their classrooms and feel free to express their own views in these discussions. For instance, according to CIRCLE's 2006 survey, three-quarters of current students ages 15 to 25 reported that they had the opportunity to discuss current political and social issues in their high school courses. The vast majority (80%) reported that they were encouraged to form their own opinions regarding these issues.

Scholars call the combination of time devoted to discussion plus tolerance of multiple perspectives an "open classroom climate." Experiencing an open classroom climate seems to predict all kinds of good outcomes (see PDF).

Yet, as Diana Hess notes, classroom observations consistently find that the vast majority of time in social studies classes is devoted to lectures; real deliberations of current issues are exceedingly rare.

How to square those two results? Hess suspects that students' reports of "open classroom climate" are misleading. I'd put it this way (speculating a bit): Most kids recall that at one time or another, their peers and a teacher discussed a controversial issue. Most students also think that their teachers are basically nice people. Therefore, if you (a high school student) say to Mr. Jones, "What did you think about Bush's speech last night?" or, "I'm really mad about the abortion decision," Mr. Jones will not bite your head off. He may even encourage your interest by saying something supportive--regardless of the position you take. He's probably interested in current events himself, if he teaches social studies. But he will soon call class to order and get back to the required material. If you are surveyed about the "classroom climate," you will say it was "open," even though there was no real discussion.

Hess's most intriguing suggestion: Perhaps the modest positive correlations that we observe between open classroom climates and civic engagement are the combination of no effects from average classrooms and transformative effects from real deliberations. Her research-in-progress will test this hypothesis.

May 29, 2007 7:34 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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