With the 2020 elections less than a month away, schools all across the United States are being confronted with the question of how to teach about the elections at a time of extreme political polarization in our country. Many schools have looked to teaching about the process of elections or why being civically involved is crucial to the fabric of a democracy. This is a reasonable approach but some of the research literature suggests that there is evidence that when young people engage in political discourse in school, they are better equipped and more likely to engage civically in the future than students who are not asked to participate in political conversations. Professors Diane Hess and Paula McAvoy have conducted a longitudinal study that compared students in schools where teachers provided mostly lectures on civics with students in classrooms that discuss political issues. Students in classrooms that engage in political discussions are significantly more likely to: vote, follow the news, engage in political discussions outside the classroom, and to me, most importantly, listen better to those with whom they disagree with on issues. The authors also conclude that students who engage in political discourse in schools learn better how to form arguments, weigh evidence, and develop the tools needed to live in a democracy.
The challenge for teachers and schools is how to create a classroom environment and culture of fairness for all viewpoints so that students can engage in these discussions. Here, Hess and McAvoy have some specific recommendations. Teachers should maintain partisan neutrality in classrooms even when they open their classrooms to these discussions or engage in controversial conversations that begin with student questions. When teachers share their partisan preferences, it establishes an unfair classroom culture and, despite the best intentions, may influence student thinking. Teachers also need to establish clear ground rules for discussion and enforce those guardrails to foster a sense of civil discourse. Role playing appropriate discussions is valuable for showing students the proper ways to engage in political conversation.
In addition to having political conversations with clear rules, another approach to engaging students rather than lecturing is to break down the process of our election system so that they may critically develop their own opinions. The past two weeks we have seen the presidential and vice-presidential candidates debate on national TV. Debates are an essential part of our elections and provide an opportunity to help voters get to know the candidates and learn about their proposed policies. However, our ability to think critically about what we see and hear in debates is often distorted by common cognitive biases. Teachers have an opportunity to engage students in recognizing how ingroup bias or confirmation bias can affect how we interpret information and candidates’ performances during a political debate, and ways we can instead focus on evaluating the substance of the candidates’ responses.
For schools and teachers who are committed to fostering the next generation of citizens to care about how democracy works and to think openly about ideas while engaging in respectful discussions and civic discourse, the 2020 elections, despite the extreme polarization we face as a society, are an opportunity to meet these goals not by shying away from political issues but by providing the appropriate environments for scaffolded and engaged learning.