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How Educators Can Choose Controversial Political Issues Ethically

This is the third in a series of posts on teaching controversial political issues to students. Previous posts in this series discussed the benefits and aims of teaching controversial political issues.

How Educators Can Choose Controversial Political Issues Ethically


In 2014, school officials in Rialto, California, had to apologize after students were asked to write an argumentative essay on whether the Holocaust occurred. The assignment presented students with a false controversial issue and implied that Holocaust denial was a valid position despite empirical evidence that proves otherwise. Although extreme, this incident demonstrates the ethical perils of choosing topics when teaching controversial political issues.

How can educators choose and present controversial political issues ethically? There are no easy answers. Educators, however, can take some steps to ensure that teaching about a controversial political issue doesn’t become a controversy.

Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom, argue that educators should be well prepared and use good professional judgment, which considers classroom context, evidence-based research, and educational aims. To prepare, educators should be able to identify four types of issues and consider three criteria to determine whether an issue is indeed controversial.

Identify the Type of Issue

Is the issue empirical or political?

Empirical issues can be answered through methodical inquiry. All empirical issues have a “correct” answer based on facts, although the answer may not yet be known. Political issues involve matters of public policy. Although empirical data is often used to support public-policy positions, political issues also involve considerations that are not necessarily fact-based, such as ethics and morals.

Is the issue open or settled?

Open issues are a current matter of controversy. Settled issues are no longer controversial and have widespread agreement. Both empirical and political issues can be open or settled.

Here’s an overview of the four types of issues:

1. Open Empirical: An issue that can be answered with facts, but a debate is still occurring because the evidence is conflicting or lacking. Example: Are self-driving cars safer than traditional cars?

2. Settled Empirical: An issue that has been answered with facts. Example: Are opioids addictive?

3. Open Political: A public-policy issue that has multiple, opposing viewpoints. Example: Should the United States implement single-payer health care?

4. Settled Political: A public-policy issue that is no longer considered controversial or open for debate. Example: Should women have the right to vote?

Why is identifying the type of issue important? Educators teaching controversial political issues must be sure not to present settled issues as open. Educators must also recognize the difference between issues that can be answered with facts alone (empirical issues) versus those that can be answered with opinions in addition to facts (policy issues).

Consider the Criteria for Controversy

Identifying whether an issue is empirical or political and open or settled may seem easy, but things are not always so simple. Some issues are empirically settled, but large segments of society may not agree. According to scientists, climate change is real and genetically-modified foods are safe, but sizeable numbers of Americans are skeptical of those positions. Some educators believe it is unethical to present issues as controversial when empirical evidence or their own moral code suggests otherwise. Other educators believe they are doing their students a disservice if they ignore issues that are currently being debated in the political sphere.

Here are three possible criteria to consider when choosing a controversial issue:

1. Behavioral: This criterion considers an issue controversial if sizeable numbers of people in society disagree on the issue regardless of empirical evidence.

Upside: This standard reflects what society thinks.

Downside: This standard may ignore empirical evidence. If sizable numbers of people believe in a conspiracy theory, despite the evidence, is it ethical to present this as a controversial issue?

2. Epistemic: This criterion considers an issue controversial if sizable numbers of people in society disagree on the issue, and there are multiple, logically grounded viewpoints on the issue.

Upside: This standard reflects what society thinks while also considering reasonable, evidence-based viewpoints.

Downside: People disagree on what is considered reasonable, which suggests that educators should ignore controversial political issues if viewpoints are considered unreasonable.

3. Politically Authentic: This criterion considers an issue controversial if it is being debated in the political sphere (e.g., legislation, political campaigns, and protest movements).

Upside: This criterion addresses current issues being debated in the political sphere, which prepares students for life in a democracy.

Downside: Viewpoints on politically authentic issues are not always grounded in logic.

Although The Political Classroom’s Hess and McAvoy recognize that each standard has its merits and disadvantages, they most prefer the politically authentic criterion because it directly addresses an important aim of teaching controversial political issues to students: political literacy.

As stated earlier in the post, there are no easy answers on how to choose and present controversial political issues ethically. But thinking deeply about controversial political issues and using good professional judgment will help.

Stay tuned for more posts in this series on teaching controversial political issues to students.

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The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold.


SIRS Issues Researcher is a pro/con database that helps students understand today’s controversial political issues with editorially selected analysis and opinions that cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.

Don’t have SIRS Issues Researcher? Free trials are available.

CultureGrams — New Kids Country: American Samoa

The CultureGrams editors are excited to announce a new Kids edition country report!

Flag of American Samoa, via CultureGrams

The new American Samoa report includes detailed information on the history, culture, language, food, and daily life of this country.

Here are some interesting Did You Knows about American Samoa:

  • American Samoa is home to only three kinds of native land mammals, all of which are bats.
  • American Samoa is the southernmost territory of the United States.
  • American Samoa uses the U.S. Postal Service for mail delivery and is small enough to have just one zip code.
  • One of the traditional symbols of American Samoa is the fue (coconut fiber fly whisk) crossed with a to’oto’o (staff). The fue stands for wisdom, while the to’oto’o represents authority.

Read about life as a kid in American Samoa, traditional foods, and the role religion plays in American Samoan culture, all in this colorful new report.

6 Aims of Teaching Controversial Political Issues to Students

This is the second in a series of posts on teaching controversial political issues to students. The first post in this series discussed the benefits of teaching controversial political issues.


Educational aims are the hopeful bedrock on which every curriculum is built. They transcend class objectives, which are typically measured with tests and term papers. They are ideals that give teaching a higher purpose. They are long-term.

So what are the educational aims of a political education?

Critics often cite indoctrination, but a political education is not about forcing—or even forming—political viewpoints. It is about deliberation, the process of carefully considering and discussing political issues. It is about instilling and honoring democratic values—liberty, equality, justice—and participating in the democratic process. Although Thomas Jefferson never said that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” he surely believed it. Democracy itself depends on concerned citizens who understand democratic values and the political process.

In The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy identify the aims of teaching controversial political issues to students. Six are defined here:

1.  Political Equity

Citizens are political equals, both as a birthright and as individuals with unique needs and perspectives.

2.  Political Tolerance

Citizens have unalienable rights, regardless of political viewpoints. Those in the majority rule cannot use public policy to discriminate against or persecute those who are in the minority.

3.  Political Autonomy

Citizens are free from oppression or coercion and free to form political opinions and participate in the political process.

4.  Political Fairness

Citizens think individually and collectively about finding the best solutions to promote the common good.

5.  Political Engagement

Citizens participate politically by staying informed, debating, voting, protesting, and campaigning.

6.  Political Literacy

Citizens think critically about controversial political issues and also understand the larger political context, such as historical context, the role of government, etc.

Although these aims are not always attained, they are ideals that democratic societies hope to achieve. And research suggests that some of these aims are indeed achieved, at least to some degree, when students are exposed to controversial political issues in school.

Young adults are often criticized for not voting as soon as they turn 18, yet many of them were never exposed to controversial political issues in school. This is illogical. A high school student quoted in Hess and McAvoy’s The Political Classroom explains why the aims of a political education are vital: “We are seniors. We are going out into the real world in a few months, a few weeks, actually, from now. And, you know, we have to be exposed to that stuff some time or another. Otherwise, you are going to be completely clueless.” (105) Well said.

The next post in this controversial political issues series will address how to pick topics when teaching controversial political issues to students.

Subscribe via email to Share This and never miss a post.


The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold.


SIRS Issues Researcher is a pro/con database that helps students understand today’s controversial political issues with editorially selected analysis and opinions that cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.

Don’t have SIRS Issues Researcher? Free trials are available.

10 New Animal Fact Pages in SIRS Discoverer!

Kids of all ages love to learn about animals. SIRS Discoverer’s Animal Facts is a great place to start when your students are doing a research project. There are nearly 300 animals to choose from!

Animal Facts via SIRS Discoverer

Have your students explore these 10 newly created Animal Fact pages in SIRS Discoverer, along with a fun graphic organizer that can be used in the classroom.

Each page contains a full profile and description of the animal and includes interesting, fun facts:

Antelope: There are 90 species of antelopes in the Bovidae family.

Baboon: Baboons are found in large groups called troops.

Badger: Badgers are solitary animals and live alone except during mating season.

Collared Peccary: These animals look a lot like pigs but they are not in the same family as pigs.

Gray Whale: Gray whales live in groups called pods.

Marten: Martens are members of the weasel family.

Mole: Moles spend most of their lives underground in burrows and tunnels that they dig.

Proboscis Monkey: Male proboscis monkeys have very large noses on their faces while females have much smaller noses.

Pronghorn: Pronghorns are the only species in the family Antilocapridae.

Sperm Whale: Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales living in the ocean.

Download this animal research graphic organizer to use in your classroom.

When doing assignments on animals, direct your students to Animal Facts for all the information they need for an elementary-level research project.

Don’t have SIRS Discoverer? Free trials are available.

CultureGrams — New Kids Country: Marshall Islands

The CultureGrams editors are excited to announce a new Kids edition country report!

Flag of the Marshall Islands via CultureGrams

The new Marshall Islands report includes detailed information on the history, culture, language, food, and daily life of this country.

Here are some interesting Did You Knows about the Marshall Islands:

  • The average elevation of each island is just 7 feet (2 meters) above sea level.
  • Marshallese society is traditionally matrilineal (based on the mother’s family line), and land is passed down from one generation to the next through the mother’s line.
  • Elugelab is an extinct island that was used as a hydrogen bomb test site by the United States military and was blown up in 1954. The blast left behind a crater more than a mile wide and 165 feet (50 meters) deep.
  • Similar to the Hawaiian word aloha, the Marshallese word yokwe means “hello,” “good-bye,” and “love.”

Read about the the Marshallese culture of sharing and caring for one another, life as a kid, and favorite sports, all in this colorful new report.

6 Benefits of Teaching Controversial Political Issues to Students

This is the first in a series of posts on teaching controversial political issues to students.

6 Benefits of Teaching Controversial Political Issues to Students


Political polarization is growing, and schools are not immune. Political divisiveness, which has been simmering in schools for a while now, boiled over during the 2016 presidential election and exposed a major problem: students struggle to talk civilly about controversial political issues. Headlines chronicling this problem are everywhere. Last October, administrators cancelled a mock election at an elementary school because they feared divisive talk. This month, Middlebury College students resorted to violence to block a controversial speaker because his viewpoints differed from their own.

Teachers, facing pressure from parents and school administrators, are now questioning whether they should be teaching controversial political issues, which have long been a part of the curriculum. According to a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center survey, more than half of K-12 teachers reported an increase in uncivil political talk among their students, and over 40 percent said they were reluctant to teach about the 2016 presidential election.

So, we are left with one question: Should teachers cover controversial political issues in the classroom?

Let’s take the long view and turn to facts grounded in research. Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, co-winners of the 2017 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, published The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education in 2014. The book presents findings from their landmark four-year study on the teaching of controversial political issues in the classroom, including observations and interviews of high school teachers and their students. Hess and McAvoy found that students want to indeed learn about controversial political issues. They also found that teaching controversial political issues has real benefits for students, even—or especially—in these politically polarized times.

Here are six benefits of teaching controversial political issues to students:

  1. Engagement. Students participate more, especially when they are encouraged to be a part of class discussions.
  2. Political Literacy. Students stay more informed about controversial political issues.
  3. Tolerance. Students respect and understand other viewpoints.
  4. Confidence. Students grow more confident in holding their own viewpoints and discussing politics in general.
  5. Civil Discourse. Students learn to engage in civil discourse.
  6. Political Participation. Students vote more often later in life.

Of course, teaching controversial political issues does not come without risks. Educators face challenging ethical decisions, along with a partisan political climate. Some students may be sensitive about certain issues because they are affected in their own lives. Students need a safe environment and guidance, and teachers need to be clear about their expectations, including what is acceptable and respectful behavior. These concerns cannot be ignored.

But political divisiveness in schools doesn’t mean educators should stop teaching controversial political issues. It means educators should be teaching them more. Debating controversial political issues civilly isn’t innate. It is learned. If students are not taught to engage civilly in political debates, they cannot be expected to do so as adults. Students in Hess and McAvoy’s study demonstrated a remarkable level of maturity and intellectual growth because it was expected of them. If today’s students learn how to deliberate and discuss, they will become adults capable of civil discourse. Imagine that.

Future posts in this controversial political issues series will address other considerations, including the aims of teaching political issues, ethical issues of teaching political issues, and rules to promote civil discourse.

Subscribe via email to Share This and never miss a post.


The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold.


SIRS Issues Researcher is a pro/con database that helps students understand today’s controversial political issues with editorially selected analysis and opinions that cover the entire spectrum of viewpoints.

Don’t have SIRS Issues Researcher? Free trials are available.

New Leading Issue: Job Automation

Job Automation Leading Issue via SIRS Issues Researcher

Job Automation Leading Issue via SIRS Issues Researcher

Debating Job Automation

What does the future of work look like? As technology increases, it has become evident that our world is changing. Robots are being used in place of workers in factories, service industries, the military, the medical field, and more. Is there a way for robots and humans to work alongside each other in harmony? The debate continues. Some say the automation of jobs will lead to the creation of better job opportunities. Others say automation is just the start of a worldwide unemployment crisis. Should the government provide a basic income if robots replace workers? These are just some of the pro/con viewpoints students can debate and analyze with SIRS Issues Researcher’s Leading Issues.

Our new Job Automation Leading Issue highlights the key points surrounding the automation of work and the industries impacted, offers pro/con arguments, a timeline of events, critical thinking questions, helpful websites, and editorially-selected articles and media to kick-start students’ research.

Credit: White House Press Release [Public Domain]

Credit: White House Press Release [Public Domain]

Resources in our Job Automation Leading Issue include:

  • Humans vs. Robots: This National Public Radio podcast explores how humans and robots will coexist in the future.

Want to know more about Leading Issues? Contact us for complete access to SIRS Issues Researcher today!

Is your classroom studying the future of automation? Let us know in the comments below or Tweet us at #ProQuest.

New Leading Issue: Private Space Sector

Private Space Sector Leading Issue via SIRS Issues Researcher

SIRS Issues Researcher’s new Leading Issue: Private Space Sector is out of this world!

The future of space travel is taking off with private companies. This action-packed Leading Issue will help students explore how the private sector is launching reusable rockets, hauling cargo to the International Space Station, and providing useful services to NASA. The private sector also wants to make space tourism happen by 2020.

Students don’t have to wait until college and career to gain experience with space science! Besides delving into the Private Space Sector Leading Issue, students can also learn about the space industry through hands-on experience. Explore the links below for opportunities for students to gain knowledge and experience with NASA and private sector programs.

 

NASA Programs:

  •  NASA Education’s page includes a wealth of knowledge for students and teachers through STEM education. Guidance for education includes an A-Z list of projects, design challenges, and opportunities for students to interact with NASA.
  • Current Opportunities for Students is also included in the NASA Education website. This page provides webcasts, contests, and lectures. It also lists scholarship and intern possibilities.
  • United Launch Alliance provides cost-effective launch services for NASA. They also provide an educational page on their website dedicated to students with rocket terminology and fun facts. Students can register to compete for a CubeSat satellite launch or look into the Intern Rocket Program.
  • Student Launch is a competitive rocket launching competition designed for students to learn the importance of teamwork while building a cost-effective reusable rocket. This NASA-conducted engineering design challenge provides resources and experiences for students and teachers.
  • SystemsGo is a NASA-endorsed program that helps students design rockets using STEM and teamwork. The site offers everything from educational video resources, launch events, and even how to start an aerospace program at school.
High school students from Texas participating in the SystemsGo aeroscience engineering program launch rockets in Willow City, Texas.

High school students from Texas participating in the SystemsGo aeroscience engineering program launch rockets in Willow City, Texas. Image via Ralph Arvesen on Flickr.

 

Private Sector Programs:

  • SpaceX‘s FIRST program awards students with scholarships as well as a chance for 10-15 high school seniors to become interns. Other programs include building and battling robotics for older students and a LEGO robot challenge for kids ages 9-14.
  • Virgin Galactic offers a Global Scholarship and Mentoring Program for students interested in STEM education.
  • Blue Origin offers an Astronaut Experience. Sign up for an experience on the New Shepard space vehicle.

How are your students exploring space science? Drop us a line in the comments section below or Tweet us at #ProQuest!

CultureGrams: New Interviews for Afghanistan and Comoros!

Blue Mosque – Shrine of Hazrat Ali, by Lukaszcom, via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve recently added interviews from two Afghan women to the Afghanistan country report. Hear first-hand what life is like in Afghanistan for Farah and Zohal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve also added interviews to the Comoros report! Take a look at them to get a feel for life in different areas in the Comoros Islands among different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.Fatima, female, age 29

Patrice, male, age 43

Nourou, female, age 9

 

CultureGrams — New Kids Country: Togo

The CultureGrams editors are excited to announce a new Kids edition country report!

Flag of Togo via CultureGrams

The new Togo report includes detailed information on the history, culture, language, food, and daily life of this country.

Here are some interesting Did You Knows about the Togo:

  • Togo is believed to have been named after a town on the shore of Lake Togo. The name comes from the Ewe words to (water) and go (shore).
  • Most homes in Togo do not have running water, so fetching water is a common daily chore for children.
  • Among the Ewe, babies are named after the day of the week they are born but are often given a personal first name as well.
  • To show respect, young people kneel when greeting an elder.

Read about the annual Evala festival, life as a kid, and traditional foods, all in this colorful new report.

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