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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.

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.

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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.

TDIH: History and Pro/Con of Coca-Cola

Drink Coca-Cola 5 cents

Drink Coca-Cola 5 cents (1889 print)
Credit: Library of Congress [No known restrictions on publication.]

The date was March 29, 1886. Pharmacist John Pemberton was hard at work in his laboratory, brewing a concoction intended to cure various ills including headaches, indigestion, and hangovers. Instead, Pemberton created something that would go on to become one of the most popular soft drinks of all time—Coca-Cola.

Here are five facts you may not have known about Coca-Cola:

  1. The original Coca-Cola formula was made with coca leaf, which is used to make cocaine, and kola nuts, which contained caffeine. In the early 20th century, the coca leaves were removed from the formula, but the caffeine remained.
  2. In May 1886, the first glass of Coca-Cola was sold for five cents at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta.  It was not immediately popular, generating only $50 in sales through the end of the year.
  3. Pemberton sold his formula to Ada Candler, an Atlanta businessman. Candler promoted Coca-Cola as a “delicious and refreshing” soft drink and its popularity spread.
  4. In 1899, three Tennessee entrepreneurs purchased exclusive rights to bottle and sell Coca-Cola.  Their price? Just $1. They developed the distinctive contoured bottle that is still used today.
  5. “The Pause That Refreshes” was one of the first advertising slogans used to market Coca-Cola. It appeared in an advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post in 1929. Over time, Coca-Cola’s advertising attempted to connect the brand with fun and good times, whether it was singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” or inviting friends to “Share a Coke.”
Woman Drinking Coca Cola

Credit: Pixabay [Public Domain]

The Pro/Con of Coca-Cola

Today Coca-Cola is one of the most globally recognized brands, but that does not translate into universally loved. Health organizations have criticized Coca-Cola for containing too much sugar and contributing to rising rates of diabetes and obesity. This has led some cities and states to consider levying a “junk food tax” on sales of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took it a step further and proposed banning the sales of “super-size” soft drinks at fast food restaurants.

SIRS Issues Researcher has an entire Leading Issue dedicated to Food and Nutrition that can be used to bring the invention of Coca-Cola into your classroom today. Students can read opposing viewpoints and Essential Questions on various issues, including Junk Food Taxes, School Lunches, and Obesity. For historical background, they can also access timelines with key events related to Food and Nutrition.

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

 

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.

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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.

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!

What’s New & Trending in SIRS Issues Researcher

The Leading Issues pro/con framework helps students pick a topic and understand its context with overviews, essential questions, statistics, global perspectives, viewpoints, supporting arguments, and critical thinking prompts. Editors hand-select all of the content, ensuring that student researchers find the most appropriate, relevant, and valuable information available. Every Leading Issue contains a highly-relevant results list where students can gather supporting evidence through articles, statistics, images, and websites.

Keep research fresh and engaging with these new Leading Issues:

Heroin Abuse: Should cities open supervised injection sites for heroin addicts?

Job Automation: Should employees be worried about losing their jobs to machines?

Private Space Sector: Does the future of space travel lie with entrepreneurs?

Heroin Abuse Leading Issue in SIRS Issues Researcher

And here are some Leading Issues #trending in the news:

Health Care Reform: Should there be more government involvement in health care in the U.S.?

Keystone Pipeline: Should the U.S. government approve the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Illegal Immigration: Should immigrants who are in the country illegally be allowed to remain in the U.S.?

International trade: Are free trade agreements beneficial?

Media Bias: Do the mainstream media have a liberal bias?

Social Media: Do the positive aspects of social networking sites outweigh the negatives?

Taxation: Should offshoring tax loopholes be closed?

Which Leading Issues topics are most popular with your students? Let us know in the comments or tweet us with #ProQuest. 

ProQuest Guided Research products equip students to think critically about current issues. Free trials are available.

SIRS Discoverer Spotlight of the Month: National Poverty in America Awareness Month

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson introduced War on Poverty legislation in his annual State of the Union address. He emphasized improved education as one of the foundations of the program. On August 20, 1964, he signed a $947.5 million antipoverty bill that was intended to help more than 30 million U.S. citizens.

Signing of the EOA

LBJ Signing Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
By US Government (LBJ Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

National Poverty in America Awareness Month promotes knowledge and understanding of the realities of poverty in the United States. According to the U. S. Census Bureau in 2015, more than 43 million Americans–13.5 percent of the population–lived in poverty. Reasons are complex and multifaceted and the effects on the nation are immense.

Building in Odessa, Minnesota

Building in Odessa, Minnesota
Photo by Greg Gjerdingen via flickr is licensed under CCA-SA 2.0 Generic

January’s Discoverer Spotlight of the Month explores the issue poverty in the United States. Use this month as an opportunity to examine poverty and perhaps even get involved in local anti-poverty campaigns. Direct your students to featured articles, images and websites to understand the many causes and ramifications of poverty. Dig deeper by researching the devastating Great Depression and the current impact of poverty on youth and families. Explore the Pro/Con Leading Issues: Poverty page as it highlights content for young researchers.

For more in-depth information:
Poverty USA
National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP)
Talk Poverty

Top Trending Pro/Con Leading Issues of 2016

2016. What a year. Let’s take a look at some of the pro/con Leading Issues that dominated SIRS Issues Researcher’s featured trending list in 2016.

In 2017, ProQuest editors will continue to create new Leading Issues and update existing ones.

As always, we thank you for your support, and we look forward to serving you and your students in 2017 and beyond.

Don’t have SIRS Issues Researcher? Request a free trial.

Training for Your ProQuest Resources

Libraries see surge in e-book demandDon’t forget that ProQuest provides free training.  Our Training and Consulting Partners team is available at any time to meet with you via a privately scheduled webinar.  Just email us to make an inquiry.  We also provide regularly scheduled public webinars.  You can contact our team to discuss your questions about ProQuest resources, and we are also happy to focus privately scheduled sessions on topic areas of particular interest to you. 

This is just one of the many benefits you derive from licensure to your ProQuest resources!

 

Leading Issues in the News: Police and Body Cameras

Civil rights activists have long called for police officers to wear body cameras. But recently, after seemingly endless incidents of conflicts between police and citizens–many that led to the deaths of unarmed black men and were recorded on bystanders’ cell phone videos–more cities are implementing the use of body-worn cameras for their law enforcement personnel. About a third of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies are now either testing body cameras or have embraced them to record their officers’ interactions with the public.

Police Officer with Body-Worn Camera via Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS)/U.S. Department of Justice [public domain]

Police Officer with Body-Worn Camera
via Office of Community Oriented Policing Services/U.S. Department of Justice
[public domain]

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology published the first full scientific study of the experiment they conducted on policing with body-worn-cameras in Rialto, California in 2012. The experiment showed that evidence capture is just one output of body-worn video, and the technology is perhaps most effective at actually preventing escalation during police-public interactions: whether that is attacks on or abuse of police officers, or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement. The study found that when the officers wore body cameras, public complaints against police were down 88% compared with the previous 12 months, while the officers’ use of force fell by 60%.

While the hope is that the cameras will increase transparency, accountability and boost police-community relations, their widespread use has also raised concerns about the privacy of people caught in body camera footage. There are also important questions about public access, review, storage, tampering and disciplinary action for officers who don’t use the devices properly. The cameras are also expensive. They can range in price from $300 to $800 per officer, and monthly video storage costs can cost hundreds of thousands more. In September, the Justice Department announced $23 million in grants for a pilot program to help agencies in 32 states to expand the use of body-worn cameras and explore their impact.

Should police officers be required to use body cameras?

This is the Essential Question explored in a recent addition to SIRS Issues Researcher’s list of over 345 Leading Issues: Police and Body Cameras.

Screen Cap from SIRS Issues Researcher

Screen Cap from SIRS Issues Researcher

For all Leading Issues, SIRS Editors create an engaging Essential Question, a summary for context, viewpoint statements, plus supporting articles to help build solid foundations for understanding the issues. Thousands of hand-selected, highly targeted newspaper and magazine articles, graphics, charts, maps, primary sources, government documents, websites, multimedia, as well as critical thinking questions, and timelines help broaden student comprehension of each topic. A Research Guide is offered to help guide each student through their assignment step by step.

Educators, direct your students to the new and updated SIRS Issues Researcher to dig deeper into the topic of Police and Body Cameras. Or they can explore these related issues: