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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.

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.

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.

Classroom Socratic Seminars: Teaching the Art of Dialogue

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library

Statue of Socrates in Trinity College Library (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International/(c) Bar Harel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Information literacy skills are integral to today’s rising students for many reasons, including tendencies toward information overload and the trend of fake news.

The gathering of information begins with a need or desire for an answer to a question. Perhaps that question is posed by a teacher or by the student herself. The next course of action in schools these days is usually to consult a website, or perhaps a book. Information literacy skills support students in navigating this process of finding answers.

But once students are equipped with these vital research skills and find answers to questions, what is the next step toward understanding and integrating the information they find?

Another way to ask that question might be this: How can we turn information gathering into wisdom?

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”—Socrates

Socrates prized questioning over information gathering. He valued the qualities of critical thinking and engagement with a topic. He believed in creating a learning atmosphere of cooperation, dialogue, listening, and further questioning—cornerstones of the Socratic method, and foundations of the Socratic seminar.

Socrates believed that collecting and memorizing information provided little opportunity for true learning. And as learning was best nurtured in a social atmosphere, the lone activity of research provided little support for critical thinking and comprehension.

Navigating and bridging the educational essentials of research and the art of critical thinking may be a challenging journey.

The Socratic seminar is one way to help connect these two elements of a successful classroom.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”—Socrates

The Socratic seminar provides students with a forum to ask questions and exchange ideas with their peers on a specific topic, event, or piece of literature. Students come prepared to engage in discussion with fellow students, having read assigned materials, conducted appropriate research, made personal connections, and formulated questions to bring to the seminar.

The teacher becomes the seminar’s facilitator, keeping the students on topic and asking open-ended questions when necessary. The goal is to allow students to practice the art of true dialogue. Emphasis is placed on the value of listening and respecting everyone’s questions and opinions. Socratic seminars are not debates; rather, they are cooperative conversations geared toward critical thinking and discovery.

Interested in learning more about this teaching and learning tool? Check out this Socratic Seminar Strategy Guide and this Seminar Discussion Rubric, and select from these Socratic seminar lesson plans on literary texts, immigration, and human gene editing.

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”—Socrates

Adding an A to STEM…Full STEAM Ahead!

STEAM Quote

As professionals in the field of education, we all know the term STEM. This is a movement that exposes students to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It promotes the teaching of these disciplines’ theories and content with a hands-on learning approach. The goal is not only to provide students with a deep, multidisciplinary understanding but to foster understanding of STEM concepts in the real world.

If a letter were added to the STEM acronym, what would the best choice be? In this video, Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner has a definitive answer: “I have no hesitation in saying we need to add the letter A….An education devoid of arts…is an empty, half-brain kind of education.”

To the point.

In that same video, Yale Child Study Center lecturer Erika Christakis isolates perhaps the core reason that adding the Arts to STEM education is so important: “The arts hav[e] something really essential to say about the human condition, just as science does.”

Let’s First Look at STEM.

We are humans living in a rapidly developing society. In no point in recorded human history has there been as many innovative technologies bringing people together. The disciplines represented in STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—are integral to the technologies we use every day—and the tools we will use tomorrow. As stated in the State Idaho Department of Education’s What Is STEM Education?, “Math is the language; Science and Engineering are the processes for thinking; all this leads to Innovation.”

Young people—students—have known no other world. It is in all of our best interest to teach, encourage, and support them in a STEM environment.

So Why STEAM?: Arts and the Human Condition

Knowing and understanding the significance of STEM in our schools may not, at first glance, lead us to recognize the significance of adding an A to this multidisciplinary approach to education.

So we must ask: Exactly what do the arts add to our lives?

Consider what the arts encompass. Music, painting, sculpting, theater, literature, architecture, fashion, and so much more. Just as new technologies bring us together and help create our shared experiences, the arts span time to connect us with each other and ourselves. Consider briefly Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. How many people have viewed this painting across the centuries and have been moved by its beauty and brilliance? Across time and cultures, Mona Lisa created a shared, communal experience that impacted 16th-century viewers in much the same way is it does today.  An encounter that becomes both a personal and shared experience.

In fact, at the foundation of all artistic endeavors are creativity, personal experience, and shared experience. It is the same with newfound technologies. Why is this important? Consider what Mae Jemison—an astronaut, doctor, art collector, and dancer—had to say on the topic in this transcript of her 2009 TED Talk on teaching arts and science:

“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin, even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather they’re manifestations of the same thing….The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity. It’s our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the universe, the world around us….[S]cience provides an understanding of a universal experience, and arts provides a universal understanding of a personal experience.”

STEAM in Action

Creativity, personal experience, and shared experience are evident in stories and videos of STEAM in action. When creative writing is incorporated as the A in this Science of Superheroes Lesson, students are able to make connections between the science of flight—which was the STEM component of the lesson—and creating a superhero character and story, which was the A component of the lesson. The video highlights the many layers of involvement and collaboration STEAM can engender.

Math concepts, such as number lines, counting, and fractions, are merged seamlessly with interactive theater play in Staging STEM, a video that also conveys the joy students attain when engaging in STEAM activities. The personal and shared experiences, generated by both personal and communal creativity, become essential to and integrated with the learning experience.

Education should be exciting, engaging, uplifting, and inspiring…and it should provide an outlet for creativity and both personal and shared experiences. The multidisciplinary STEAM educational model certainly is an approach worth exploring.

Explore more about STEM and STEAM in this infographic from the University of Florida:

STEAM, not just STEM Education Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

This month, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is celebrated in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The festival began in 1972 and is celebrated during the first weeks of October. Here are some fun facts about the festival.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
By Eric Ward from Provo, UT, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

* When the event began in 1972, there were just 13 balloons featured in the festival. Now there are over 500 hot air balloons in the festival!

* The event is held for 9 days.

* People from over 20 different countries participate in the event.

* In recent years, over 80,000 people have attended the event.

* Besides the wonderful hot air balloons at the festival, visitors can also enjoy music, food, and other educational activities.

* If you plan in advance, you can book a ride on a hot air balloon during the festival!

Teachers, direct your students to SIRS Discoverer to learn more about this festival and about hot air balloons. Here are some resources to get you started:

Floating Festival

How Stuff Works: How Hot Air Balloons Work

Hot air balloons

Official website of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

100th Anniversary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was established on August 1, 1916, so this year marks the 100th anniversary of the park! The park is located on Hawaii’s Big Island and includes the two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Halemaʻumaʻu crater

Active vent of the Kilauea Volcano (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

To celebrate the centennial, here are some facts about the park:

  • The park was called Hawaii National Park from 1916 to 1961, then its name changed to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Kilauea Volcano has erupted over 60 times since the 1750s. It has been continuously erupting since Jan. 1983.
  • In Aug. 2016, lava from Kilauea dropped into the ocean creating new land. Since 1983, about 500 acres of new land has been added by lava to the island.
  • Mauna Loa Volcano has erupted over 30 times since the 1840s. Its last eruption was in 1984.
  • The top of Mauna Loa Volcano reaches 13,677 feet above sea level. Kilauea Volcano is 4,091 feet above sea level.
  • The park has about 333,000 acres of land. About half of those acres are forests.
  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the 11th park established in the United States.
  • The park receives over 2.5 million visitors each year!
Pu'u O'o

Lava erupting from Kilauea Volcano (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers, for more about this national park, direct your students to SIRS Discoverer. Here are some searches to get you started:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Volcano

Mauna Loa

An Anniversary for Zoos

Philadelphia Zoo

Philadelphia Zoo in the 1920s (Public Domain) via Flickr

This month celebrates the anniversary of the first zoo opening in the United States. On July 1, 1874, the Philadelphia Zoo, in Pennsylvania, opened its doors to the public. Over 3,000 people visited on opening day. Now, the Philadelphia Zoo gets over 1 million visitors each year.

Zoos were once just a place to see exotic animals from faraway lands. Now, zoos play an important role in housing endangered animals and breeding them in captivity. They also help bring awareness to issues affecting animals around the world, such as habitat loss.

Here are 5 fun facts about zoos:

  • There are over 400 licensed zoos in the United States, plus hundreds of nature centers.
  • There are more than 100 aquariums in the U.S.
  • There are 10,000 zoos worldwide, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
  • Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria, which opened in 1752, is the oldest zoo in the world.
  • The word “zoo” is short for zoological garden or zoological park. The word “zoology” refers to the scientific study of animals.

Teachers, for more about zoos, direct your students to SIRS Discoverer. Here are some searches to get you started:

Zoos
Zoo animals
Aquariums
Websites about zoos

May Space Milestones

Launch of Space Shuttle Columbia

Launch of Space Shuttle Columbia (Public Domain) via Flickr

There are many space accomplishments that we celebrate each year. Some are remembered more than others, but they are all an important part of exploring other planets in our solar system and the galaxy beyond. Here is a list of space milestones that land during the month of May to share with your students:

May 5, 1961: Astronaut Alan Shepard was launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 capsule, part of the Mercury mission. He became the second person (and the first U.S. astronaut) to enter outer space.

May 24, 1962: Astronaut Scott Carpenter was launched into outer space aboard the Aurora 7 space capsule, part of the Mercury mission. The capsule orbited earth three times.

May 15, 1963: Launch of the Faith 7 spacecraft, which was manned by Gordon Cooper who spent 34 hours in space.

May 18, 1969: Launch of Apollo 10 lunar module which orbited the moon. The module was manned by two astronauts.

May 19 and 28, 1971: Launch of the Mars 2 and Mars 3 Landers by Russia. Mars 2 arrived on Mars in November 1971 but crash-landed on the surface. It was the first object to reach Mars’ surface. Mars 3 arrived on Mars in December of 1971 and transmitted data back to Earth for 20 seconds.

May 30, 1971: An unmanned spacecraft, Mariner 9, was launched and began orbiting Mars in November 1971.

May 14, 1973: Launch of the Skylab station, by a Saturn 5 rocket, which became the first orbiting laboratory in space.

May 25, 1973: A group of three astronauts were launched into space to board the Skylab station orbiting laboratory for testing.

May 20, 1978: Launch of Pioneer Venus I orbiter. It began orbiting Venus in December 1978.

May 4, 1989: Launch of space shuttle Atlantis by NASA to deploy the Magellan spacecraft, which was sent to observe the planet Venus.

May 13, 1992: First time three astronauts space walked simultaneously from the Endeavour space shuttle.

May 26, 2008: Phoenix spacecraft landed on Mars. It analyzed Mars soil and took photos.

May 22, 2012: The SpaceX company launches its first capsule, called Dragon, into space. The capsule delivered food and other supplies to the International Space Station.

Teachers, direct your students to SIRS Discoverer to learn more about outer space exploration.