Teaching students to argue about politics

Students should learn how to discuss controversial political ideas in class, says Diana Hess, a teacher turned University of Wisconsin education professor, in Discussions That Drive Democracy.

“A lot of parents want schools to reflect their own ideological views,” Hess tells The Cap Times.

“I argue that parents shouldn’t want that. If they do, they need to rethink why they have their kids in school.”

. . . “It’s not to suggest schools should be working against parents’ values,” she continues, “but we want schools to be ideologically diverse places. That’s how we educate citizens.”

“Many teachers I have watched are good at getting kids to listen to viewpoints that are different from theirs, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Young people tend to be open to new ideas.

Will teachers develop students’ minds? Or indoctrinate students in liberal ideology? asks Ann Althouse, a UW law professor.

. . .  it was specifically teachers who were at the core of the Wisconsin protests, vilifying conservatives.

And as for parents needing “to rethink why they have their kids in school.” Let’s be clear: Schooling is compulsory. . . . Teachers should never forget that they have their students trapped in their classroom by the force of law.

We want students to learn how to discuss “controversial issues, support their arguments, and listen to divergent opinions respectfully and critically,” Althouse concedes.

But it takes a certain level of trust — which is in short supply.

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  1. With teenagers’ well-known resistance to peer conformity, what can go wrong with expecting reasoned, logical discussions of political issues in high school? Surely the students will be much more concerned with supporting their opinions with facts than looking “cool” to their classmates.
    I propose we teach logic and rhetoric and hold formal debates where they have to learn both sides of the issues in order to not look like fools. “Discussions” in high school are fora for promoting groupthink in uninformed youth.

    • Amen. Far too many kids (and adults, even some teachers) do not know the difference between “I think” and “I feel”; they have been taught that their feelings MATTER. They seem to feel that the intensity of their feelings trumps factual knowledge of the topic at hand. Instead of asking kids what they feel about literary, historical or scientific sources, they should be asking kids for analysis; reasoned argument, supported by facts. Leave the ideology alone.

      • This method seems to incorporate “I feel.”

        She also provided them with opportunities to practice reflective listening and conflict mediation language like “I statements” (“When you do ___, I feel ___”). Although these lessons were certainly important to engage in before the town meetings began, Ann was not averse to intervening with more instruction if students’ discussion started to disintegrate.

        One week before the town meeting, Ann gave each student a packet of background material. After one class period of instruction on the issue, Ann and her students created the roles, which included the state governor, a university admissions officer, a reporter, a white business owner, a minority student, and representatives of education and advocacy organizations. Once students had selected their roles, Ann gave each one a packet of information focused on his or her adopted position and a sheet that required students to state “their” positions and identify arguments for and against the policy. For the next three days, students prepared for their roles by reading articles, watching videos, listening to speakers, searching for information online, and interviewing representatives of relevant organizations.

        I don’t think this is debate. This is teaching students to link positions in a role-playing exercise to their role’s presumed identity (white business owner, minority student, etc.)

        This is anything but teaching the students reasoned argument. This is teaching them how to politely represent the appropriate viewpoint of a pressure group.

        Advocating is not arguing about politics. Demanding one’s share of the spoils is not discussing ideas.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      If they learned real classical debate tactics/structure, they’d need to be capable of arguing both/all positions, even positions they personally disagreed with. “Discussion” does not equal debate.

  2. The best way to prepare students to argue various political views effectively is to arm them with the background knowledge to comprehend the consequences of each viewpoint. Teaching them to argue without providing them the content is as effective as teaching soldiers to shoot rifles and not providing them ammunition.

  3. I completely agree with Catherine and Stacy!

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Interesting about “think” and “feel”. But I don’t think you go far enough. Some years ago, I saw a C-Span program where Tammi Bruce was talking about something in a college auditorium.
    A young woman stood up and made either an assertion or posed a question presuming a fact. Bruce cheerfully and non-judgmentally described the error. The young woman walked out. Another young woman stood and said, “You’re oppressing people with facts.”.

  5. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I have some good assignments that ask students to use Toulmin argumentation.