Do you find yourself shying away from political dialogue or even avoiding it at all costs these days? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, 53% of Americans say talking about politics with people they disagree with is “generally stressful and frustrating” (Pew Research Center, 2018).
And it can feel even more risky to integrate discussions about controversial topics into our classrooms. However, schools are an important place for students to learn how to have civic and political discussions with people who have different opinions from their own. In fact, schools are often more diverse than other settings in which youth spend time (Hess, 2009). In addition, when youth engage in discussions of current events and decision making, they report being more engaged in school. They also report greater interest in politics, improved communication and critical thinking skills, increased civic knowledge, and a higher chance of participating in civic life as adults (Gould et. al, 2011).
One helpful approach you can use in the classroom is a Structured Academic Controversy or SAC. This approach is illustrated by Elizabeth (Liz) Robbins — a high school Social Studies teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago, Illinois — in this new video, “Structured Academic Controversy (SAC): A Strategy for Civic Discussion.”
The strategy practices essential skills and dispositions needed to shift from political divide to discussion. It asks students to suspend their current beliefs and consider varied perspectives on the issue, collaborate with others to ensure a shared understanding of those perspectives, and work to come to consensus for effective policy recommendations despite differing views. As Liz describes, “The idea being to disinvest students from one side or another so they don’t see it as a debate or an argument in which whatever side you’ve been assigned must be the side that wins. And instead [a SAC] allows students to explore these ideas, and make sure that they understand them from both sides.”
Our students have ample opportunity to practice constructing arguments in school. Similar to a debate, students construct and evaluate arguments, however the key difference in a SAC is that the goal is not to argue, but to solve a problem. By removing the emphasis on winning, students take time to consider the complexity of an issue and understand and prioritize varied perspectives in order to solve the problem. They then apply and test their thinking in a new way by negotiating and constructing policy to address the problem for the betterment of the community. One student comments in the video how, “In a SAC there is a lot of grey area. There is not necessarily a binary decision. So it just goes to show how issues in the real world aren’t necessarily just true or false. There’s a deeper ground to them and they should be explored.”
For more details about how to facilitate a Structured Academic Controversy in your classroom, explore these lesson steps, teacher notes, worksheets, and more that are outlined by Liz in SAC Structure. And for more pointers and handouts you can use in the classroom, check out Structured Academic Controversy: What Should We Do?
So when you feel the urge to shy away, remember that dialogue is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy and is a key aspect of civic and political life.
Finally, check out these general resources for how to integrate engaging, respectful, and productive political conversations in your classroom:
Productive Civic Discussions: Videos and educational resources focused on civic discussion from the Educating for Democracy Deep Dive
Controversial Issues: The November/December 2018 edition of Social Education, edited by Diana Hess, focused on discussion of controversial issues
Talking Across Divides: 10 Ways to Encourage Civil Classroom Conversation On Difficult Issues: A New York Times article by Katherine Schulten with lots of great ideas
ProCon: A non-profit that provides professionally-researched pro, con, and related information on more than 50 controversial issues
Deliberating in a Democracy: Provides professional development and resources designed to promote the teaching and learning of democratic principles and the skills of civic deliberation
The Better Arguments Project: Teaching ideas, activities, and strategies provided by Facing History and Ourselves and the Aspen Institute
Dialogue Module of the Digital Civics Toolkit: For ideas and resources related to online civic dialogue