Q&A with Diana Hess: ‘The Political Classroom’ holds potential to reduce partisan divide

Since 1997, Diana Hess has researched how teachers engage their students in discussions of controversial political and constitutional issues. Similarly, she is deeply committed to working with teachers to improve the quality of civic education in schools.

This work is vital. But due to growing political tensions, the leader of UW–Madison’s School of Education says it’s getting harder.

“I do think the level of polarization has increased,” says Hess, who started her career as an educator in 1979 as a high school social studies teacher in Downers Grove, Illinois. “Until recently, for example, having a mock election wouldn’t have been controversial at all. Today, some school districts aren’t allowing that.”

Hess argues that the political classroom — in which young people are learning to deliberate, engage, and understand any range of controversial topics — is vital to a healthy democracy.

She has written two books in this realm. Her first, “Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion,” won the National Council for the Social Studies’ Exemplary Research Award in 2009. In 2014, she co-authored with Paula McAvoy “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” which won the American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 2016. Hess and McAvoy then received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for their groundbreaking work in 2017. Also in 2017, Hess was recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies with the Grambs Distinguished Career Award for Research.

Diana Hess
Diana Hess works with students at Louisville’s Central High School in 2017 after receiving the Grawemeyer Award, which recognized Hess and Paula McAvoy’s work in the political classroom. (Photo: University of Louisville)

Currently, Hess is the principal investigator of The Discussion Project, a professional development program backed by the Mellon Foundation that aims to create engaging and academically rigorous classroom environments in which students experience productive classroom discussions on important issues and topics.

Hess is currently serving as UW–Madison’s interim provost until August 2022, when she will return to her position as dean of the School of Education. At the end of the spring semester, Hess sat down with Todd Finkelmeyer, managing editor of Learning Connections, to discuss her work, the importance of quality civic education, and her hopes for the future.

Question: We’re ramping up to another contentious election cycle. As a former high school social studies teacher who has gone on to research ways to help teachers engage with students on political issues, how are you feeling? Is this an exciting time for you? Or is it nerve-racking knowing the challenges this can present for teachers?

Hess: There’s a growing level of anxiety among teachers about how and what they can teach. But this is a great opportunity — because the need is so great — to be able to show that quality civic education can be done well even during challenging times.

Question: When and how did you become interested in politics and civic education?

Hess: The seeds of my interest and understanding of politics were planted at a young age at home. My mom was a high school government teacher. Both my parents were very involved in politics. So there was a lot of political discussion in my house and one of the things we know is that the more political discussion young people are exposed to early, the more likely they are to be interested in participation themselves.

Diana Hess
Diana Hess during the summer of 2022 is serving as UW–Madison’s interim provost. In August 2022, she will return to her position as dean of the School of Education. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Then I was a political science major in college (at Western Illinois University) and I interned in Washington, D.C., for a member of Congress. That was transformative.

Question: Politics can be divisive, confusing, and challenging to approach — especially in a classroom setting. Why is finding ways to engage students in this realm so important to you?

Hess: First, we want all young people to develop the skills and the knowledge and the disposition to want to be politically active — because it’s impossible to have a healthy democracy without having people who are politically active. Next, civic education is done best in diverse environments, and schools tend to be more diverse than most other places that young people encounter. Also, schools are a place where there are teachers who either already know how, or could learn how, to engage students in high-quality civic education. Finally, we want students to be engaged in school — and civic education, when done well, is highly engaging.

A lot of high-quality civic education has to do with students working in groups and on teams. And when we hear from employers about what they’re looking for, they almost always say that they want employees who can work together effectively, especially with people who are different than they are. Civic education teaches you how to do that.

Question: Since 1997 you’ve been researching how teachers engage their students in discussions of highly controversial political and constitutional issues, and what impact this approach to civic education has on what young people learn. What are some of the most important takeaways?

Hess: The biggest takeaway is that when the discussions or deliberations of controversial political or constitutional issues are done well, they are highly engaging to students. Students learn a lot from them and develop skills that are important, and it has an impact on their long-term political engagement. A second takeaway is that it’s challenging to learn how to be the kind of teacher who can create high-quality discussions in classrooms. I don’t want this to sound like, “It’s so hard to do, don’t even try.” Teachers and students must be well-prepared coming into class time. There must be strong norms of civility and strong norms of participation. But people can learn how to do this and do it well. It takes practice.

Question: Immigration. Gun control. Reproductive rights. COVID-19 mask mandates. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. Is it really possible to have productive classroom discussions today on such polarizing topics?

Diana Hess
Diana Hess has been researching how teachers engage their students in discussions of highly controversial political and constitutional issues since 1997. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Hess: Absolutely. I’m speaking with teachers all over the country — and in other nations — that are doing this very well. It’s harder than it was. But it’s absolutely possible.

Question: What is the best reason for bringing students together to discuss such topics?

Hess: I think democracy is the best reason. It’s impossible to have a healthy democracy without having people who are highly engaged in the actual political issues that are facing their society. It’s a function of the schools to make sure that we help young people develop the skills to participate in a democracy.

Frankly, we’re in a democracy that’s under threat. There are metrics that assess the health of democracies around the world, and the United States is declining and declining rapidly. Thirty years ago I would have said that the best reason to do this work is because we want to maintain the health of a democracy. Now, my primary reason is that we want to make sure we don’t lose democracy.

Question: Even as you make your case about the importance of tackling tough topics in the classroom, it’s easy to understand why teachers might not be excited to do so. Some state legislatures are literally making it illegal to talk about certain terms and ideas in schools. We’ve all seen footage of angry and outraged parents screaming at teachers and school administrators about COVID-19 mask mandates. How do you convince a teacher that talking about controversial topics is worth it?

Hess: I’m not sure we have to convince teachers — but instead convince the public and school board members. And then instead of asking, “How do we convince teachers to do something that other people might not want them to do?” — instead, let’s figure out how do we help teachers do something that most people recognize as being important to do. I think we must show people that you can talk about political issues in a classroom without being forced into a particular perspective.

We also need to make the case more effectively to the public about why high-quality civic education is so important. It’s almost like the nation has lost its ability to talk with people who have different political views. It’s essential that we learn how to do that. We don’t want schools to be partisan but we do want schools to prepare students for politics — and politics is partisan. And that’s a paradox. We’re trying to prepare young people to participate in a highly polarized partisan environment — but we want to do it in a way that’s not partisan or polarized.

Question: Faculty and staff from across the School of Education, including you, have volunteered in recent elections and talked of the importance of voting and giving students the information they need to be able to vote legally. I’ve heard some suggest that universities telling students they should have their voices heard and to vote is political and partisan. How do you respond to that?

Diana Hess
When asked how she convinces a teacher that talking about controversial topics is worth it, Diana Hess says: “I’m not sure we have to convince teachers — but instead convince the public and school board members. And then instead of asking, ‘How do we convince teachers to do something that other people might not want them to do?’ — instead, let’s figure out how do we help teachers do something that most people recognize as being important to do. (Photo: University of Louisville)

Hess: We’re not encouraging students to vote for a particular candidate, we’re encouraging students to vote, period. Democracy, by definition, involves people needing to participate. And voting is one form of participation. Encouraging people to vote who are eligible to vote is not a partisan act — unless you don’t believe in democracy.

Question: I’ve heard you talk about your work recently, and you seem optimistic that even in an ideologically split America, we can find a way to come together, find some common ground, and work toward solutions. With all the political polarization and negativity we so consistently read and hear through both traditional and social media, how do you remain so hopeful?

Hess: I don’t want to be naive or seem unaware of how significant the challenges are. The challenges are real and significant. That said, this is really, really important work. So I’m not going to give up. We need to help people think about how we make this quality civic education work possible, as opposed to feeling like it’s impossible.

Question: Where can one find resources to learn how to talk about any range of controversial topics or to best deliver quality civic education?

Hess: There’s a lot of existing, high-quality curricula. There are a lot of organizations that help teachers with respect to quality civic education.

This work is also a focus of our Teaching About the 2022 Elections Conference that the School of Education is hosting Sept. 24. It’s designed to make sure teachers have access to high-quality curricula and that they can develop a better understanding of what constitutes high-quality pedagogy related to civic education. It’s an outstanding professional learning opportunity.

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