Creating Strategies and Conditions for Civil Discourse about Controversial Issues

John Allen Rossi

In a recent column, Michael

Kramer (1995) contended that civil discourse about controversial political issues was virtually an oxymoron in American society today. The media are replete with incendiary discourse designed to get attention, startle, and attack, as reflected in the dialogue on radio and interaction on television talk shows like those of Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake. For adolescents, such discourse serves as a model for how to discuss and manage conflicting perspectives on controversial issues.
In contrast with the feverish talk show efforts to stir up feelings on minor issues, numerous studies (Shaver, Davis, and Helburn 1980; Goodlad 1984; McNeil 1986) report the absence of any dialogue about significant controversial issues in many high school classrooms. Yet it is a well-established tenet of social studies education that promoting civic competence requires informed, thoughtful social interaction among students about controversial public issues. The incendiary discourse in the media and the silence of the classroom pose a challenge to this tenet, obligating the profession to demand more opportunities for open, honest, and thoughtful dialogue in social studies classrooms.

This is not to say that any discussion of controversial issues will lead to civic competence. The potential for positive and negative consequences is present whenever controversy is discussed. Whether the consequences are positive or negative depend on the conditions under which the controversy occurs and the way it is managed. In other words, classroom context and climate are extremely important variables in promoting the abilities and dispositions necessary for an informed, thoughtful, and caring citizenry. In this article, I will not focus on what those abilities and dispositions might be. Other articles in this special section define them. Instead, I will first provide an overview of approaches and discussion formats advocated in the teaching of controversial issues. Second, I will propose a set of contextual conditions in which these approaches and formats might best promote civic competence.

Major Approaches to Teaching about Controversial Issues
Four major approaches to teaching about controversial issues frequently appear in the literature-problem solving, public issues, decision making, and moral reasoning. Each approach contains a set of clearly articulated goals and a framework for classroom practice derived from theoretical premises. In addition, each approach offers the teacher a choice of a variety of discussion formats (e.g. role-playing, debating, class discussion) when implementing the approach in the classroom. In this section, I will describe and provide examples of the four approaches, leaving a discussion of the choice of formats to the next section. Although differences among the four approaches should not be exaggerated, I will explore a few of the subtle differences among the approaches.

Problem Solving
The term "problem" has several definitions. Dewey (1933) defined problem solving as a condition wherein individuals experience a state of doubt or perplexity about a question or situation that triggers the active search for knowledge that will solve the conflict. The purpose is for students to hypothesize, collect and organize data, and draw conclusions about problems for which there is no definitive answer. Although certain values may influence the conclusion drawn by students, the purpose is not for students to make value judgments about the problem. Adapted from Dewey (1933), the problem-solving approach follows five steps: (1) creating a puzzle, dilemma, or state of doubt about a topic; (2) stating the problem in the form of a question (e.g., what explains this?); (3) generating some hypotheses from students about the problem; (4) testing the validity of the hypotheses through collecting and organizing data; and (5) asking students to draw a tentative conclusion about the problem based on the evidence available.
For example, in an international relations class, the teacher might organize a series of lessons around the question "When should one country intervene in the affairs of another country?" The teacher would present the students with two scenarios for U.S. intervention in international conflicts, one in the Gulf War and the second in Bosnia. The teacher then poses the question "Why did the United States intervene militarily so quickly in the Gulf War and not in Bosnia?" Students would generate a series of hypotheses from their existing knowledge and begin a search for information from a variety of sources about the two scenarios to test their ideas. Eventually, each student or group of students would draw a conclusion about the problem posed by the question.

Public Issues
Dating back to the Harvard Social Studies Project (Oliver and Newmann 1967), the purpose of the public issues approach is to help students analyze and discuss persisting human dilemmas and value conflicts related to public issues, both historical and contemporary.1 The analytical framework entails the investigation of a policy question by analyzing the factual, definitional, and moral components of the policy under consideration.

For example, an investigation of Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 requires the analysis of the following questions: (1) Was the bomb militarily necessary? (factual); (2) What was meant by the term "surrender?" (definitional); and (3) Was it morally justifiable to kill Japanese civilians in order to save the lives of American soldiers (moral)? In the public issues approach, students research and discuss these questions as they move toward taking and defending a position on the policy question-should the United States have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? The approach views the classroom as a community of learners in conversation, eventually making value judgments about enduring public questions.

Decision Making
Decision making can be defined as the making of reasoned choices from among several alternatives (Cassidy and Kurfman 1977). The steps in the approach include (1) defining the situation that requires a decision, its origins, and the goals of the decision maker; (2) identifying available alternatives and their good and bad consequences; and (3) selecting an alternative and assessing how it best fits the goals of the decision maker (Cassidy and Kurfman 1977). Like the public issues approach, decision making explores value conflicts and judgments, but, unlike public issues, its focus lies more in identifying the range of available choices.
Again using Hiroshima as an example, this approach would ask students first to define the situation and goals of the United States in July 1945. Then, students would identify and predict the consequences of possible alternatives like invading by land, detonating a demonstration bomb over a deserted island, offering the retention of the Emperor as a condition of surrender, and the dropping of the bomb. Like the public issues approach, the predicting of consequences often entails a consideration of disputed factual and moral questions. Finally, students would choose the most desirable alternative given the predicted consequences and the goals of the United States. A recent adaptation of this approach is The Choices for the 21st Century Education Project established by the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This project has designed curricular units that ask students to assess the choices on a number of foreign policy issues, ranging from U.S. policy in Vietnam to keeping the peace in the post-Cold War world.

Moral Reasoning
Drawing on the research of Lawrence Kohlberg, this approach seeks to advance the quality of student reasoning about ethical dilemmas. It contends that student reasoning becomes less self-centered, less conformist, and more attuned to the legal rights of others and the well-being of society if exposed to properly led discussions of moral dilemmas (Lockwood and Harris 1985). These moral dilemmas can be derived from history (e.g., Rosa Park's choice not to move to the back of the bus) or from the real life experiences of students.2
Beyer (1976) proposed a multi-staged strategy to guide such moral discussions: (1) defining and clarifying the dilemma; (2) asking each student to take a tentative position on the dilemma; (3) dividing students into small groups to identify reasons for their position; (4) conducting a class discussion that defends, challenges, and probes the reasoning; and (5) extending the reasoning to the larger moral question raised by the dilemma. In the case of Hiroshima, the discussion might concentrate on the moral dilemma confronted by atomic scientists, military leaders, and the State Department prior to Truman's decision. Was the dropping of the bomb morally justifiable? Does the fact that the bomb would shorten the war and save lives justify the means used? Was the atomic bomb any more immoral than regular incendiary bombs? Was the bomb a means of punishing and gaining revenge? If so, is that morally justified? Although students may struggle with definitional and factual questions and propose options in the process, the emphasis of moral reasoning lies in probing the moral justification for behavior.

Discussion Formats
In this section, I will describe and give examples of a variety of discussion formats that a teacher might adopt to carry out any of the previous four approaches in the classroom. These formats do not include textbook or lecture-driven recitations, but substantive conversation among students with the direct or indirect guidance of the teacher. Newmann and Wehlage (1993) assert that substantive conversation contains three features: (1) considerable interaction that includes higher order thinking about ideas; (2) the sharing of ideas in exchanges not completely scripted or controlled by the teacher; and (3) a dialogue that builds coherently on participants' ideas to promote collective understanding. Conversation might occur in such formats as teacher-directed large-group class discussions, small group discussions, debates, or role-playing. Although each format can be adapted to all four approaches, for the purposes of this article, I will describe how each format might be adapted to fit one approach.

Large-Group Class Discussion
This format can be pursued using the decision-making approach, particularly when examining the alternatives and their consequences. Start the discussion by asking each student to write out his or her understanding of the alternative to be assessed (e.g., use of a demonstration bomb). Once the alternative is clearly defined, poll the students on their position on the alternative (good idea, bad idea, undecided). If disagreement exists, ask students to share the good and bad consequences of the alternative and write them on the board. Clarify the consequences when necessary. If class consensus exists, write the consequences on the board to see if students favor the alternative for the same reasons. Once the consequences are clarified, begin to probe the reasoning behind each consequence, examining its logic, identifying supportive evidence, and prioritizing its importance. End the discussion by re-taking a poll on the worth of the alternative. Have the results remained the same or changed? Why?

Small-Group Discussion
One form of small-group discussion often associated with the public issues approach is the scored discussion (Oliver and Newmann 1972; Zola 1992; Harris 1995). In a scored discussion, the class is divided into small groups ranging from five to eight students. Each group is asked to discuss a public issue for about twenty-five minutes without interruption by the teacher or students outside the group. Prior to the discussion, each group prepares an agenda in which it identifies the factual, definitional, and moral issues the members wish to address during the discussion. The group's discussion and the contribution of each student are scored for substance and procedure. The scorer gives points for positive features, such as using evidence or inviting non-participants to share their ideas, and subtracts points for negative features, such as dominating the conversation or making personal attacks.

Although there are many debate forms, I have found two particularly effective in the classroom. The first is formal, Oxford-style debate, which includes opening speeches by students with opposing positions, interrogation and defense of each side's argument, and rebuttal speeches. This format can easily be integrated into one phase of the problem-solving approach. Students might be asked to debate two different hypotheses about the problem being investigated. For example, on the problem of the effect of slavery on the black family, one group might support Stanley Elkin's hypothesis (1985) that slavery turned the culturally uprooted African slaves into passive and childlike Samboes, while a second might support Eugene Genovese's hypothesis (1985) that slaves developed their own system of family and cultural values within Southern society. The debate starts with the opening arguments from each group and continues with interrogation by each group of the other's position. During the interrogation, either group could claim a "cream" if it detects (1) a serious factual error, (2) stalling by the other side, (3) a contradiction, (4) the inability to answer a main question, or (5) an effective counterpunch to a question. The debate concludes with rebuttal speeches by each group. A third group of judges scores the entire debate, including the assessment of the "creams," and both sets of speeches, and decides which hypothesis has the most validity.3
A second form of debate is advocate decision making in which students debate a single position on a public issue (e.g., the United States should deny most-favored-nation trade status to China). The activity begins by clarifying the debate proposition and its context, and dividing the class into three groups of equal size-advocates for the proposition, advocates against the proposition, and decision makers. After the preparation of reasons, evidence, and questions by all three groups, the class is further divided into groups of three students, each containing an advocate for, an advocate against, and a decision maker. The debate, moderated by the decision maker, occurs in these small groups of three students each. The activity ends with a full class discussion in which students identify value conflicts as well as the strongest arguments and evidence presented in the debate.

Shaftel and Shaftel (1967) describe role-playing as having students portray other people. Students "step into someone else's shoes" as a means to experience firsthand something that they might otherwise only read or be told. They claim that one function of role-playing is "educating for ethical behavior; more specifically, for individual integrity and group responsibility" (1967, 8). Role-playing, as explained by Shaftel and Shaftel (1967), involves a sequence of steps: (1) "warming up" the group or problem confrontation, (2) selecting the participants, (3) preparing the audience to participate as observers, (4) setting the stage or scenario, (5) enacting the role-play, and (6) debriefing the enactment.
Role-playing is a common practice used in the mock trials and public hearings advocated by law-related educators (see McBee, this issue). It is also adaptable to the moral reasoning approach in which groups role-play moral dilemmas as a springboard to large-group debriefing of the reasoning heard in the role-play. For example, I have designed a role-play based on the story of Victoria Woodhull, the controversial nineteenth century feminist and journalist, found in Reasoning With Democratic Values (Lockwood and Harris 1985). Set in the home of Ms. Woodhull in 1872, the role-play entails a conversation among Susan B. Anthony, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Colonel James Blood, and Woodhull about whether Woodhull should print a story about the private marital indiscretions of Reverend Beecher, a prominent supporter of women's rights' issues. Subsequent debriefing often evolves into a discussion of whether the private lives of public figures should be publicized.

Classroom Climate
I mentioned at the beginning of the article that discourse about controversial issues is a staple of talk radio and TV shows like those of Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake. However, the climate in which controversy occurs on these shows inflames and exacerbates conflict; it does not generate informed, thoughtful deliberation. As these shows demonstrate, merely discussing controversial issues is not sufficient to promote civic competence and democratic attitudes. Much depends on the climate in which the discourse occurs. In the classroom, the consequences for students of teaching about controversy depend on the classroom conditions in which these approaches and formats occur and the way they are managed by teachers and students (Johnson and Johnson 1979; Lusk and Weinberg 1994; Hahn 1991). In other words, context and classroom climate are critical. What classroom conditions and procedures are conducive to promoting civic competence? In this segment, I will define these conditions and use them to examine more closely the approaches and formats identified in the last two segments.

A Cooperative versus a Competitive Context
Johnson and Johnson (1979) claim that a cooperative context facilitates constructive controversy. They define a cooperative context as one in which people perceive they can obtain their goal only if other people with whom they are linked can obtain their goals. Under such conditions, communication tends to be more open and honest, people feel safer to challenge ideas, and conflicts are perceived as jointly shared.
Cooperative contexts, compared to competitive ones, promote more accurate communication of information, more verbalization of ideas and information, greater efforts in seeking others' information and ideas, more attentiveness to others' statements, more utilization of others' information in more optimal ways, more willingness to be influenced by others' ideas and information, fewer difficulties in communication with and understanding others, more confidence in one's own ideas and in the value that others attach to one's ideas, and greater feelings of agreement between oneself and others. (Johnson and Johnson 1979).
Of the approaches outlined earlier, the public issues approach and the scored discussion format seek to establish and maintain a cooperative context. The public issues approach is neither confrontational nor combative; rather, students discuss their positions on a policy issue using the rational, analytical framework of factual, definitional, and moral questions. There is a search for consensus and, where there is disagreement, an effort to understand and bridge the differences. Students receive positive points for drawing others into the discussion, moving the discussion forward, and asking clarifying questions, and receive negative points for monopolizing or making a personal attack. Similarly, in a scored discussion, students debate and deliberate, as citizens interacting as a group.

Barber (1989) asserts that the danger of a competitive context is one-sided advocacy, where the aim is to prevail and the purpose of listening is to scan the adversary's position for weakness. The goal of the dialogue is not to understand but to defeat the opponent. Newmann (1989) claims that such dialogue is manipulation, not honest discussion. It forces participants to harden and blindly defend their position rather than examine their reasoning. In their study of class discussions about race and gender, Lusk and Weinberg (1994) report one student saying, "It seems that once we start talking about it, the object is to win the debate, not talk about the issue." The potential for such danger exists in the Oxford-style and advocate decision-making debate formats. In Oxford-style debate, the potential danger is excessive focus on "creaming" the adversary; in advocate decision making, the danger is excessive focus on winning the debate rather than a rational presentation and defense of one's position. Even a scored discussion for some students has the potential of becoming a contest to amass more points than one's peers (Rossi 1995).

On the other hand, a competitive context is not necessarily perilous. Lynch and McKenna (1990) contend that teaching controversy requires dealing with the hearts and minds of students. At in-service workshops where I model Oxford-style debate and advocate decision making, teachers frequently praise the formats for their motivational value. In an era when many students devalue schooling except as a means to secure a credential, teachers treasure the affective as well as the cognitive component of effective instruction.

The dilemma for the teacher is to create a climate that generates enough emotion to create interest and commitment without impeding open, honest dialogue where participants feel safe to speak. The task of the teacher is to deal with the emotion before it builds to defensiveness and aggression. It is imperative to arrive at rules for the exchange of ideas (Lynch and McKenna 1990) and to teach students discussion skills (Harwood and Hahn 1990). Rules and scoring criteria might include (1) elaborating statements with reasons or evidence, (2) stipulating the temporary acceptance of a fact or assumption in dispute, (3) forbidding personal attacks, and (4) acknowledging the statements of others (Lynch and McKenna 1990; Harris 1995).

Use of Relevant Information
If controversy is to lead to learning, the students must possess and use information relevant to the controversy. Just because students are highly engaged when discussing controversial issues does not necessarily mean they are expanding their knowledge or examining their attitudes. Although the process of identifying errors is difficult, students are more likely to modify their outlook if they recognize why prior knowledge or beliefs were incorrect or indefensible (Lynch and McKenna 1990). Consequently, it is important that teachers know in advance what beliefs students already have. Using a brief opinion survey with a Likert scale at the beginning of a lesson is one way to begin to explore these beliefs.
At some point in dealing with controversial issues, it is important that students possess the key facts and concepts from the academic disciplines that supply the framework for understanding the issue. It is impossible, for instance, to understand the current controversy over affirmative action without some conceptual knowledge of equal opportunity, the history of discrimination, and landmark court cases. However, such knowledge must not remain inert. Rather, students should be asked to use it to examine and refine their reasoning on the issue or as evidence to support their position. All approaches and formats fall short if attention to understanding and using relevant knowledge is deficient.

Two approaches outlined earlier encourage teachers not to limit analysis of knowledge to the specific controversy under consideration. The public issues and moral reasoning approaches advocate raising the analysis of the specific case controversies to general principles and concepts. The public issues approach urges the use of analogies to test the meaning of common principles in different cases. For example, by comparing rebel response to the Stamp Act in the 1770s with the incident at Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, students might gain greater insight into when governmental authority should be challenged (see Griese and Glade 1988). Likewise, as exemplified earlier in the Woodhull role-play, the moral reasoning approach suggests using probe questions, which draw attention to larger moral issues implicit in a moral dilemma.

Perspective Taking
Perspective taking is the ability to understand how a problem or situation appears cognitively and affectively to another person. A classroom climate that provides opportunities to develop perspective-taking skills tends to increase the amount of information disclosed, the level of comprehension and retention of others' ideas, and the quality of problem solving (Johnson and Johnson 1979). It also ensures that students are exposed to a range of viewpoints on any issue.
Of the formats, role-playing perhaps provides the most opportunities for students to understand and empathize with another person's perspective. However, even Oxford-style debate and advocate decision making supply such opportunities by asking students to defend positions with which they initially disagree. In conducting class discussions, Kelly (1989) recommends that teachers ask students to compare and contrast their views with others or to make conjectures about others' points of view as a means to enhance listening among adversaries and to discourage dismissal of others' views without reflection. The task is not an easy one. Teachers must decide which perspectives to include. Are all perspectives of equal worth? If not, how does one decide which to exclude? Students may be resistant to requests to play roles contrary to their own beliefs.

Disagreeing while Confirming
A frequent occurrence when dealing with controversy is that of students or teachers challenging ideas advocated by other students. While necessary pedagogically, such challenges can be perceived as threats to one's ability and self-confidence. Somehow, participants need to be able to disagree with each others' ideas while confirming each others' personal competence. Disagreeing while attacking one's competence only reinforces one's commitment to his or her ideas and the rejection of opposing ideas (Johnson and Johnson 1979). Quieter or less confident students are likely to withdraw further if their ideas are not received with respect. How does a teacher protect the divergence of views among participants, yet create a safe environment where students listen and respect the ideas of their peers? Scored discussions use a scoring criteria where students are rewarded for acknowledging the statements of others or summarizing points of disagreement as well as agreement, and are penalized for abusive comments designed to hurt feelings (Zola 1992; Harris 1995). In addition, teachers need to model appropriate behaviors by not only asking challenging questions but also by listening to and acknowledging student responses.
Teachers walk a tightrope when modeling such behaviors. Students often view teachers as experts who, if one waits long enough, will reveal "the right answer." Following a response to a teacher's question, students will wait for the teacher to confirm or disconfirm its value. More Socratic teachers will continue to question student reasoning by asking follow-up questions or proposing alternative scenarios. There is potential danger, however, in Socratic questioning if it intimidates students who are just beginning to gain confidence in their own voice. Such intimidation is one reason some students are reluctant to discuss controversial issues (Rossi 1995). Knowing when to push more deeply or back off gently is part of the art of teaching.

Efforts to initiate discussion of controversial issues often provoke uncomfortable silence. What are the roots of this silence? Some students are reluctant to say anything that might jeopardize relationships with their peers; some feel intimidated by more vocal students; others view social studies as a non-controversial subject where knowledge is inert and certain (just tell us the answer, Mr. Rossi); still others simply feel uncomfortable with conflict (Lusk and Weinberg 1994). Yet including as many students as possible when discussing controversy has numerous benefits. It promotes the heterogeneity of viewpoints, provides opportunities for more students to test their ideas publicly, and limits dominance by a few outspoken students.
What might teachers do to promote inclusion in discourse? Lusk and Weinberg (1994) report noticing an increase in participation after conducting an exercise in which students identified and explored the social norms and classroom dynamics that inhibit discussion. During large-group class discussions, Kelly (1989) suggests asking clear, focused questions, waiting for responses, calling on non-volunteers, and promoting student-to-student interaction. The quiet student is not necessarily a thoughtless student. Often the quiet student, if called on, will offer ideas that move the discussion forward in a productive direction. In a scored discussion, group members are rewarded for drawing someone else into the discussion and are penalized for not yielding the floor. One of the strengths of advocate decision making lies in the inclusion of all students in small groups of three, each triad debating the controversy.

While there is no single approach or discussion format guaranteed to produce the citizenship outcomes ascribed to teaching about controversial issues, one critical variable is the classroom climate in which these approaches and formats occur. The teacher is a major player in nurturing such a climate. The climate revolves around a teacher who has in-depth substantive knowledge of the issues and procedural knowledge of available approaches and formats. It requires a teacher who has the skill to integrate the emotive and cognitive aspects of teaching; protect open, honest dialogue where there is an exchange of divergent views; ask clear, thought-provoking questions in discussion; wait for and listen to student responses; define and enforce rules for conduct; and include quieter students in the participation. The climate revolves around a teacher with certain personal dispositions or attitudes, who is a model of thoughtfulness, showing an interest in and respect for student ideas, a skepticism about the right answer, a thirst and enthusiasm for knowing more, and a commitment to social studies as more than the dissemination of knowledge. Creating a classroom climate where dealing with controversy produces the desired civic outcomes depends on teachers who intertwine their knowledge, skill, and attitudes into the art of teaching. Our profession would benefit from rich descriptions and videotapes of teachers who exemplify these characteristics.

1 In 1990, the Social Science Education Consortium adapted and re-issued a few titles in the Public Issues Series originally part of the Harvard Social Studies Project directed by Donald W. Oliver and Fred M. Newmann.

2 Alan L. Lockwood and David E. Harris have written a collection of case studies from U.S. History, each containing one or more moral dilemmas, in a two volume work Reasoning With Democratic Values-Ethical Problems in United States History. New York: Teachers College Press, 1985.

3 For more information about this debate format, see Elizabeth Jensen's rebels versus loyalists debate described in S.S. Wineburg S.M. Wilson "Models of Wisdom of Practice." Phi Delta Kappan 69 (1988): 55-58.

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John Allen Rossi is an Assistant Professor of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.