Exploring Issues with Students Despite the Barriers

Joseph J. Onosko

Numerous explanations have been offered by social studies professionals to account for the paucity of issue-centered classrooms in middle and high schools. Barriers that have been suggested over the past few decades include the following:
Conservatism in the dominant culture and among social studies practitioners, resulting in a curriculum that emphasizes positive, stable features of society and avoids closed, problematic areas (Evans 1989; Hunt and Metcalf 1955; Leming 1992; Shaver 1989);

This diverse and fairly daunting list of barriers has led one prominent leader in the social studies field to conclude that "the ideal of an issues-oriented curriculum is not likely to be attained" (Shaver 1989). Many of the barriers are lodged in deeply rooted cultural assumptions and organizational structures. Nonetheless, many working in the social studies field know of teachers who regularly pursue serious and thoughtful analysis of controversial issues with students. Short of national commitment, issues can be explored with students.1 There are a number of classroom-based strategies that can help teachers create more challenging and rewarding learning environments, and keep teachers from adopting a despairing attitude all too prevalent among those with a fixed gaze on the barriers.

How do these teachers do it? What curricular strategies and instructional techniques help them sidestep or at least minimize some of the barriers within their sphere of influence? The suggestions that follow are derived from (a) the social studies professional literature, (b) the practitioner wisdom of my social studies colleagues in the schools, and (c) my own efforts as a social studies teacher, university methods instructor, intern supervisor, and researcher. Much of the curriculum section is adapted from a coauthored article with Lee Swenson on issue-based unit design that will appear in The Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Evans and Saxe, forthcoming).2

Curriculum Suggestions
1. Explore Various Types of Issues. Although all issues involve controversy, they vary in a number of ways.3 Some issues are of interest to many people and are quite heated (e.g., Should women have unrestricted rights to an abortion within the first trimester?); others concern a select few and trigger more moderate levels of affect (e.g., historians debating the extent to which rye fungus-which causes hallucinations in humans-found its way into the bread of peasants and triggered the French Revolution).4 Issues vary in ways other than size of audience and level of affect engendered. Some issues are grounded in the past, others involve the present, while others project into the future. Many issues can be classified as disciplinary; that is, they emerge from or are linked to scholarly work in disciplines such as economics, political science, or anthropology. Other issues are interdisciplinary and require the appropriation of information and ideas from two or more fields of study; for example, "Should all-girl math classes be created to improve girls' math achievement?" (education, law, psychology, sociology, political science). Some issues can be classified as policy issues (e.g., Should the United States accept gays in the military? Should Town X build a new pool?), while others are perennial issues (e.g., When does public safety override the rights of the individual? When is civil disobedience justified?). There are factual issues, definitional issues, and ethical, legal, and aesthetic issues. It is important to expose students to these different types of issues.5

2. Determine If the Issue Is Debatable. Because issues are debatable by definition, this suggestion may seem quite unnecessary. However, sometimes it is unclear if a question selected for study constitutes an issue. Assess whether or not multiple perspectives exist; that is, can reasonable arguments be constructed that reflect opposing viewpoints on the question? If opposing perspectives cannot be identified, is it due to an inherent lack of controversy in the question or the teacher's (or students') lack of current understanding? As an example, the question "Did the New Deal End the Great Depression?" is not an issue because most historians agree that World War II was the decisive catalyst of economic recovery. A much more debatable question (and therefore issue) is the following: "Was the New Deal a failed social experiment?" Here students must weigh the benefits and costs of a variety of federal programs, consider philosophical issues regarding the appropriate size and role of government, and so on.

3. Design In-Depth Units Based on a Central Issue. Issues are inherently complex-if for no other reason than the fact that reasonable people, following dialogue and debate (rational and otherwise), are unable to agree on an appropriate perspective and/or course of action. For students to meaningfully understand and analyze an issue, it therefore seems necessary that teachers devote more than one or two fifty-minute lessons-especially since the issue studied is often the students' initial exposure. Splicing an occasional one- or two-day issue-based "side trip" in and around topically, chronologically, or thematically based units will not yield a thoughtful citizenry able to critically examine public issues and participate in, sustain, and improve our democratic institutions. In short, authentic analysis of an issue requires issue-based unit planning and teacher commitment to in-depth study.6

Commitment to issue-based unit design does not automatically insulate one from superficial content coverage, fragmented learning, or low-level cognitive challenge. Teacher planning can go astray when a unit is structured around a controversial topic devoid of a central issue. For example, the Vietnam War as a topic of study presents teachers and students with an extremely diverse range of subject matter, including: French colonialism; Vietnam's culture and history; the war's impact on that culture; the economy of Vietnam; the country's geography; the war itself (battles, strategies, equipment); the war's impact on U.S. society; and so on. A central unit issue (e.g., Was the U.S. War Effort in Vietnam Justified?) significantly narrows the vast range of content on Vietnam and provides direction for issue-based inquiry. Also note that without a central unit issue controversy can be minimized or avoided altogether-even with topics considered to be highly controversial. Again using Vietnam as an example, the war could be taught as a matter-of-fact "and-then-this-happened" serialization of events, or students could be asked to summarize the views of the Johnson Administration, Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong, student war protesters, World War II veterans, etc., without having students themselves think about their own views or consider the validity of the perspectives they have summarized. In short, controversial topics, whether they involve school prayer, immigration or health care, become opportunities for inquiry only when specific unresolved issues are raised.

A second way planning can go astray is to add a number of ancillary or tangential topics and issues. For example, instead of limiting analysis to the central issue of whether or not colonists were justified in revolting from England, some teachers might add to the unit the following marginally related issues: What enabled the colonial militia to defeat the better equipped and trained British forces? Was France justified in providing aid to the colonists during the Revolution? Could the war have been won without the military leadership of George Washington? Or, How should Loyalists have been treated during the war? The result is fragmented and superficial treatment of complex issues. Coverage pressure typically compels teachers toward overinclusion during unit design.7 Structuring a unit around a central issue can check this tendency and ensure directed, sustained inquiry.8

4. Explore Issues that Are Important. Defining what is an "important" issue is beyond the scope of this article. Others, however, have tackled this difficult matter (Evans and Saxe in press; Hunt and Metcalf 1955; Newmann and Oliver 1970; Oliver and Shaver 1966). The following questions might serve as a guide when attempting to identify issues for study:

Is it an issue that has been debated in the past and continues to be debated? In other words, is it a persistent, enduring issue? Examples include the following: What resources should be publicly owned and how should their use be regulated? Or when, if ever, should the United States enter into the internal affairs of another country?

Is it a current matter of public concern that requires civic judgment or decision making? For example, civic judgment and action may be necessary when disagreement occurs over the placement of the new town dump, increased state taxes, a federal initiative, or U.S. actions in an international incident. Helping students develop civic competence justifies the study of public policy issues such as these.

Do scholars in a discipline or across disciplines tend to agree that the issue is important? Issues that capture the attention of most scholars in or across disciplines are probably worthy candidates for study. Take, for example, the following: Will continued depletion of the ozone layer lead to global warming? Should the United States have entered World War II sooner?

Is an understanding of the issue likely to promote students' development? A vast range of issues can help students become more mature and socially responsible. Issues that might serve this purpose include the following: What responsibilities do you have to yourself and society? Overall, is peer pressure a good or bad thing? Are some moral beliefs better than others, or are they all just opinions?

5. Explore Issues that Are Interesting. Be sure to select a subset of important issues that students are also likely to find interesting-and that the teacher already finds interesting.9 Having identified an issue of importance and interest, further enhance student interest (and motivation) by constructing a provocative phrasing. Compare, for example, the following two questions involving similar analyses: "What Caused the American Revolution?" and "Did the Founding Fathers Revolt Because of Greed?" Student interest is more likely to be perked by the irreverent suggestion that greed motivated the founding fathers than by a rather bland and all too common query about causation.

Also beneficial is phrasing the issue in a memorable way. Take, for example, the following issue on homelessness, which is provocative but not memorable: "There are actually very few economic, political, social, or religious efforts that our government can attempt to help solve the problem of homelessness in the United States today?" More memorable ways to state this issue include the following: "Government's efforts to help the homeless are futile" or "How would you combat homelessness if you were the President?"

Finally, consider weaving an ethical dimension into central issues, because students cannot resist invitations to make assessments of right v. wrong, good v. bad, proper v. improper, and so on. For example, most students would prefer to grapple with the ethically charged question "Would you have supported or protested the Vietnam war effort?" than with the factual question "What primarily led Americans to either support or protest the war?"

6. Explore Issues that Can Be Researched. Even the most important and interesting issue is rendered useless if resource materials cannot be acquired or are written at a level inappropriate for students.10 Successful issue analysis requires materials that reflect the perspectives and underlying rationales of the competing "camps," not just the viewpoint of one side or a very select few. These materials can help trigger student interest and must promote student expertise. Materials might include lively readings, such as eye-witness accounts and other primary source materials, or images and pictures that provide a "visual text" for students. Some "digging" by the teacher prior to actual study can help determine if sufficient materials are available. Note that most textbooks fail as resources for issues analysis because they typically contain inadequate detail, are rarely framed around issues, and do not present competing perspectives when they do address issues. (Loewen 1995)

7. Connect Daily Lessons to the Central Issue. Structuring a unit of study around an issue increases the likelihood but does not guarantee that individual lessons will add up to more than the sum of their parts. To assume a purpose beyond their own internal coherence, lessons need to be sequenced in ways that advance students' understanding of and ability to answer the central issue. The suggestions that follow can help.

Instructional Suggestions
The following instructional suggestions will hopefully provide some direction for teachers interested in issues-based instruction. Additional and, in most cases, more thorough instructional suggestions can be found in the following publications: Bower, Lobdell, and Swenson 1994; Fraenkel 1973; Hunt and Metcalf 1955; Kelly 1989; Lockwood and Harris 1985; Oliver and Newmann 1967; Williams 1994.

1. Establish a "no discount" policy that prohibits disparaging, disingenuous, mean-spirited, and related comments. Productive discussion of issues is most effectively conducted in an environment marked by an open and respectful exchange of ideas. Due to the actions or past actions of some classmates, many students remove themselves from discussions early on or before the conversation even begins. Teachers as well as students must abide by these rules, refraining from sarcastic comments, condescending chuckles, mean-spirited jokes, or other put-downs.

2. Convey to students your interest in their ideas and your confidence in their ability to think. Sending these two messages to students is essential to building an effective learning community. This can be done in numerous ways, including the following: a comment outside of class, a rewarding gesture after a student's comment during discussion, reading aloud or posting on a bulletin board students' written work, asking for elaboration during a class discussion, complimenting students on a progress report, and so on. Although these instructional "moves" can be easily appropriated, they will not have the intended effect if genuine care and a belief in students' potential are lacking.

3. Give students opportunities to explore ideas in small groups or with a partner prior to whole class discussion. Small-group and one-on-one discussion formats provide students with important opportunities for reflection. Relative to whole group discussion, these formats also allow more students to actively participate in the conversation. Students can more safely find out if their ideas make sense to classmates, and learn of other ways to think about the issue. Students gain understanding and confidence, and become more invested in their ideas. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that students will share their perspectives in whole group discussion, a format that is typically experienced as much more intimidating.

4. Encourage students to ask questions, not just offer answers. Working one's way through an issue requires question-asking, even though students too often perceive questioning as a sign of ignorance or stupidity.11 Help students cultivate the perspective that asking questions reflects curiosity and a growing intelligence. One obvious method for teachers to use is to compliment student questions to the same extent that answers are acknowledged. Teachers might also model for or explain to students how they themselves think through an issue, especially highlighting the central role questioning plays in this process.12

5. Promote the view that changing one's position is a sign of thoughtfulness and strength, not weakness. Support and compliment students when they publicly admit the need to rethink or change their views, whether it be a modification in their overall position, a particular line of argument, a conceptual understanding, or factual claim. Adolescence is a time of great uncertainty, and amplifying this uncertainty by publicly acknowledging one's errant thinking requires courage and self-confidence. More students would be willing to do this if they believed their peers respected and valued such behavior. Teachers, too, will need to occasionally exhibit "a change in heart" rather than convey to students the all too common (though often unintended) "I've-got-it-all-figured-out" attitude.

6. Frequently remind students during discussions that their ideas are being challenged, not their personhood or central being. Students need to realize that when classmates challenge one of their ideas, it is usually not done to implicate facets of their personality, nor will it likely endanger their friendships. Relatedly, some students quickly abandon their entire position if one or more of their ideas are called into question. Help students view the expression of opinion and disagreement on matters of controversy as inevitable, and as a sign of their growing maturity.

7. Depersonalize challenges to students' thinking by framing teacher reactions in a third-person voice. The power imbalance inherent in teacher-student relations and the importance of maintaining a facilitative role with students encourages the adoption of this strategy. For example, the following reactions to students' ideas unnecessarily place teachers in the middle of a disagreement: "I hadn't thought of that, Sue, but I'd have to disagree for the following reason ..." or "That view may be problematic due to the fact that ... what do you think?" Teachers can distance themselves by appropriating another voice: "That's interesting; however, I read an article the other day and the author claimed that .... how would you respond?" or "What if someone were to respond to your claim by saying...?" An even more effective response (because it increases student participation) is to refrain from commenting altogether, instead soliciting reactions from the class. If the desired point is not raised by students, then enter the conversation using a third-person voice as described above.

8. Humor is the great elixir in many situations, including issues-oriented classrooms. Persistent, serious, somber discourse is not a commonly valued or tolerated activity in adolescent peer culture. Humor not only makes serious discourse more engaging for students, it has the power to defuse disagreements that might otherwise become inflamed and counterproductive. This does not mean that teachers are to avoid conflict or become classroom comedians, injecting marginally relevant comments and jokes to trigger a chuckle. Rather, what is needed is a sensitive use of humor to enliven discussion and periodically infuse energy into the conversation.

9. Vary the use of dialogue and debate style discussions. Debate formats are defined broadly as any discussion situation in which students defend a perspective or point of view. Although these formats often create highly engaged, theatrical, and insightful student expression, they also create participant resistance to serious consideration of opposing points of view as students adopt lawyer-like postures, defending their "client" to the bitter end. (See John Rossi's article in this issue, pp.15-21, for a related discussion.) In addition, debate formats may reflect boys' preferred style of interaction and learning, which can have a negative impact on girls' level of participation. These concerns necessitate that dialogue formats also be used. Any discussion situation in which students pursue understanding of an issue without yet adopting or defending a particular view is defined here as a dialogue format. One strategy is to involve the class in the construction of a compromise position or middle way that takes into account the perspectives of opposing parties.13

10. Have students assume a position counter to their own. The intent here, much like the previous recommendation, is to encourage more open-minded, reflective analysis by students, and to develop dispositions associated with thoughtfulness such as intellectual empathy, mental flexibility, and reflectivity (Dewey 1933; Passmore 1967; Schrag 1988; Walsh and Paul 1987). To promote intellectual empathy, students might become "one-horned" devil's advocates, arguing with conviction from a single position inconsistent with their own. Role-playing particular individuals (e.g., Martin Luther King justifying why he broke the law as explained in his Birmingham letter), groups of people (e.g., the remaining Branch Davidians explaining why the government acted improperly), or organizations and government bodies helps students empathically enter the perspectives of others. Role-playing also releases students from their peer group identity, granting them freedom to contemplate and express viewpoints that would otherwise be assigned to their social self or that might offend peer group sensibilities.

11. Remind students how individual lessons and activities are linked to the central issue. This can be done in a variety of ways, including the following:

12. Create culminating activities for students to share their perspectives. Culminating activities give students opportunities to demonstrate the fruits of their labor, that is, to share their understanding of and perspective on the central issue. They are performance-based activities involving more than traditional pen and paper tests, though written tasks such as a well-crafted "letter to the editor" in the local paper or a position paper that is shared with the class or broader community can serve this purpose. These projects encourage group interaction, allow students to employ multiple learning styles, and could include the following: a speech, skit or play, a radio broadcast, "live" or videotaped television newscast, a whole class or small-group debate, poster display, newspaper publication, metaphorical or other visual display of the issue, or a small-group presentation.

Many equally important instructional and curriculum suggestions have no doubt been overlooked. It is hoped that teachers pursuing issue-centered study will supplement (or amend) the above suggestions in upcoming issues of this journal. Due to the importance of issues-based education in promoting civic competence and in light of the many barriers that have an impact on its implementation, it is critical that members of the social studies community share their practitioner wisdom.

1This is not meant to minimize the barriers that confront teachers, administrators, and others who want to see inquiry-oriented, issue-based study conducted on a more regular basis. Nor is it meant to minimize the need for more comprehensive, systemic change efforts that promote thoughtful learning environments- both school-based (Onosko and Newmann, 1994) and national efforts (O'Day and Smith, 1993).

2 Lee is a social studies teacher and department chair at Aragon High School in San Mateo, California.

3 Because controversy implies an issue and issues imply controversy, the two terms will be used interchangeably.

4 See Professor Mary Matossian's Poison of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, & History (1989) where she argues that a bumper crop of ergot mushrooms got into the rye and eventually the bread (and brains) of the peasantry. The altered states that resulted in 1789 pushed peasant uprising into a more radical, revolutionary phase known as "The Great Fear."

5Note that most issues defy classification in a single category, for example: How should nuclear waste be disposed? (present, policy, interdisciplinary); were neanderthals absorbed into the Cro-Magnon population or killed off? (past, factual, disciplinary).

6 See Onosko and Swenson (in press) for a detailed discussion of a five-part, issue-based unit planning model that emphasizes in-depth study. See Newmann (1988), Onosko (1991), and Wiggins (1989) for discussions of the benefits of in-depth study and the costs associated with broad content coverage.

7 The source of this coverage pressure is often teachers' substantial subject matter knowledge, which leads to overinclusion of topics and issues. This has led one outstanding social studies teacher to observe the following: "The more a teacher knows, the more important it is that the teacher have an effective pedagogy to hold the information in restraint" (Onosko 1989). A central unit issue serves to keep teachers' knowledge in check.

8 An assumption is made that students are capable of analyzing an issue at the same time that they are developing knowledge of it. Stated another way, students need not spend days or weeks on content acquisition before they are allowed to wrestle with an issue. A related assumption is that students are less able to learn and remember information and ideas without the organizing and motivating power of an issue (or question or some other problem).

9Issue-based curriculum design need not be exclusively teacher driven. Central issues can be identified by the teacher, students, or both-either before the analysis begins or during the early stages of study. A potential problem with this approach is that teachers have little time to determine if resource materials are available to adequately address the issue selected by students. On the other hand, with greater ownership of the curriculum, students are more likely to experience the activities as authentic and intrinsically valuable.

10 Some of the more frustrating moments in teaching occur when it becomes apparent that materials are not readily accessible. The limited availability of commercially produced issue-based resource materials persists as a major barrier, necessitating teacher and student construction of resource materials. Technological changes are making these constructions easier and more age-appropriate through the use of computers, scanners, and the Internet.

11Students might benefit from a "side-bar" discussion on the nature of intelligence, specifically whether or not intelligence is a fixed or malleable trait. Research indicates that student willingness to ask questions, work hard, work with others, work through challenging tasks, and exhibit other positive learning behaviors may be related to students' conceptions of intelligence (Dweck 1986).

12To maximize students' thinking and to prevent students from thoughtlessly appropriating the teacher's views, it may be best to share after students have constructed and articulated their perspectives.

13Steps students might take include the following: (a) state the issue, (b) discuss and attempt to summarize each of the competing perspectives on the issue, (c) identify the major points/areas of disagreement, (d) identify how compromise might be reached if each party were willing to modify or "bend" a little on major points of disagreement, and (e) state the revised, hypothetical compromise position that might prove satisfactory to the competing parties. If a compromise position cannot be imagined, then identify areas where future discussion needs to begin.

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Joseph J. Onosko is Associate Professor of Education at the University of New Hampshire.