Investigating Controversial Issues at Election Time: Political Socialization Research

Carole L. Hahn

As an election draws near, students in and out of class are likely to identify with a political party, argue with each other about personality differences between candidates, and cheer on their team as if the election were a sports event. Such scenes may appear to foster good citizenship behaviors. However, they are not sufficient to develop a long-term involvement in the political arena. Rather, social studies educators will want to promote a deeper understanding of what is at stake during an election, and use the election period as an opportunity to develop long-lasting political knowledge and attitudes. They can do this best by helping students to investigate the controversial public policy issues over which candidates, parties, and citizens disagree.

The Necessary Triad
There is a long tradition in social studies calling for student investigation into controversial public policy issues. Its value has been supported by researchers' findings over the years. In the 1950s, social studies leaders called for a "problems approach" to social studies; in the 1960s, Engle (1960), Hunt and Metcalf (1968), and Oliver and Shaver (1966), respectively, called for student practice in decision making about public policy issues, investigation into the "closed areas" of society, and a "jurisprudential approach" to public policy issues.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in what is now called an issues-centered approach to social studies (Engle 1980a and Ochoa 1988; Evans and Saxe in press; Social Education 1996). Teachers who use such an approach in conjunction with elections might have students investigate initiatives appearing on state ballots, or issues on which local, state, or national candidates and parties have taken opposing positions.

In a recent review of research for the forthcoming Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, edited by Evans and Saxe, I identified three important dimensions of issues-centered social studies arising from empirical studies: content, pedagogy, and climate. Controversial content is the easiest to recognize; it is content that focuses on an issue or problem over which people hold differing views.

Conflictual pedagogy leads students to confront and become engaged with the controversial nature of a question. Familiar techniques are debates, simulations, discussions, and inquiry projects in which students are forced to confront differing views in order to come to some resolution of a problem. Recent qualitative studies by Bickmore (1993) and Rossi (1995) provide rich descriptions of the ways in which social studies teachers can use content and pedagogy to facilitate-or, in the case of some of Bickmore's teachers, to gloss over-controversy.

The final dimension of the necessary triad for issues-centered teaching is a democratic "classroom climate," or an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to consider and express alternative views. Because classroom climate is the key variable identified by political socialization researchers and authors of articles reviewing research on political learning (Ehman 1980a; Ferguson 1991; Niemi and Hepburn 1995; Patrick and Hoge 1991), the major part of this article will elaborate on the studies in this tradition.

Open and Closed Classrooms
Over the years, political socialization researchers have found that students who perceive that they are being encouraged to investigate controversial issues and to express their opinions in a supportive atmosphere, develop political attitudes associated with participatory citizenship. On the other hand, students who recall few opportunities to express their opinions about controversial public policy issues possess less positive attitudes toward participation. These students exhibit low levels of political interest and political efficacy-the belief that citizens can influence government decisions.
Research by Ehman forms the foundation on which this line of inquiry rests. Ehman began with a series of studies in which he identified the connection between adolescent political attitudes and a classroom climate in which democratic discourse is modeled. He developed a Classroom Climate Scale, which contained items measuring the extent to which students perceived that their social studies teachers dealt with social problems, discussed both sides of issues, and took neutral positions on issues (Ehman 1969). One item on the scale also asked whether students felt free to express their opinions in their social studies classes.

In the first study, Ehman (1969) found that students in a Detroit high school who rated their classrooms more open on the Classroom Climate Scale (1) reported higher degrees of controversial issues exposure in their classes, (2) had taken more social studies classes, and (3) had higher scores on the scale measuring political efficacy than did other students. Additionally, students in open-climate classrooms reported higher levels of political participation and a sense of citizen duty, and lower levels of cynicism-although the magnitude of the relationships was "quite low indeed," with the highest correlation coefficient being .25 for climate and participation (Ehman 1969).

Looking at varying effects on particular subgroups within the sample, Ehman compared African American and European American students in open and closed classroom climates and found that a closed climate was associated with negative outcomes for both black and white students. In the closed climate condition, both groups reported low levels of political efficacy, participation, and citizen duty. Furthermore, white students in the closed climate group expressed relatively high levels of political cynicism (Ehman 1969). Clearly, the mere presence of controversial issues in the curriculum is not sufficient to bring about positive student attitudes; when issues are presented in a closed climate, there can be negative consequences.

On the other hand, Ehman and subsequent researchers found that an open classroom climate is often associated with positive student political attitudes. For both the black and white Detroit students who experienced an open climate, there was a positive correlation between issues exposure and a sense of citizen duty. Additionally, for African American students, there were positive correlations between issues exposure in an open climate and a sense of political efficacy and participation; and there was a negative correlation with cynicism. In that study, however, there was virtually no relationship between open climate and those variables for white students (Ehman 1969).

In more recent studies of adolescents, in which findings were not broken down by race, researchers have similarly found positive correlations between an open classroom climate and political efficacy and interest (Baughman 1975; Blankenship 1990; Ehman 1980b; Hahn 1991; Harwood 1991). Most recently in a study I conducted with samples of students in England, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as the United States, I found similar positive correlations between an open climate and political interest and efficacy (Hahn, forthcoming).

Values and Trust
By supplementing questionnaire data with classroom observations in the Detroit high schools, Ehman first discovered clues to what teachers can do to facilitate issues-centered discussions (Ehman 1970). Defining a "normative mode" as when the teacher or students made value-laden statements or asked value-oriented questions (characterized by words such as "should," "ought," "good," or "bad"), Ehman related the amount of time each social studies class spent in the normative mode to the political attitude change scores of students exposed to particular teachers. An important finding was that very few value discussions occurred, which is consistent with later observational studies of social studies classes (McNeil 1986; Shaver, Davis, and Helburn 1979). Nevertheless, Ehman did find that students who were exposed to the few teachers who raised value issues experienced a very slight increase in political efficacy over two years. Unfortunately, subsequent researchers have not explored this question to determine whether effects would be greater when more discussion of value issues occurs.
Another important finding of Ehman's early study was that students in more normative classrooms appeared to become more politically cynical, or less trusting of government officials, as indicated by their responses to political trust items. In later studies, some researchers have similarly found an inverse relationship between open climate and students' level of political trust (Baughman 1975; Long and Long 1975; Zevin 1983). On the other hand, in my recent cross-national study, I did not find an open classroom climate and trust to be negatively correlated (Hahn in press). This may mean that if teachers and students regularly make evaluative comments in issues-centered classes, some-but not all-high school students may move away from the idealistic and trusting view of government officials that characterizes young children to a more realistic and somewhat skeptical view of politicians and governmental decision makers.

One dimension of classroom climate-the range of views that students perceive as open to consideration-seems to be of particular importance. This was the conclusion of a second longitudinal study by Ehman using questionnaire data with a sample of students in nine Midwestern high schools (Ehman 1980b). It indicated that students who recalled a wider range of views being explored in social studies classes, as compared to students who recalled only one perspective being presented, had higher levels of both school and society-wide political interest and confidence. These students were more trusting of other students and school adults, more trusting in society, and more socially integrated than their peers. Finally, in this study as in the earlier one, students' perceptions of having the freedom to express their opinions during issues discussions was the strongest predictor of positive attitudinal outcomes with regard to both school and society (Ehman 1980b).

Participatory Citizenship
Other researchers have identified political behaviors associated with an open classroom climate that might be found in an issues-centered class. For example, Long and Long (1975) examined the connection between student reports of their political behaviors outside the class and their perceptions of their social studies classroom climate. To assess student political behaviors, the researchers asked students how frequently they discussed political matters with friends and family, how frequently they followed current events in the media, and the extent of their participation in student activities, such as student government, clubs, and sports. An open classroom climate that was characterized by discussion of controversial issues correlated positively with responses on the political behavior index.
Taken together, these studies offer insights about the important role open discussion of controversial public policy issues can play in social studies instruction. Although for the most part researchers used samples of convenience, and the correlations they found between climate and political attitudes were quite modest-usually ranging between .20 and .40-the consistency of findings across studies is impressive. Even though family, media, prior schooling, and other contextual factors influence the development of political orientations, discussions in social studies classrooms are consistently associated with positive political attitudes and behaviors among adolescents.

In particular, it appears that issues-centered social studies classes characterized by a climate of openness and encouragement of diverse viewpoints are associated with positive civic outcomes. Students in such classes, as compared to students without that experience, are more likely to develop an interest in the political world, a sense that they and citizens like themselves can have some influence on political decisions in a democracy, and a belief that citizens have a duty to be actively engaged in politics. They may also be more disposed than other students to discuss political issues and events with friends and family members outside the classroom. Furthermore, they are likely to report feeling integrated into-rather than alienated from-the school culture and the wider society.

Political socialization studies also alert us to a few concerns. First, when issues are presented in a closed climate, students may acquire negative attitudes toward political participation. Second, when students regularly examine issues and hear diverse views, they may become skeptical of politicians. Although some would call that a healthy skepticism, others may be troubled by such an outcome.

Other Outcomes
Although this election issue of Social Education focuses on political knowledge and attitudes, it should be noted that researchers have found an issues-centered approach to be associated with other outcomes of interest to social studies teachers. For example, some researchers found controversial issues content, pedagogy, and a democratic classroom climate to be associated with both the development of critical thinking skills (Johnston, Anderman, Milne, Klenk, and Harris 1994; Levin, Newmann, and Oliver 1969) and support for free expression, tolerance of dissent, and tolerance of rights for diverse groups (Avery, Bird, Johnstone, Sullivan, and Thalhammer 1992; Baughman 1975; Goldenson 1978; Grossman 1975). Finally, the acquisition of global knowledge and attitudes has also been identified with controversial issues content, conflictual pedagogy, and an open classroom climate (Blankenship 1990; Kehoe 1980; Moffitt 1992; Torney-Purta 1990; Torney-Purta and Lansdale 1986; Yocum 1989). Apparently, when students have the opportunity to practice open reflective inquiry and democratic discourse, a variety of social studies objectives can be achieved. The election period provides one such opportunity.

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Carole L. Hahn is Professor of Social Studies Education in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.