by Bruce E. Larson
Discussion provides unique opportunities for students to learn through interaction with classmates and the teacher. The discussion of important policy issues can be successfully conducted in the early elementary grades. But the concern of some teachers that classroom order will degenerate-and comfort with the traditional practices of lecture, recitation, and mastery learning-both contribute to a lack of discussion in America's classrooms.1 The skills needed to engage in discussion require instruction; typically, students do not learn these skills on their own, but need guidance about "how to" discuss public issues.2
This article describes one approach to discussing public policy issues in a 6th grade classroom. Students "take a stand on public issues" by positioning themselves in the classroom with other classmates who agree with their opinion. Discussants have to think on two levels: they must deliberate about an issue and develop reasons to defend their thinking; and they must reflect on the discussion process itself.
When discussion is viewed as a rule-governed and structured activity, the process of discussing encourages students to pool ideas and information and to illuminate alternative perspectives. This develops skills and abilities in criticism and argument, such as: considering contributions from different perspectives, opinions, or understandings; developing a general disposition to listen, consider, and be responsive to what others are saying; and acknowledging a central purpose for developing the group's knowledge and understanding of the topic being discussed.3 In this way, students learn to see controversy as an interesting problem to be solved rather than an argument to be won,4 and discussion as a way to solve the problem. Discussion then is different from idle group talk, debate aimed exclusively at winning votes or defeating one's adversary, or classroom recitations.5
As students interact with one another during a classroom discussion, they hear, understand, and consider opinions that are both similar and dissimilar to their own. This is extremely important for two reasons. First, democratic life requires citizens to interact this way-using civil, critical discourse to make policies about important public issues.6 The classroom holds the potential for students of different race, gender, social status, and ability to learn how to engage one another in discussions about issues of common concern.7 Second, discussion requires students to learn the content so that they can talk about it.8
"Taking a Stand" on the Makah
Over the past two years, I have been exploring a particularly intriguing public issue that involves the Makah Native American tribe in Neah Bay, Washington. At issue is a controversy surrounding the Makah's request to hunt five Gray whales a year. I developed a lesson that uses discussion to explore such perennial issues as the sovereign rights of Native Americans, treaty rights, state's rights, and international laws on harvesting whales. The following five steps for using large-group discussion are based on my own classroom experiences and suggestions from several research studies:9
1.Present an overview of the issue
2.Explore two opposing viewpoints on the issue
3.Encourage students to "take a stand" in favor of one side of the issue
4.Encourage student interactions and descriptions
5.Have students write a dialogical essay
Each of these steps is described below. Teachers may modify them, as well as the subject of the lesson, to enhance their curriculum and the needs of their students.
1. Presenting an Overview of the Issue
I begin discussion by presenting an overview of the issue. In this case, I provide a handout describing the predominant reasons for controversy over the Makah's request to hunt Gray whales, without detailing specifics of the controversy (see Figure 1). I phrase the issue as a question requiring a choice or a decision for action, so that students will form an opinion on the issue by responding to the question.10 The question posed is: "Should the Makah be allowed to hunt whales again?" Then we read some additional material based on a compilation of accounts from several newspaper articles.11
Following this, I present two opposing sides of the issue in a "point/counterpoint" format (see Figure 2). The Makah are initiating the debate, and I present their ideas as the "point." Those views that argue against the Makah's are presented as the "counterpoint."
After the overview, point, and counterpoint, I encourage students to ask questions in order to clarify their understanding.
2. Exploring Opposing Viewpoints on the Issue
Once the information is presented and clarified, I divide the class in half randomly. One half moves to one side of the classroom and assumes the point side, while the other half moves to the opposite side to represent the counterpoint. I am quick to tell students that I am assigning them to a perspective with which they may disagree, and that eventually they will be able to stand on the side they support. Once in their groups, students engage in a familiar strategy called "think-pair-share," wherein students think about the main points on their side of the controversy, pair with someone standing near them, and share the most compelling points. This puts each student in a position to talk face-to-face about one side of the issue. I then select students from each side to make these points to the whole class. By doing so, the issue is described in students' words, and I can informally assess students' understanding.
3. Encouraging Students to "Take a Stand"
With the two sides of the issue restated, I ask students to take a stand based on their own belief about this issue, and move to one of three locations in the room. One side of the room supports the Makah's point of view, one side supports the counter-point, and a location in the middle represents the undecided. Once the class is divided, I have each student consider why he or she moved, and explain the reasoning behind their move to someone standing in the same location. These three locations represent students' current thinking only. I encourage them to move freely among these locations, based on the ensuing discussion.
4. Encouraging Student Interactions and Descriptions
Now the whole-class discussion begins. But first I show an overhead describing "expected behavior" during discussions about public policy issues (Figure 3). This overhead stays on the screen throughout the discussion.
To begin the large-group discussion, three or four students on the point side of the room explain their strongest arguments for deciding to stand there. After each explanation, I ask the students on the opposite side of the room (counterpoint) to respond only to the comments they heard from their classmate. The interactions proceed in this manner until both sides have presented what they believe are the most significant arguments for their side of the issue. My role during these initial "voicings" of opinion is to keep the responses focused on specific lines of reason and comment. Students must respond to specific ideas rather than criticize the opposing view in general.
At this point, I move away from mediating all the interactions, and encourage students to respond to one another. I first ask the students in the middle of the room to explain why they did not pick a side-what concerns, doubts, and questions still need to be addressed? I then ask the two sides to convince these students to move to a side by responding to their comments.
During the discussion, students ask questions and clarify points of view and opinions. I monitor the interactions to insure that students' comments focus on specific points surrounding the issue, and that all behavior complies with the expected behavior overhead. Students are reminded to move to any of the three points in the room as the discussion progresses.
When no additional information or ideas are contributed to the discussion, each group gathers in a circle and begins to develop an answer to the following question: "What should the United States policy be regarding the Makah request?" Students must consider the pros and cons they have heard on both sides of the issue, and determine an appropriate policy decision. With three policy options roughed out (point, counterpoint, and undecided), we come back together as a class and explore these options.
I ask students to try to combine the three options so that the class can reach a consensus. Doing so is hard work, even for adults. Often, students will request more information about the issue, the Makah, or the Gray whale. The final decision may be tabled until the groups research their questions in the library, on the Internet, or through the InfoTrac database. After research, the discussion continues, again with an eye on consensus.
5. Dialogical Reasoning on Paper
Reasoning dialogically is simply described as being able to argue for both sides of an issue.12 Since the purpose of this activity is to encourage students to deliberate about public issues, I focus them away from winning an argument or defending a particular side of an issue. Instead, I want students to consider competing positions as well as their own, and to be able to represent the arguments each might make. After the class discussion about an acceptable policy for the Makah request, students write a four-paragraph essay. The paragraphs address the following topics, respectively:
1. Introduce the issue by providing an overview of the main points and major areas of controversy.
2. Describe the primary arguments presented by the point side (the Makah's) of the issue.
3. Describe the primary arguments presented by the counterpoint side.
4. Conclude the paper by suggesting if possible a policy that might meet the interests of the two sides.13
While this article uses a controversy related to the Makah's request to hunt Gray whales, other public issues may be explored similarly. As students participate in structured classroom discussions, they interact with the subject matter and learn better how to discuss it. When students examine public issues, they develop an understanding of the issue itself, as well as skills in problem solving, persuasion, and clarification. In this way, students are exposed to policy making, and begin thinking and deciding about issues important to the general public.
Overview: Should the Makah Be Allowed to Hunt Whales Again?
For more than a decade, the U.S. government has led the campaign to outlaw commercial whaling around the globe. Now, however, the government needs to respond to the demands of a Native American nation within its borders. The Makah tribe of Neah Bay in the state of Washington informed federal officials that it wants to kill up to five Gray whales a year for food and ceremonial uses. Gray whales have not been hunted legally in U.S. waters for more than 40 years. Animal rights activists say a whale hunt would set a horrible precedent and undermine support for the international moratorium on whale hunting. Gray whales, which were once endangered, are now about 21,000 strong-the highest number in nearly a century, according to the national Marine Fisheries Service. Last year, they were taken off the federal list of endangered species.
Point and Counterpoint
Point: A Symbol of Cultural Heritage
In its 1855 treaty with the Makah, the United States gave this Native American tribe a special guarantee of whaling rights. It is the only tribe in the Washington state area with that special right. One whale expert, John Calambokidis, said the loss of five Gray whales a year would have a negligible effect on the estimated 21,000 Gray whales that pass Washington's coast each year.
The Makah elders believe that whaling is a valuable cultural activity, and hope to use it in an effort to restore tribal values to the young people of the tribe. For the Makahs, the sea was life-the center of their survival and culture. In earlier times, whales not only provided food, but whale-hunting ceremonies were an important social anchor. Today, beset with high unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, and disillusioned youth, tribal members want to return to their roots. Perhaps societal problems brought about by a capitalistic society can be alleviated by defining tribal identities for today's young Makahs. Re-establishing a ceremonial and food-producing whale hunt would be a start at instilling in Makah youth the traditional values that held the tribe together over the centuries.
The tribe probably would kill less than five Gray whales, which are 24 to 30 feet long and 35 tons at maturity. They hope to invite other tribes for ceremonial potlatches. "We may look back on this, 50 years from now, and see it as the turning point for the Makah," said Dave Sones, a tribal fisheries manager."
Counterpoint: A Dangerous International Precedent
The United States has always been a pillar of whale protection. Allowing the Makah to hunt even as few as five whales could affect the fate of whales around the world. Ten other great whale species have been driven to the brink of extinction. Lack of reverence for nature's creations-be they fisheries, forest or whales-is why there are endangered natural resources.
The Makah are a long way from a lifestyle that depends on nature and whales. They are building a 300-boat marina, and a new general store has just opened in town. A number of small motels on the reservation make money from fishermen and tourists. "There isn't anyone alive today on that reservation who can go out there and kill a whale in a traditional manner," said Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society based in Marina Del Rey, California.
The federal government is worried about the possibility that Makah-harvested whale meat might end up being sold in illegal market trading. Such meat can fetch high prices in Japan. This concern is fueled by reports that the Makah are seeking the counsel of whalers from Japan and Norway, two countries that allow hunting whales and consider it to be a commercial venture. Any allowance of harvesting creates the possibility of the increased commercialization of whale hunting.
Will Anderson of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) says that allowing the tribe to kill whales would cause a "breakdown of whale protection around the world...What was appropriate and acceptable a long time ago is no longer appropriate today."
Discussants are to ask themselves:
1. C. Cazden, Classroom Discourse (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988); M. D. Gall, "Discussion Methods of Teaching," International Encyclopedia of Education, vol. 3, edited by T. Husen and T. N. Postlethwaite (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1985), 1423-1427; B.E. Larson, "Teachers' Conceptions of Discussion as Method and Outcome," Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago (1997).
2.W. C. Parker and J. Jarolimek, Social Studies in Elementary Education, 10th ed. (New York: Merrill/Prentice Hall, 1997).
3.D. Bridges, "Discussion and Questioning," Questioning Exchange 1 (1987): 34-37.
4.D. W. Johnson and R. T. Johnson, "Critical Thinking through Structured Controversy," Educational Leadership 45, 8 (1988): 58-64.
5.B. Barber, "Public Talk and Civic Action: Education for Participation in a Strong Democracy," Social Education 53, 6 (1989): 355-356, 370.
6.Ibid.; W. C. Parker, "Curriculum for Democracy," Democracy, Education and Schooling, edited by R. Soder (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 182-210; Parker and Jarolimek.
7.J. Dewey, "Democracy and Education," Democracy and Education: The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, vol. 9, edited by A. Boylston (Carbondale, IL: Southern University Press, 1916/1985).
9.Johnson and Johnson; D. W. Oliver and F. M. Newmann, Taking a Stand: A Guide to Clear Discussion of Public Issues, rev. ed. (Middletown, CT: Xerox Corporation/American Education Publications, 1972); W. C. Parker, J. E. McDaniel, and S. W. Valencia, "Helping Students Think about Public Issues: Instruction Versus Prompting," Social Education 55, 1 (1991): 41-44.
10.Oliver and Newmann.
11.Michael De Alessi, "Tender Loving Hunters," New Scientist (June 22, 1996): 47; Timothy Egan, "Tribe's Hope in a Whale Hunt Worries U.S.," New York Times (June 4, 1995): sec. 1, 1; International Whaling Commission, "U. S. and Japan Whaling Requests Rebuffed," New York Times (June 28, 1996): sec. A, 4; Alison Motluk, "US Retreats on Tribal Whaling," New Scientist (July 6, 1996): 4; Kim Murphy, "Makah Tribe Seeks to Take to the Seas on the Trail of the Whale," Los Angeles Times (August 2, 1995): sec. A, 5; Mark Trumbull, "Indians Hope to Harpoon New Whale-Hunting Rights," Christian Science Monitor (July 25, 1995): 3.
12.Barber; D. Mathews, Politics for People (Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Parker.
13.Parker, McDaniel, and Valencia; R. W. Paul, "Dialogical Thinking: Critical Thought Essential to the Acquisition of Rational Knowledge and Passions," Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice, J. Baron and R. J. Sternberg, eds. (New York: W. W. Freeman, 1987).
About the Author
Bruce E. Larson is a professor of education at Western Washington University. He has developed several units of classroom discussion activities.