By: Julie Nelson, High School Social Studies
Over the past school year I have implemented bi-weekly public policy debates to increase student cognitive achievement. Using the discussion strategies obtained during my Flex Time research from the University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and Teaching Tolerance: Civil Discourse in the Classroom, I sought to increase student achievement by allowing the students the opportunity to formulate their stance on contemporary controversial public policy issues. Additionally, the students utilized their ipads to access and evaluate evidence to support their position in an effort to incorporate the “One to World” initiative. According to Teaching Tolerance Civil Discourse in the Classroom, “Democratic societies thrive on dissent, discussion and debate” and “regular discussion helps students practice civil discourse and spirited debate in a safe and guided atmosphere.” Discussion, like all pedagogical practices, requires scaffolding “so that students are able to participate meaningfully and to be evaluated fairly.” According to the Center for Research and Learning, “Discussions help students apply abstract ideas and think critically about what they learn. In fact, studies show that discussions build students’ problem-solving skills more effectively than do lectures” (Cashin). In addition, it is my hope that my students will value civil discourse as an integral component of our American democracy. Through the use of controversial public policy issues my students had the opportunity to see the relevancy of government in their daily lives. In addition, by asking students to take a position, supported by evidence and be prepared to defend their position, the students are learning the necessary skills to be active participants in our democracy; rather than passive observers.
Through in class deliberations the students have formulated arguments dealing with a wide range of controversial issues. The issues have ranged from Colin Kaepernick’s protest action to the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. In addition, they viewed presidential debates, analyzed the arguments of both candidates and formulated their position as to which candidate they believed was helped or hurt by their debate performance. Prior to each discussion, the students are presented with a controversial question and a pre vote is taken and posted in the room. Once presented with the topic the students are informed of the deliberation date and are expected to gather evidence to support both sides of the issue. The students evaluate teacher provided resources on google classroom, access supplemental evidence on their iPads, organize evidence in a graphic organizer or Google doc to utilize during the in class deliberation as they are required to cite textual evidence. Using one of the discussion models that I implemented upon concluding my flex time research last fall, the students are expected to take on an assigned position for twenty minutes and follow the five deliberation guidelines posted on the wall of my classroom. The students deliberate for a prescribed time and then time is allowed for the students to express the side that they align with. During the post deliberation, we debrief over the main points, and the students are free to contribute any point that was not made or contribute additional information. The students then cast a post vote on the question that was deliberated. The students have noticed that the pre-vote vote tally is rarely the same as the post vote and that our initial response to a question often changes as we become more informed on an issue. I plan on continuing this strategy in our upcoming units. The students will be evaluating President Trump’s performance thus far as our Chief Executive and will cite sources referencing his presidential actions to support their position.
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