The bad news is we live in a time when everything in politics seems to be so emotionally charged and negative that it’s a struggle to talk to one another.
The good news is that carefully crafted questions can diminish this negativity and nurture better conversations.
Questions have value because they get us to slow down , think critically and inspire our curiosities. That being said, there is a hidden benefit as well: they engender a relaxed mindset and work to calm us down within environments of stress and anxiety. This benefit is particularly important when we want to have good discussions on controversial issues but decide against it because we’re afraid of the emotional turmoil it would unleash.
Take the issue of impeachment. Whenever this issue is brought up I often feel that the conversations don’t go anywhere. Instead, students on one side of the political spectrum unload their media saturated opinions on one another and neither side demonstrates interest in shared understanding. I think this unhealthy dynamic surfaces because students read the question “Should the president be impeached or not?” as “Do you like the president or not?”.
There’s a much deeper tension going on here: impeachment is a repudiation of an election and elections are our most sacred example of popular sovereignty in action. And so, on its face, it seems that impeachment and popular sovereignty are in conflict.
Here’s an opportunity to use questions to transfer a student’s emotional investment in the issue towards an intellectual investment in the curriculum.
Here’s one written in two different ways:
- Does impeachment violate the principle of popular sovereignty?
- Can impeachment and popular sovereignty co-exist?
The focus here is on a deeper understanding of how a government process (impeachment) is connected to a principle (popular sovereignty). Yes, students will still take a position on the issue to be sure. It’s just that the position they take at the outset will be divorced from any one particular president who is facing impeachment and instead be generalized to the process itself and the extent to which it is aligned with a constitutional principle.
We are still asking for student opinions, yet we’re doing it in a way that lowers the temperature in the room a bit so that when they end up giving their opinions on the current president– which we know they will– that those opinions are less emotionally volatile, more informed and more closely tied to a sophisticated understanding of the Constitution. That’s the hope anyway!
This is a tough balance. We want students to be emotionally invested in our class but we don’t want that emotional investment to intrude upon their ability to think clearly and critically. Questions can be our ally to achieve this balance.
A great resource that you can use with difficult topics is called Structured Academic Controversy (SAC). In short, a SAC is a procedure whereby students engage in vigorous conversation over a controversial issue without engaging in traditional debate. Illinoiscivics.org has a created a SAC lesson plan on the controversial subject of arming teachers. Take a look!