How to Explain and Help Students Navigate Today’s Polarization
Teachers can be reluctant to address how polarized our society is, but there are ways to do it while (mostly) avoiding controversy.
Democracy, it’s been said, has always been a contact sport. Political parties disagree on policy issues, and this conflict, mediated by shared ideals, is a useful tension that drives democracy. But today, partisanship has become mistaken for patriotism, and Democrats and Republicans fear that the other will destroy the country if they attain power.
Wading into these politically charged waters can benefit our students by helping them learn how to listen to one another and by creating a common civic culture. Sadly, though, this rarely occurs in our schools. This is due to fears of parental pushback and losing control of the classroom. But if we want to help students explore the complexities of their world and consider how they might reshape it, it’s essential that teachers guide students through today’s political climate. They should start with three simple goals to help students understand, reflect, and connect.
Students need help answering the question, why is our country like this? There are many possible explanations, including the fact that those who live in cities are more likely to support Democrats and those in rural areas tend to support Republicans, growing racial and ethnic diversity and the reaction to that, and 24-hour news coverage; but the one that will resonate most with students involves social media and the way it warps debate and makes consensus-building more difficult.
The first step in helping students navigate America’s politically polarized climate is to reveal to them that many of us operate in an echo chamber of information. This is an environment in which a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Explain to students that echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so that they struggle to consider opposing viewpoints. This is also a fitting opportunity to introduce students to the concept of confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor information that reinforces our existing beliefs.
Students, like most adults, are in denial that they may live in an echo chamber. In order to have students test this, suggest that they ask the following questions when consuming information:
- Does the source give only one perspective of an issue?
- Is that perspective primarily supported by rumor or partial evidence?
- Are facts ignored whenever they oppose that viewpoint?
To operationalize this for students, introduce the idea of the filter bubble. Students may be surprised to learn that personalized algorithms create a predictable space for us online. Websites will then use those algorithms to primarily show us content that’s similar to what we’ve already expressed interest in. This can prevent us from discovering new ideas and perspectives online. Rather than making our world bigger, our world shrinks a little.
Lastly, to best help students understand today’s political climate, it’s vital that students recognize bothsidesism. Explain to students that when a news source presents both sides of an issue as equal when they aren’t, the source isn’t being objective. It’s promoting a bothsidesism that eats away at truth and knowledge, amplifies misinformation, and validates bad actors who make bad-faith arguments and launder disinformation.
The challenge that teachers face is to provide multiple perspectives on an issue, as there’s always a danger in just considering a single story, but also to encourage students to operate in a reality in which facts matter. Teachers should make sure to clearly explain the terms objective and subjective and be prepared to provide sources that demonstrate each. Having students read two accounts of a particular event and suss out the objective information presented, if any, may be a useful exercise. This may also help overall when discussing polarizing topics, as it’s important to be able to operate from a shared set of facts.
After promoting students’ understanding of the causes and implications of polarization and then helping them recognize it in their daily interactions in person and online, teachers should create a safe, inclusive space where students can journal about their thoughts and feelings. When given this opportunity, students routinely surprise their teachers with their candor. Journaling is a cathartic process and can help them release their stress by transferring their thoughts and frustrations onto paper.
There is no single journaling strategy that works for all students, but an effective one related to polarization and potentially contentious issues is to assign students a lifted-line response. To utilize this strategy, teachers provide students with a line from a quotation involving whatever disagreement or issue may be on students’ minds that day. Then, teachers have students answer questions like, “How does this make you feel? How might it make others feel? Why might someone interpret this differently than you? What questions does this line raise for you?”
It’s important to explicitly teach about polarizing issues like race, immigration, gun policy, climate change, and others because it can show students what it looks like to respectfully disagree—a nearly extinct form of communication. Establishing ground rules prior to discussion can help make it a productive experience. These include: listen respectfully and actively without interrupting; criticize ideas, not people; commit to learning, not debating; avoid inflammatory language; allow anyone interested the opportunity to speak; and don’t ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group. Modeling a healthy discussion around these topics shows students that what matters more than agreeing with each other is that we all feel that others respect us; after all, no one has ever been insulted into agreement.
As we enter a period of increased polarization, it’s easy to bemoan the state of our country, but it’s important to remember that our students represent a bright future. Each of them is a terrific tangle of what is and what will be. What they are is painfully open to the world and desperately trying to make sense of it. What they will be, someday, are the caretakers of this country. That’s why teachers need to show them the fragility of the democratic process, demonstrate to them the historic importance of civic engagement in this great American experiment, and teach like our democracy depends on it—because it does.