Q&A with DeMarzo Lecture Speaker: Dr. Diana Hess

We are excited to welcome guest lecturer, Dr. Diana Hess to the 2019 DeMarzo Lecture on Teaching Excellence on Thursday, February 7th at 3:30 pm at the Bloustein School. Dr. Hess is the Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. RSVP here.

Q.     What inspired your work around civics education?

A.      I grew up in a very politically active family, and there were lots of discussions about issues of the day. My family background clearly influenced my interest in democracy, and more specifically, in controversial political issues. I also interned for a member of Congress as an undergraduate. That position taught me a lot about the differences between how politics really works and what was presented in traditional civics textbooks. Then when I started teaching social studies at Downers Grove South High School I was fortunate to be hired into a department in which teaching controversial political issues was the mainstay of the curriculum. So from my very first years of teaching when I was being mentored by expert and very effective teachers, I learned how to engage students in those discussions. I learned that students need to be taught how to participate in high-quality discussions of controversial political issues—most did not come into the classroom with those skills already honed. The discussions were interesting and educative for students—and for me. 

Q.     What do you think is the importance of civics education in our schools, and why is it needed?

A.      It’s important for all young people to have high-quality civics education, and if we want to make sure that this is accessible to all young people, the most effective venue is schools. It doesn’t mean civics education doesn’t occur in other places in society as well, but I’m most interested in civics education in schools where the reach is broader. We know that high-quality civics education has a positive influence on preparing students to participate in the political world—and empowers them to want to do so.

Q.     What are the most important understandings or skills you would hope students take away from a strong civics education?

A.      First I want to make sure that students have a broad and deep understanding of how the political system works and how it doesn’t work, and also its strengths and its challenges. I also want students to understand constitutional principles because I think it’s very hard to make decisions as a citizen without that important content. That being said, we know that high-quality civics education has to include more than students understanding content—it has to help students develop the skills they need and the dispositions they need. So in my work, I’m most interested in helping students to learn how to talk with people about controversial political issues, especially with people who have different views than their own.

Q.     What are some of the political and/or ethical concerns in teaching civics in schools?

A.      I think it’s extremely challenging to teach civics education in schools now because the political environment is so highly polarized and the levels of incivility are so high. I am hearing from teachers that I have worked with for many years that the current political climate has made their work much more challenging than in the past.  That being said, because we have political polarization and because we have high levels of incivility, it is more important now than ever to make sure teachers are engaging their students in high-quality civics education. In other words, the needs are greater than they’ve ever been. So we need to respond to them.

There are a lot of ethical issues that we have to make decisions about if we’re going to do a good job with civics education.  One is to decide what the aims of civics education are and more precisely what is it that they want students to know, be able to do, and want to do as a consequence of civics education in their school. An ethical issue that lots of people are quite interested in and that I am too is how teachers’ political views should come into play in the classroom. Whether and in what ways teachers should share or withhold their own political views when engaging students in discussions or deliberations of contemporary political issues is one of the most interesting and challenging ethical issues in our field.

Q.     How do you think teachers in schools can address some of these concerns?

A.      I think engaging teachers in discussions of the ethical and pedagogical issues that they need to make decisions about is really important. In the work that I’ve done with Dr. Paula McAvoy, who is the co-author of The Political Classroom, we provided opportunities for teachers to deeply inquire into and make decisions about what to do with respect to the ethical issues they encounter. We see it as a matter of professional judgment, and people often ask if there is a right answer to these questions and, for the most part, there isn’t a right answer. We’ve seen teachers who are highly effective make different decisions about the best way to respond to these ethical questions.

Q.     What is your vision for your work over the next decade?

A.      I think that both the content and the ways in which we engage in civics education are going to need to change because the political environment is changing. In my lecture, I will talk about political climate change. And by that I mean the political climate we’re in is so much different than what we’ve seen 10, 15 years ago, and as a consequence I think civics education needs to respond to those changes. For example, we need to help students form a vision of what constitutes highly effective discussions that are both civil and honest. And then we need to teach students the skills needed to engage in those discussions. We also need to focus on how polarized the news and social media climates are—and help students interrogate the veracity of claims they regularly encounter. And we need to make sure high-quality civics education is provided to all students, or we will create more inequality and more dysfunction in our political system than we have currently.   Now more than ever, there’s a need for high-quality civics education for all.

RSVP for this year’s DeMarzo Lecture by clicking here. We look forward to seeing you there!