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Can Education Reduce Political Polarization? Fostering Open-Minded Political Engagement During the Legislative Semester

by Brett L. M. Levy, Annaly Babb-Guerra, Lena M. Batt & Wolf Owczarek - 2019

Background: In the United States, elected leaders and the general public have become more politically polarized during the past several decades, making bipartisan compromise difficult. Political scientists and educational scholars have argued that generating productive political cooperation requires preparing members of democratic societies to productively negotiate their political disagreements. Numerous prior studies on civic learning have focused on fostering youth political engagement, but little research has examined how educators can support both political engagement and political open-mindedness.

Purpose: The study described in this paper explores how students’ experiences in a unique high school government course may help to foster their open-minded political engagement (OMPE), which we define as an individual’s propensity to explore and participate in political affairs while maintaining a willingness to adjust one’s political views.

Research Design: Using quantitative and qualitative methods, we examined the development of adolescents’ OMPE during their participation in high school government courses at three schools. Whereas participants at Standard High (N = 87) completed a traditional government course, students at Green High (N = 224) and Gomez High (N = 94) were enrolled in the Legislative Semester course, an extended political simulation that required students to research, discuss, debate, and mock-vote on controversial public issues. At each research site, we gathered data during the fall 2014–15 semester through student surveys, teacher and student interviews, and classroom observations. We analyzed survey data using principal component analysis, t tests, and OLS regression, and we conducted constant comparative analysis with our qualitative data.

Findings: Students in the LS program became more politically engaged and open-minded than students in the traditional government course. Whereas studying and exploring various political issues was especially helpful for the development of political engagement, considering diverse political perspectives in an open classroom environment was helpful for the development of political open-mindedness. However, if students in the LS were encouraged to be partisan, they were less likely to develop greater political open-mindedness.

Conclusions: Repeated opportunities to examine diverse political ideas with peers can foster the development of open-minded political engagement. Educators can support such exchanges not only by structuring substantive sharing of diverse political perspectives, but also by creating emotionally “safe” classroom environments, encouraging the expression of minority viewpoints, and de-emphasizing partisan uniformity. Encouraging careful listening—rather than polite hearing—may be central for the development of political open-mindedness.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 5, 2019, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22660, Date Accessed: 9/16/2021 6:23:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Brett L. M. Levy
    University at Albany, SUNY
    E-mail Author
    BRETT LEVY is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His research explores the educational experiences, curricula, and psychological orientations that support civic and political learning among youth in various communities. He teaches courses on youth civic engagement, social studies education, and research methods. Before graduate school, he taught middle school social studies, history, and English in California.
  • Annaly Babb-Guerra
    University of Wisconsin—Madison
    E-mail Author
    ANNALY BABB-GUERRA is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Her research interests are in multicultural and critical civic education and include qualitative methodologies. Annaly is currently completing her dissertation on civic education in the United States Virgin Islands while also teaching high school civics, Virgin Islands history, and U.S. history.
  • Lena Batt
    University of Wisconsin—Madison
    E-mail Author
    LENA BATT is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Her research explores the implementation and outcomes of school finance policies, teacher labor markets, and principal autonomy. She currently teaches courses to pre-service educators on how to use inclusive strategies in the classroom. Prior to graduate school, she was a high school and middle school social studies teacher.
  • Wolf Owczarek

    E-mail Author
    WOLF OWCZAREK is an independent scholar based in New York, formerly a graduate student in the humanities of education at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He researches the tradition of Summerhillian democratic free schools and is currently working on a biography of Paul Goodman.
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