This week, an 8th grade civics teacher at Liberty Middle School in Fairfax County, VA has come under fire for assigning his students a political research project. What could possibly be wrong with a civics teacher assigning a research project, you ask? Well, students were divided into 4 groups and were each assigned a GOP candidate to investigate. Students were then asked to look for vulnerabilities in each candidate’s personal background and political positions.
The students were then asked to take that research and write a strategy paper for how the opposition could use that information during the upcoming campaign. Further, students were asked to research the name and contact information for the appropriate person within the Obama campaign who could benefit from this information.
When parents heard about the assignment, the school received several angry phone calls. Many parents felt that the assignment was inappropriate and partisan.
Instead of getting into a discussion about “indoctrination” of America’s youth or comparing this to Nazi Germany, let’s look at the positive educational aspects of this activity and learn how to make it more appropriate.
If we neutralize the fact that students were only asked to perform research on one political party’s candidates, then this is a pretty intriguing critical thinking exercise. The students could to learn how to:
- Research the candidates to learn about the political positions
- Gain a stronger understanding of today’s most pressing national and global problems
- Learn about the complex nature of a global economy
- Identify strong vs. weak arguments
- Distinguish fact from opinion
- Write a strategy based on a candidate’s strengths
- Get involved in volunteering for a campaign
- Identify techniques to evoke emotion from an audience
The students could have even participated in a mock debate where they were asked to take on the political position of the assigned candidate.
However, for this activity to truly build critical thinking skills in the students, they should also be asked to take on the opposite position. One hallmark of critical thinking is the ability to see, understand, and respect an issue from multiple viewpoints. If the students had been asked to first research Newt Gingrich (for instance) and write a strategy paper about his weaknesses, then they should also be asked to do the same for President Obama. Similarly, they should also research and write a strategy about the candidate’s strengths and how they would promote those issues if they were involved in the campaign.
The Liberty Middle School teacher could have taken this activity one step further to make sure all political parties (and candidates) were fairly represented and students would have had an excellent learning experience and critical thinking challenge.
What do you think? Do you see value in this kind of activity in the classroom? If your child was a student in this class, what would you have done?
Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens. She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training. She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.