19/11/2016 4:40 PM IST | Updated 24/11/2016 8:27 AM IST

Teaching Kids To Be Politically Informed In A Polarised World

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School children in a classroom at a government-run school in Allahabad. (Photo by Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

We are living in an increasingly polarised world, as is borne out by events such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States or even the political blame games in India. If there is a dominant sentiment, it is some version of "us vs. them".

"Polarisation" can refer to the divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes, leaving no room for political compromise. Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997) are considered to have more polarised political views as compared to prior generations; in other words, the political discourse tends toward ideological extremes rather than moderate viewpoints. This ideological extremism is a reality that can be seen across the globe.

Children raised in partisan societies themselves tend to become strong ideological partisans. These political inclinations become a part of their self-concept in deep and meaningful ways.

People in politically homogenous communities are less tolerant, more close-minded and less likely to compromise. They prefer to inhabit "echo chambers" where they listen to and interact only with those who share their belief system (or those who hold the same belief system). They also tend to show more bias in interpreting new information. They become people who are less and less able to understand or empathise with others, and develop negative views about those who do not share their values. More diverse communities, on the other hand, are more likely to be open-minded and tolerant of different political views and ideologies.

Increasingly, people can be seen to sort themselves into communities that live, think and vote together, based on their political inclinations. In fact, children raised in partisan societies themselves tend to become strong ideological partisans. These political inclinations become a part of their self-concept in deep and meaningful ways. Political orientation can be seen to have a key role in the choice of friends, spouse and neighbours. So, we end up not just with polarised politics, but with divided societies.

However, these ideological positions are not set in stone. It's certainly possible to transcend the attitudes that threaten to divide us. Thanks to research in demographics and anthropology, it's now possible to get a clearer picture of the underlying reasons: education and evolution.

The role of education

Research shows that civic engagement in school and classrooms leads to greater political participation in adulthood. For instance, children engaging in extracurricular activities and social and volunteer work grow up to be politically engaged adults.

For better civic learning, they need to be open to diversity, whether it pertains to socio-economic classes, ethnicity or religion. There should be a balance. Schools which emphasise only test scores create less aware and politically engaged people with no civic mission.

Further the classes one takes in high school, especially social science courses such as Civics and history are shown by Callahan Muller in her bookComing of Political Age to have strong correlations to future political participation (voting) and respecting viewpoint diversity in an increasingly disconnected society.

So, the choices made in the educational system will have major consequences for any country's civic health.

Creating a "political classroom"

Civic engagement can be done at the school level, in particular classrooms. Classrooms, say researchers and authors D. Hess and P. McAvoy in their book The Political Classroom, are "unusual political spaces", where young people form their individual political views. They further say classrooms need to be places where there is enough opportunity to puzzle about, debate and deliberate over political questions, engage across their differences and start to see political conflict as a normal part of democratic life.

Research shows that civic engagement in school and classrooms leads to greater political participation in adulthood.

Here are certain recommendations from Hess and McAvoy and other researchers, for teachers to create such a "political classroom":

  1. For a political classroom, the more diverse the thoughts and views are, the better. Teachers must take advantage of natural diversity to bring out multiple, competing views. Difference in views is something that can be used and primed as opposed to something to be feared and quelled.

  2. Teachers need to promote a climate of respect for differences and fairness. Teach kids skills to participate, debate and accommodate others' views. No amount of lecturing can replace the importance of dialogue in creating a political classroom.

  3. Teachers should help students develop the skills of listening, reason-giving, and considering how their views affect others. They must encourage kids to engage in a civil manner.

  4. Teach students to talk and learn about real issues — authentic questions about subjects such as taxes, capital punishment, same-sex relationships etc should be raised.

  5. Teachers can promote skills that allow students to engage in a critical reflection of their own views (eg. write essays that debunk their own opinions).

  6. If there is sameness of views or thoughts in the classroom, teachers can use strategies to bring difference in the discussion by bringing in guest speakers or exposing kids to materials which are full of competing and alternate views that they might not encounter otherwise.

  7. Instead, of just asking the kids, "What do you think about something you are seeing in the news?", it is important as a teacher to give them a historical context for them to have deeper insights.

  8. Teachers can use course-assignments in subjects such as History and English to stir up diverse views about a certain issue. They can do this by exposing kids to the competing arguments of various authors.

Stumbling blocks

Though the above strategies seem feasible on the face of it, it's important to be mindful of certain stumbling blocks and biases that may come into play.

  1. The teacher's personal biases and beliefs may unduly influence proceedings.
  2. Parents might not want their children to hold political beliefs different from theirs. They may have objection to their children's engagement in teacher-led discussions of controversial topics in the classroom.
  3. Schools may encourage teachers with socio-ethnic diversity, but perhaps not with viewpoint diversity. This is worth questioning.

It is important for us as teachers, parents and as a society to engage with the above dilemmas to nurture a generation of responsible and informed citizens.

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