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Harvard EdCast: Teaching Across a Political Divide

How educators can effectively discuss the election in their classrooms and help a younger generation move past polarization.
Colorful Knots

Education can teach across the growing political divide in America, says Paula McAvoy, assistant professor at North Carolina State University, and engaging young people in how to live better together is vital. Following the recent presidential election, educators may be find it challenging to tackle such a complex and controversial topic. “It's a heavy load for teachers to help young people who are really most of them in their first federal election," she says, "and this is a very complicated one.”

In the episode of the Harvard EdCast, McAvoy shares ideas on how educators can discuss the election and work toward teaching a younger generation how to move past polarization.


  • Start with three simple goals: understand, reflect, and connect.
  • Teach young people that they are growing up in a polarized climate and that the United States hasn’t always been like this.
  • Cover “democracy” as a work in progress rather than a check mark in your classroom.
  • Think about activities in the classroom that do not exacerbate polarization by making students feel a need to defend but instead focus on collectively thinking through a problem.


Paula McAvoyJill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. In the aftermath of the presidential election, educators are stressed and anxious to figure out the best ways to help young people make sense of a complicated election and a growing divide among Americans. Paula McAvoy believes schools need to engage young people in these loaded issues in order to live together better. She's a former social studies teacher who researches and helps educators tackle the polarization we see throughout the country. I ask Paula how educators can begin to unpack this election in these early days.

Paula McAvoy: A lot of teachers are feeling their own sense of worry and anxiety about the outcome of the election and both worried about themselves and their own wellbeing. And then there's the worry of, "How do I address this in the classroom? Do I know enough? Am I ready to take on this issue? How are the kids feeling? How do I address their emotional concerns and their academic concerns about the election?" It's a heavy load for teachers to help young people who are really most of them in their first federal election, and this is a very complicated one. So what is happening, why it's happening, and how do we process it and understand it?

Jill Anderson: Do you think those are the immediate challenges that face educators in the days and the weeks following such a divisive election?

Paula McAvoy: The advice I've been giving my own students and some teachers I've been working with are, let's have three goals in mind. Understand, so what is happening? Is this normal? Not normal? How do we understand just the very logistics of, say, the electoral college and absentee ballots versus day on ballot? So there's a lot of terminology and processes that kids need help understanding.

And then to reflect, how are we feeling? What are we worried about? What are we excited about? And then connect. Let's check in with each other. How do we as a school community, as a classroom community want to move forward? Because there's a lot of in polarization, interpersonal conflict that can come with our political views and identity. And so how do we want to treat each other in our school, in our communities, related to this election? And so I think that we need some time in classrooms to help students think through that question as well.

Jill Anderson: If there's one thing we know so far about the election is it's shown us how divided the country is. What is affective polarization and why is it more present in today's classrooms than earlier times?

Paula McAvoy: So affective polarization is the idea, not just that we disagree with one another that the Republicans have an agenda that I disagree with, or the Democrats have an agenda I disagree with. It's the idea that we actually dislike people who disagree with us. So the affective part is how we feel towards disagreement. And what's been happening in the United States, not in the current administration, not in the last administration, but really starting from the Clinton administration is that affective polarization has been growing significantly in the American public.

So as our parties become more divided, this feeling of animosity towards counter partisans has been growing to the point at which a little more than 50% of both Democrats and Republicans feel distrustful of the other party, feel that if they lose that this is going to ruin the country. So there's a lot of fear and animosity between partisans.

And so affective partisan has basically the main problem that political scientists point to, is that it undermines our trust in one another and democracies require trust. And so this is a major problem. Democracies believe, are founded on the idea that we can and will work with one another. And what polarization has created is a climate in which it's almost a weakness to try to work with one another. It's become a game of winner take all. It maybe has always been in part a game of winner take all, but the stakes feel much, much higher now.

And so when that comes into the classroom, I think when I work with teachers is to emphasize to them that they need to teach students about this phenomenon and help young people check, where did we get our feelings towards people who disagree with us? Are those the right feelings we should be having towards one another? So really to teach young people you're growing up in a climate that is polarized and that the United States has not always been this polarized. And so, we're helping young people see, this is the democracy you're inheriting, and now let's figure out what we want to do about it.

Jill Anderson: I mean, do you find that a lot of classrooms are actually teaching about polarization?

Paula McAvoy: They're in government classes, even in government textbooks, I've looked at not too long ago you see, polarization is often, but not always mentioned within textbooks. It's more likely in AP classes. So I do a lot of work with teachers and it's often that an AP teacher that comes up and says, "Can you send me those slides on political polarization?" And so I think it's maybe seen as a more advanced thing to learn about, but I think that... I mean, students know, they're aware of the world, it's a well-known thing that we are polarized, but there's a disconnect sometimes in the curriculum, which says, "America's a democracy. Democracies are good." And not every policy decision we make can make us a better or worse democracy, that democracies need care and nurturing, they need to be reevaluated. And so to treat democracy as a work in progress, rather than a check mark, because we read a constitution, that's an important change I think that we need to make in the way we approach civics classes.

Jill Anderson: I do want to know what this actually might look like in the classroom and thought maybe you could share an example of an activity that can actually facilitate bridging some of these political divides.

Paula McAvoy: Here's one example is that I've been working on a research project with my brother actually, Greg McAvoy, who's a political scientist. And we've been looking at a civics education program in Washington, D.C. called the Close Up Foundation. And they have evening activities in which they bring students from geographically diverse areas of the United States and they come together for a one week place-based study of Washington D.C., but they engage them in evening discussions of political issues.

The way that activity is structured is that students learn about a policy and then they're in small groups and they're working through various solutions to the policy. They have to come to consensus. Like, "We believe this is the right course of action." The next night they do an activity that is more of a team debate. So they get a policy question, you decide what you think about that, then each side prepares arguments to give to the other side.

In our study, we surveyed students before and after those activities about their views on the issues, and what we found is that the deliberative activity actually caused students to move towards consensus within the group that found consensus to move out of the activity. Their views moved toward the consensus and in the debate, their view is polarized. So the group overall might've started in the middle, by the end, they had divided their view so they became more separated as a result.

And so that's a long way to say that we can think about activities in the classroom that are not exacerbating polarization by making us hold of you and defended at all costs, but instead getting students to think, how can we collectively think through this problem? In the book, The Political Classroom that I wrote with Diana Hess, we framed the central question of social studies education and the central question of democracy is, how should we live together?

So if we turn our classroom into a place where we can collectively explore how to live together, versus let's all figure out our views, hold them, defend them and get out there and do something about it. So those are very different approaches to controversial issues.

Jill Anderson: I mean, when you look at schools, do you find that most often the students are like-minded and it's hard to find representation of differing and opposing views?

Paula McAvoy: Right. Good question. So in the book, there was a study of many classrooms in three different states and what we did find is that there were what we call purple classrooms, classrooms that had a lot of political diversity that were most likely in purple communities. And there were classes that we did label like-minded in which almost all students identified with the same party when we surveyed them on their views on issues, a lot of alignment. And so we had blue classrooms, red classrooms, blue schools, red schools, and then the same as purple.

So I think a lot of teachers that I talk to are aware that I live in a blank community. I live in a red community or a blue community, and that changes how and what they can do in the classroom. So in a like-minded school, teachers need to do more and we actually found that in these schools, teachers were doing things like playing devil's advocacy more, doing simulations in which students had to take on positions that they don't necessarily agree with, but they had to research and play that role within the class.

And so they had to work to get competing points of view in the classroom, or they had to find issues students would naturally disagree about, even though they have an ideological shift. So what to do about climate change might cause people to disagree in a left-leaning classroom, for example. So there might be various options we could disagree about what the best way forward is.

And then in purple classrooms or politically diverse classrooms, teachers had to do less to try to bring in competing points of view, but maybe more to teach, how are we going to disagree with one another? What are the norms of this classroom going to be? How do we still stay friends? How do we prioritize our relationships, but still be able to have political discussions? So I think it's just a matter of thinking about what are my aims? What are my objectives when having political discussion? And then figuring out the structures and resources that will get us to that.

Jill Anderson: So teachers have a lot of stress and anxiety right now. That's a lot of work, which is not foreign to teachers but, how hard is it for teachers to manage their own affective polarization?

Paula McAvoy: So teachers who struggle with this most are teachers who maybe are in a like-minded school and they don't align with the student body. So think of a liberal teacher in a conservative school or a conservative teacher in a liberal school. And so they have a harder road to walk in helping their own students find their political voices, but maybe not agreeing with what the views are going to say.

And so I think some teachers will do various things to mitigate their own potential, emotional reaction to things. So it might be that you won't choose to invite students to discuss the issues that you find most difficult. A gay teacher might not want to invite lively discussion on Supreme Court cases that question their marriages, for example. But there are many other issues that they could bring into the classroom that would be lively and interesting for students.

Sometimes teachers stay away from the issues most central to them, but on a day after an election, if you're feeling raw yourself, having students do writing activities and reflection in a more quiet engagement with the election is another way that you can take the time to process your own feelings first and then move back into the curriculum.

Jill Anderson: Right. Should teachers act politically neutral in the classroom space?

Paula McAvoy: That is a very, very big issue within social studies. Because polarization is so charged, it's shifting I think the terrain a little bit in this. So if you're in a school that is a like-minded school and you're aligned with your students, I think those teachers feel more comfortable occasionally letting their views be known, or maybe even not occasionally, but me saying explicitly, "I agree with you on this."

Teachers who are not aligned feel the pressure of that line a little more. So they know that they might be inviting parental pushback if they are too vocal with their own points of view. And so again, I think the political context of the school changes the equation for a lot of teachers. And then there are teachers who may let on to certain students in a private conversation, "I agree with you. I want to make sure you're okay." If the student is reacting to the political climate, which is different than what choice you make in front of the classroom.

So there's sharing a view in a class in a way that's like, "Here's my point of view, but of course, I welcome all your points of view." There's advocating a view, which is, "Mine's the right view." And most people avoid doing that. Then there's just withholding your view. Like, "I don't want to say that right now for a variety of reasons."

Jill Anderson: Is this a topic that a lot of teachers just want to walk away from?

Paula McAvoy: Yes, they want to. Research shows for the most part that most students don't get a lot of opportunity to have discussions of  any kind in a classroom, whether they be politically hot button issues or just run of the mill issues. And so I think one problem for American education generally is getting teachers comfortable, trained, et cetera, to have more engaging discussion in the classrooms. A lot of what gets counted as discussion is what is referred to as recitation. It's just sort of Q&A with the teacher and that really deep engagement and inquiry with an issue.

And so I think schools of education, schools themselves can do a lot more to give professional development to teachers for how to do this well, because what teachers worry about is basically three things. That I don't know enough about the issue and so I don't want to wait into territory that's going to get me uncomfortable that I waited into something I didn't mean to. And then they worry that it might get out of hand that this is going to cause a classroom management problem or that I'm going to get pushback from administrators or parents.

And so I think we can address a lot of those. We can provide teachers with the skills and resources to have good discussions and often those resources address issue one, is that you're getting students to read about the issue themselves and then just facilitating their processing of that. And then we need to do more work I think as a country overall, making sure that teachers feel comfortable bringing politics into the classroom because this is an important role for schools to play.

Jill Anderson: We've talked so much about the challenges in the current climate and how much needs to be done. I'm wondering if you can talk a little about the opportunities that really exist for educators in this moment.

Paula McAvoy: I was just thinking recently about, elections provide this amazing opportunity to learn so much because you've got heightened interest by students. I mean, even just the basic thing of, look how much we've looked at the map of the United States and down to the county level and the geography lesson that you could map onto learning about the election is really helpful that learning about the democratic process, how the electoral college works.

Now, America's getting a civics lesson and how have we actually been counting ballots all these years? And how do we actually get to the final number? I've been fascinated and impressed with how efficient our states go about counting ballots. Something that we've taken for granted, but that this has brought to our attention. Learning about parties and politics and issues. So these are all opportunities to take students' interest in what's happening and really move them towards a deeper understanding about our constitution, our processes, our election and our own state politics, et cetera. So I think there's a great opportunity to just take the energy and the interest and direct it productively into the curriculum.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering if there is a time when this just fades away, which might be hard to predict because we just don't know what's going to happen but...

Paula McAvoy: We all hope it does calm down a little bit. It does fade away. And so this is why I think teachers need to be ready to jump on. You need to capitalize on the lead up to an election to start laying some of the groundwork and then take some deep dives in these next few days about what we can learn from this election and use that energy.

But students are interested in elections. And so I think that when teachers want to avoid talking about the election or we have to cover this other thing, and we don't want to waste time with this. This is something not only do they need to know, but they want to know. And so, teachers should see this as an important role that they're playing as the person who gets to introduce students into this process and to help them learn and understand.

Jill Anderson: Well, Paula, you've shared so many wonderful and thoughtful and useful things. I thank you so much.

Paula McAvoy: Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Paula McAvoy is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. She coauthored The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.