Teaching Politics in the International Classroom

Spring 2020

By Jeff Meade

Italian philosopher, and author of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s argument over whether rulers should be loved or feared provides an excellent framework for discussing the teaching of political topics in a middle school setting. Middle school students are bundles of energy, surging through a typical school day, electrified by both ideas and hormones. Such energy sustains them on campus, but they also bring with them the news of the day. They hear things. They have questions. Teens don’t live vacuum-sealed lives, so school can become the place where they learn how to share ideas and meaningfully interact with the dilemmas facing contemporary societies. Classrooms structured around researching teen questions regarding global challenges, learning the differences between evidence-based argument and emotional opinions, and recognizing the importance of weighing all sides of an argument before making decisions help develop young people capable of interacting with the real world. If our schools are not the places where students can learn how to develop evidence-based argument and debate, then students are destined to become adults incapable of debating the effective leadership discussed by political theorists like Machiavelli.

Opportunity in International Classrooms

Teaching political topics is different from teaching politics. If politics is the study of government structures, then political topics are those areas of decision-making that directly affect citizens. But what about students in the international school community? They bring with them the typical teen angst but also a rich fabric of global travel experience that monocultural environments lack. The students I work with are part of a new International Section at a French school in Dakar, Senegal, incorporating the American Common Core and English language into classroom studies. These students come from a variety of countries, including Senegal, France, Belgium, South Africa, China, Morocco, and the United States. The ICEF Monitor, a market research organization that specializes in news, opportunities, and funding for international schools, notes that “the international school ethos blends local culture and language with an English-medium global learning approach."1 This means that the seventh graders in the International Section approach global challenges from a variety of backgrounds and thus look for international answers that are not specific to Senegal. Looking beyond a country-specific interaction with political topics suits the seventh grade very well and prompts discussion over the most effective ways of governing society.

How should international students approach the study of ideal governments when they are frequently moving from one country to another? In this regard, democracy as a practice changes shape depending on location. In discussing why democracy should be pursued in the first place, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy addresses the concept of cosmopolitanism by noting that adherents of this belief view humans as moral creatures who should be understood equally, and that the collective is dependent on the health and well-being of the individual.2 This description is appropriate for an international classroom, where investigation of social challenges can be viewed locally but also as a higher global concept of human dignity. Local application of issues and attempts at problem-solving can be looked at while, at the same time, considered in relation to the larger world. The main reason for this stems from the fact that the students in the International Section interact with students and teachers from all over the world. Therefore, the study of “politics” in an international classroom is not so much about structures of government as it is about ways in which political topics can be approached.

What Does Effective Lesson Planning Look Like?

One of the central issues of teaching politics in schools is not whether we should or not but how such topics can be ethically addressed. NPR Education reporter Steve Drummond discusses this in his interview with Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. Drummond notes that the authors advise that schools are places where politics can and should be discussed but that teachers need to refrain from partisan instruction. Teachers should not instruct from their own personal beliefs, as that undermines the effort to create a generation of free-thinking young people.3 Rather than emphasizing the teacher’s perspective, lessons framed around investigating issues from a variety of angles and arguments allow young people to develop their own understandings and opinions of an issue. Thus, the way in which politics is approached should be the focus of teachers, not just the content of the issue.

The teaching of politics is an excellent area to scrutinize effective lesson planning. Jennifer Rich, assistant professor of education at Rowan University in New Jersey, discusses the importance of emphasizing the learning objectives and not just the content of a politics lesson. Dr. Rich points out that effective teaching starts with the standards and goals in mind and then develops activities to meet those needs. She mentions four steps that can frame a politics discussion in an effective light:
  1. Emphasize analysis and interpretation of fact-based evidence.
  2. Investigate an issue from multiple perspectives, looking at several angles of argument.
  3. Allow students to develop their own opinions from collected evidence.
  4. Practice methods of responding to criticism and disagreement with student positions.4
Developing politics lessons using these four steps emphasizes the skills of conducting research, analyzing evidence, and writing evidence-based arguments, along with supporting students in dealing with views opposed to their own. With skills as the primary focus, teachers can steer away from the danger inherent in teaching their own opinions and create what Hess and McAvoy call a “culture of fairness."5

Structuring Lessons in the International Section

The goal of the International Section is first and foremost to support students in becoming flexible learners, capable of encountering different teachers and learning methods that may be new and unfamiliar. International Section students have the additional challenges of learning in a second language and becoming familiar with new teaching styles. Thus, emphasizing transferable skills helps them become independent, confident learners. Social studies units are structured thematically, with an emphasis on developing skills of questioning, research methods, note-taking, and presenting information in written and spoken form. As the school year progresses, beginning skills serve as a foundation for more complex means of organizing ideas. The year begins with a focus on developing research questions, note-taking strategies, and information discovery, along with verification methods. With such skills in hand, students can practice translating ideas into academic writing and spoken debate.

Content areas blend together in the International Section, with standards of the language and literature classes serving as targets for the history and geography section. For example, students read Jack London’s Call of the Wild as a means of investigating contemporary society and not simply as a work of literature. London’s short novel was a way for the author to discuss American culture at the turn of the 20th century, so elements of each chapter are used to analyze social issues affecting the contemporary global community. Climate change, economic disparity, and gender issues are inspected, and the first classroom debate centers on effective leadership. The class is broken into two large teams, charged with arguing Machiavelli’s question about whether it is better for a ruler to be loved or feared. This is the students’ first taste of debating, and they take on particular jobs—presenting opening statements, discussing specific evidence-based examples they find to support their team’s position, offering a rebuttal to the other team’s argument, and summarizing their team’s position for the audience to consider. The final project of the Call of the Wild unit is to formulate an argument that addresses whether humans are mostly wild or mostly civilized, drawing on the debate practice and stressing the importance of evidence-based argument.

The last unit of the year is a student-led investigation of moral and civic issues, with the final product taking shape in the form of a class newspaper. The International Section meets three days a week, and this unit has a specific structure to help blend individual student research with the larger class conversation. Monday is a case study of a particular issue, so that all students can read and discuss a common theme. Case studies use American issues as examples but often turn to a global or local investigation. Case study topics include racism, gender discrimination, and sexual orientation. Tuesdays are reserved for debates, and students sign up for debate teams focused on interpreting existential human questions. Debate questions cover issues like privacy rights, technology restrictions, freedom of speech, and inequality in society. Thursdays are work days during which students dig into their particular research projects, with the teacher conferencing with students individually or in small groups to support research techniques, questioning strategies, and organization of written ideas. All of these class materials are organized and shared in a class Google site, where students have edit rights and can actively update their personal page with ideas and research.

In Conclusion

Teaching is about supporting the development of free thinkers, not about sharing a teacher’s personal opinion. If young people are supported in learning how to debate global challenges, then they’ll be capable of debating effective leadership in a variety of contexts. The students in the International Section will be the leaders of tomorrow who will depend on the critical thinking skills that we develop together. It is imperative for our students to investigate topics of a political nature so that they will be prepared to meet the global challenges of the future. But the “politics” involved isn’t about looking at issues from a country’s agenda but, rather, looking at the larger issues that affect humanity as a whole.


Jeff Meade

Jeff Meade (jeff@bohemianteach.org) teaches middle school language arts and social studies in the Section Internationale at the Lycée Jean Mermoz in Dakar, Senegal.