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Reducing Political Polarization among Students

Brett Levy of Educational Theory and Practice.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 29, 2019) – More than eight-in-ten U.S. adults believe that political discourse has become more negative and less respectful, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center.

A study by the School of Education, however, has found that a political simulation used in high school government courses could help increase political engagement and open-mindedness among adolescents.

Brett Levy, an assistant professor of Educational Theory and Practice, along with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, analyzed students’ experiences and learning in the Legislative Semester, a program that requires students to research, discuss, debate and mock-vote on controversial public issues.

The research team found that students who participated in the semester-long program demonstrated a greater increase in political engagement and political open-mindedness than those who took a traditional government course.

These findings suggest that repeated opportunities to examine public issues with politically diverse peers may reduce polarization and partisanship among young people.

The research team also found that educators can support these types of exchanges by creating an emotionally safe and open environment, according to Levy, the lead researcher of the study.

“While the success of the Legislative Semester is exciting, the real takeaway here is that teachers have a significant role in guiding their students to having more productive conversations,” said Levy, who has also studied how high school textbooks frame the issue of climate change. To facilitate these explorations, “educators can help give voice to minority viewpoints, de-emphasize partisan uniformity, and live as an example of what they teach.”

At each site, the researchers gathered data during the fall 2014-2015 semester through student surveys, over 100 teacher and student interviews, and classroom observations.

The study, “Can Education Reduce Political Polarization? Fostering Open-Minded Political Engagement During the Legislative Semester” was published this May in the Teachers College Record.

Levy conducted the study with Annaly Babb-Guerra and Lena M. Batt, Ph.D. candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Wolf Owczarek, an independent scholar based in New York.

Listen to Levy share more of the study’s findings on the UAlbany News Podcast.

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