Watson's Choices Program Teaches High School Students to Think Critically About Pressing Global Issues

January 16, 2018

Getting students to think about things differently – whether it’s art or the United States’ role in world deliberations – is really powerful: it shapes the way they think, says Kelly McKee, a high school teacher in Lake Forest, Illinois, describing the impact of the Choices Program. Choices’ unique pedagogy offers an inquiry-based learning approach, says McKee, who has found no other comparable curriculum materials in 25 years of teaching. Parents, she says, find their children evaluating world issues with more thoughtful, open mindsets.

Choices, in collaboration with Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and the School of Professional Studies, aims to equip high school students with the skills, habits, and knowledge needed to be engaged citizens, able to address international and public policy issues through thoughtful public discourse and informed decision-making.

“Rather than promote specific viewpoints on contested issues, Choices’ resources and approach are designed to open up dialogue,” says Watson Institute Senior Fellow and Director of Choices Susan Graseck. “Understanding how to engage across differences as informed citizens is critical if we’re going to have a vibrant democracy.”  

Sarah Roeske, a highly experienced teacher at Mountain View High School in Stafford, Virginia, has based her Global Issues course for seniors on the Choices curriculum, which, she says, “fills a massive void in teaching international relations to high school students.” By presenting background and information from all sides of an issue and asking students to use their critical thinking and analytical skills to decide how they’d tackle the issue, Choices “pushes the kids to really look at the pros and cons of foreign policy decisions.”

Approximately one-third of U.S. high schools and some 200 high schools in 20 foreign countries currently use one or more of Choices’ 30-plus titles in courses such as world history, contemporary world problems, U.S. history, geography and civics. Grounded in scholarship from Watson and Brown University experts, each thought-provoking unit, aligned with state and national curriculum standards, requires students to analyze primary and secondary sources, think and write critically, and collaborate.

According to Andy Blackadar, Choices’ director of curriculum development, the units focus on topics that textbooks might not address in depth, such as the roles of Nigeria, Turkey, Brazil, Haiti, and South Africa in world history. “In The American Revolution: Experiences of Rebellion, students learn that those without a voice – Native Americans, free people of color, slaves, men who didn’t own land, and women – cared about these issues and had viewpoints,” he says. “Through Choices, we can show and identify these viewpoints.”

Additionally, Choices prepares free 1-2 day Teaching with the News lessons to address time-sensitive topics and events. Posted online, these segments are accessible to everyone, at no charge. “The curiosity and hunger for very good content among high school teachers is high, especially during moments of crisis,” says Blackadar. “Choices was the first to put out curriculum materials in the weeks following 9/11 and has been offering these ‘Teaching with the News’ lessons ever since. Teachers rely on us for this, too."  

Roeske concurs: “Every time there’s been a crisis, I wait for Choices to come out with something. They’ve never failed.”  When Choices published “Syrian Refugees: Understanding Stories with Comics,” that lesson proved quite useful to Roeske, who had been struggling to develop timely teaching materials about the refugee crisis.

Teaching teachers

Professional development workshops introduce our rich materials to new audiences,” says Mimi Stephens, Choices’ professional development director. “With many school districts moving away from textbooks to develop their own courses drawing on a range of resources, Choices’ materials are a perfect fit.”

Choices, which will conduct 30 full-day workshops across the country this year – up from only eight of these workshops three years ago – recently held a workshop at Becker College, where high school teachers participated in an opening exercise that illustrates why people often don’t agree on contested policy issues. After prioritizing several key values – democracy, security, diversity and justice, among others – workshop participants shared how they arrived at their personal rankings.  They then discussed how they saw these values reflected in disparate immigration policies, the topic of the workshop.

Stephens concluded the activity by discussing how this exercise – and others in Choices’ units – can promote, even require, deliberative dialogue skills.  McKee uses this activity in her classroom and notes that students often struggle with ranking these values. They may not have thought about where these values come from and how we as a nation define them, she says.

Just as history constantly evolves, so, too, does Choices, which received the Association of Asian Studies’ Franklin R. Buchanan Prize in 2012 and 2014 and the AAP Revere Award in 2015. Choices frequently updates and revises its materials to reflect current events, such as the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and the white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.

On the future of Choices

As Choices prepares to begin its 30th year, it is poised for growth. Launching in January 2018, all of Choices’ resources will be available in a new digital format that gives teachers ongoing access to up-to-date content in a web-based format that easily integrates into Google Classroom or their Learning Management System (LMS). This format also enables school districts to acquire site licenses that make these resources open to all. “This new model will allow us to share our materials much more broadly with teachers across the country and enable us to more easily offer our materials abroad,” says Graseck. It has also enabled Stephens to plan professional development programs for teachers in Pakistan, China, Taiwan, and  Australia in 2018-19.

Research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Educational Research’s longitudinal study validates the praise from teachers who use Choices. Students in both urban and suburban school systems, says McKee, aren’t always asked what they think. With Choices, they dig deeper and immerse themselves in history’s turning points. “Students are having a sophisticated conversation rooted in historic context.”

-- Nancy Kirsch

Note to Editors: Susan Graseck, Director of Choices, is available for comment and analysis at susan_graseck@brown.edu or through The Choices Program media relations at choices@brown.edu. To learn more about their curriculum catalog and professional development, visit www.choices.edu