Teaching Controversial Topics

Teaching Controversial Topics

Discussing controversial topics is one method to invigorate the classroom, but instructors must consider whether doing so engages in deepening critical thinking or simply adds shock value.

When faced with a decision about how (or whether) to handle controversial issues in your course, consider the following:

What is the goal of having this discussion, and how does it connect to the larger objectives of the course?

You may choose to begin class with a recent controversy in the news in order to establish the relevancy of the concepts students studied the evening before. Or, you may use the controversial issue to guide their understanding of the difference between persuasion, propaganda and argumentation. Whatever the case, the objectives should be clear and they should be shared with your students prior to the conversation.   

The following objectives for teaching controversial issues have been adapted from University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching:

  • Determining and analyzing the underlying causes of social conflict
  • Exploring consequences or implications of, as well as solutions to, a conflict, policy, etc.
  • Increasing awareness about a topic by including information not normally covered by “academic” or “scholarly” conversations
  • Developing critical thinking by exploring the variety of perspectives and the complexities of an issue (acknowledging that no issue can be divided into simple binaries)
  • Practicing listening to and responding to diverse perspectives so these skills can be developed for other venues
  • Connecting academic study with citizenship within students’ many communities (campus, family, church, city, nation, world, etc.)

How will you create a comfortable environment conducive to productive dialogue?

The classroom space should be civil and safe at all times so that students can explore new ideas and work through confusion and complexity with one another. Linda B. Nilson suggests that discussion “thrives on the expression of different, legitimate points of view. Disagreement enriches the college experience.  In fact college is all about hearing, ‘trying on,’ and appraising different perspectives.”  Consider the following to create productive disagreement:

  •  Determine what role—if any—personal experience or opinion (including your own) will have in the conversation. Some instructors may choose to limit personal statements to written reflections or to a specific period of time within the class, while others may focus on personal experiences. (See Moser and Hanson’s list of the strengths of and weaknesses of the different approaches: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED457044.pdf) 
  •  Consider your ability to facilitate a conversation that might generate emotional responses. Can you diffuse heated debate and turn anger, embarrassment, or avoidance into teachable moments? Or would you better serve your students by using strategies that require students to voice opinions other than their own (such as reviewing and reporting critical perspectives or role-play)
  • Be observant in the classroom. Pay attention to non-verbal clues to gauge students’ sensitivity to the issue / discussion.
  • Establish a rapport with students so that they feel comfortable speaking to you and one another. Use discussion from the first day, or take the time to explain why you are switching methods to explore this particular topic.
  • Prepare students in advance for the conversation. Consider providing discussion questions that help them focus on key aspects of the issue. Assign a range of reading that seeks to represent the various perspectives of an issue. For beginning level students, a text book series like McGraw-Hill’s Taking Sides or case study appendices in many textbooks may help introduce conversations surrounding the issue
  • Be certain that you don’t ask students to serve as spokespeople for their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc.
  • Don’t ignore hurtful behaviors or remarks. Addressing inappropriate comments is not censorship or “policing,” especially if you make the moment a teachable one by examining the assumptions behind and implications of the comment or behavior. 
  • Model tentative and respectful dialogue; push students to provide evidence for their assertions and encourage them to call sources into question so as to unravel the nuances of the topic.
  • Tell students that you’re going to play “Devil’s Advocate” so that you can model the appropriate tone and manner in which to ask questions of disagreement.
  • Follow up and reflect on the discussion. Ask students what they have learned, how the discussion helped them to understand the concept / achieve the learning goal. Seek feedback and take the time to reflect on how effective the conversation was.