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August 03, 2022

Confronting Controversial Issues in the Classroom

By Louis Ganzler, PH.D.

Controversial issues discussion is perhaps the most prescribed curricular cure for an ailing democracy. While no singular curricular or instructive practice is a panacea, the benefits students derive from discussing controversial issues are significant: they strengthen democratic commitments, increase political knowledge, prepare adolescents to live in a pluralistic society, and help them discover what they believe. These are worthy goals. But while controversial issues are frequently prescribed by theorists, professors, civic organizations, and eager educators, it is, nevertheless, a medicine the school system is reluctant to take. There are two major findings from controversial issues research. The first is that even a small amount of exposure is beneficial to students, but the second is that very few teachers expose students to them at all. Preparing for a controversial issues discussion can be divided into two large categories: the mechanics of the discussion and the environment that teachers hope to create.

The Mechanics

The mechanics are intricate, endless, potentially overwhelming, and infinitely modifiable. Pay attention to the fundamentals: student understanding, desk arrangement, talking transitions, student preparation, and grading.

  • Make sure the students understand both sides of the issue. This may require you to supplement, or it may require you to deconstruct a text. It may require the students to ask many questions of the text. It may involve additional research. Do whatever it takes for the students to comprehend the controversy.
  • Make sure the students can see each other. Re-arrange the desks as needed. A controversial issues discussion should feel special, and if the classroom looks different, then they know something noteworthy is happening.
  • Have some procedure for transitioning between speakers. For example, you can train students to use parliamentary procedure and rotate the chairperson, with the goal of having student-run discussions. If that seems too radical, consider allowing students to decide who speaks next, (like a Socratic seminar). Either way, have a clear procedure in place, and strongly consider allowing the discussion to be student moderated.
  • Have a “ticket” required for participation. Students should have some evidence they are ready to actively contribute to the discussion. A ticket can be an annotated text, a list of questions, or some assignment that helps prepare them to think about the issue.
  • Develop a grading strategy. Making the choice of whether or not to grade can be tricky. On the one hand, grading provides a moderate incentive to contribute to the discussion. On the other, such forced contributions don’t necessarily encourage quality. You may want to try a hybrid model by letting the first few discussions of the year be nongraded. In this way, you will be able to model what the discussion should look like, provide feedback to students, and prepare them in a low-stress environment for future discussions. If you do decide to grade, be sure to let students know what it is you are grading. Are you using the speaking and listening standards, are you grading behavior, or just quantity? Either way, be clear in articulating your expectations.

The Environment

Students must feel your classroom is a place for them to safely disagree with each other. If they feel judged, or afraid, or worried about saying the wrong thing, then a true discussion won’t be possible. A classroom discussion involves the free exchange of ideas between three or more people. If students don’t feel they can say what’s on their mind, then they’ll say what they think you want them to hear.

How often are adolescents asked what they think? How frequently do students encounter opinions that are significantly different from their own? How often are they encouraged to influence others with their passion and logic? For most, it’s not often, and this is part of the reason that students remember and value the opportunity to discuss issues of controversy in a safe environment. You need to communicate to students why you are having them discuss this issue. All of them are potential voters. This country works best when its citizens are both informed and participate. This country is also pluralistic, in almost every sense of the word. We have many different ideas about what is best but only one legitimate way to deal with the inevitable conflict that arises from disagreeing, and it’s called politics. Persuading others and being open to listening are key skills in a democracy, and key skills in a discussion. Controversial issues discussions may be the best model schools can offer for how democracy should work. When you deal with a highly charged issue such as gun violence, some of your students may become emotional. Emotion is not a sign of failure or weakness. It’s a sign of engagement; it’s a sign of passion, and it’s an opportunity to learn. Ultimately we are a country of shared stories. We are connected to each other in ways that are not always transparent or obvious. If this country is to continue being thought of as a collective society, as opposed to a bunch of people united only by a weather report and a flag, then we need to talk with each other about our disagreements and about how we want to solve our problems. Schools have an important role in helping prepare our citizens to think intelligently and compassionately about the future. There is no better way to do this than controversial issues discussions.

Louis Ganzler, PH.D.

School Administrator

Louis Ganzler received a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He taught social studies for 15 years and is currently a school administrator in California.

This article originally appeared in the ABA’s Teaching Resource Bulletin: Addressing Gun Violence A Law and Public Health Approach, 2016.