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 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.