Chapter 4: Teaching Controversy

Civil Discourse in the Classroom
Chapter 4: Teaching Controversy

Some classroom discussions are easy: comparing different mathematical proofs, assessing community service projects or weighing various interpretations of a poem. And while they may teach basic skills of civic participation and democratic engagement, these discussions may not be enough to create advanced competence in students learning to engage others on controversial issues. To build better discussions, as Hollihan says, we must learn to debate riskier issues and ideas:

“There are many obstacles to effective classroom discussion, of course, but in my opinion one of the most troublesome is the reluctance to encourage students to discuss the truly complex and vexing public issues that divide us. Certain topics are literally walled-off and considered too controversial to risk discussing in a classroom for fear that they will make some participants uncomfortable.”

Many teachers feel constrained by district-mandated pacing guides that squeeze out this kind of content, while others feel that they wouldn't even know where to start with such a project. Still others are concerned with the controversies that might be created by including more divisive current events in their classrooms.

Fortunately, improvement can be accomplished on an incremental basis. For example, teachers can integrate current events discussion into a unit plan, using examination of current events as a way to reflect on the past (social studies, history) or as a way to teach basic literacy skills through reading, writing and speaking about nonfiction texts (language arts). Teachers can effectively use current and controversial events instruction to address a wide variety of standards and even mandated content. To do so, however, teachers must work carefully and incrementally to integrate this new approach in their classrooms.

Teachers can plan for current events instruction just as they might plan to teach a novel or any other content. Here are seven suggestions for planning to teach current or controversial events.


1. Select an issue.

Try to choose current events that have meaningful connections to other course content. For example, if you are reading Farewell to Manzanar, you might consider following this with a short unit on Guantanamo Bay, encouraging students to compare and contrast the different decisions to detain individuals. Alternately, you might use materials to explore the broader issue of civil liberties in wartime, such as the materials available from Justice Learning.

In integrating current events instruction into your classroom, start with less controversial issues. If you are determined to teach "flashpoint" issues such as gay marriage or stem-cell research, it is best to start small so you can handle controversies as they arise in class; otherwise, these controversies may extend beyond the class, becoming issues that attract parental, administrative or even media attention. Keep in mind that you're trying to teach students how to be effective democratic citizens, and that a good way to begin is with more manageable issues as "training wheels."


2. Break the issue into parts.

Consider the component parts of the issue plan. This will allow you to sequence your unit appropriately and choose materials to assist in learning key concepts. For this, it helps to think like a middle school student. There are a lot of ideas about the world that adults take for granted, but which are largely opaque to your average seventh- or eighth-grade student. Consider this example, from the World Bank Group:

“Trade allows people to buy goods and services that are not produced in their own countries. In addition, the money countries receive from exports helps determine how much they can afford to spend on imports and how much they can borrow from abroad.”

This definition is difficult to follow even for an average adult. It uses a variety of concepts, including trade, goods, services, exports and imports, without offering definitions. In addition, it assumes that students will be able to follow the relationship between exports and imports. It is just too complicated. This doesn’t mean that students can’t learn about world trade issues and the global economy; rather, it means that teachers need to work on sequencing and scaffolding. This process begins when you break the issue into parts. On this topic, it might be useful to build in a trade simulation or other practical example for students to demonstrate mastery of the basic unit concepts before proceeding to the more normative parts of the unit.


3. Build a list of relevant vocabulary words associated with the issue.

Don't forget to include vocabulary instruction as part of your current events instruction, just as you would on any other instructional topic. Keep a running list from readings and research, and teach those words just as you would any other vocabulary words.


4. Select readings that will be accessible and also challenging.

For many teachers, this is one of the hardest parts of current events instruction. You'll have to read a lot of articles, chapters and other materials in order to find readings that will represent a balanced and informed set of perspectives. But, the upside is that you'll only need a few readings (normally) to create a meaningful context for students to be able to discuss the issue.


5. Require a culminating activity.

There should be something that students do with their current events information. This could be writing an informative or persuasive essay, working on a group presentation or project, engaging in roundtable discussions or debates, or any other activity that gives students the opportunity to synthesize what they’ve learned and discussed. Perhaps students could write letters to the editor of a newspaper stating their position on an issue, or write responses to an editorial that they read, agreeing or disagreeing with the author.


6. Remember that persuasion occurs over time.

Schools are only one of the influences on children, especially in an era of multiple and conflicting media messages. Many teachers are disappointed when their initiation of controversial issues discussion does not diminish prejudice expressed in the hallways or produce substantial political awareness in their students. As Jonathan Silin points out, this is normal:

“[C]hildren quickly learn to provide expected, politically correct answers in the morning, and then later during the same day can be seen at lunch or on the playground displaying the very behaviors about which they strongly objected just minutes before. The only solace is knowing that we have acted authentically in addressing tough topics, that we can always return to the chalkboard to revise our work, and that if we have fostered a community in which dialogue is continuous, then there will be many opportunities to ask new questions and prompt further conversations about the things that really matter to us” (Bank Street College of Education, 2004, p. 5).

If we have learned anything from the recent uptick in highly publicized instances of incivility and inability to engage in meaningful debate and discussion, it is that our cultural capacity for sustained and serious debate is low. We should not be surprised when this incapacity is reflected in our classrooms. 

This is not a reason to suspend discussion of current events in the classroom; rather, it is a reason to continue and work to make our lessons relevant to students’ lives. Successful teachers will integrate school-based examples into their teaching and continue to teach these concepts beyond the end of the formal lesson.


7. Debrief.

As with all activities that involve critical thinking and complex ideas, you should build in some reflective and metacognitive element for students at the conclusion of the activity. This might be the same as the culminating activity, or it could be a different assignment. Consider having students trace the development of their ideas about the subject from beginning to end; they should identify where they started, where they ended, and what the most important ideas in discussion process were for this development.