Controversy in the Classroom

Issues are controversial precisely because there are no easy answers. That’s also what makes them so stimulating! Here are a few tips to assist you as you explore controversial issues with your students:
Develop a classroom environment of openness and respect — one in which students can feel comfortable expressing their own beliefs and values, and respect the right of others to do so as well.

  • Focus on the process of sharing ideas and opinions, acquiring and judging new information, and making and reflecting on decisions.
  • Anticipate parental and administrative sensitivities. Inform them of what you’re doing and invite them to be involved.
  • Strive to be value fair, not value free.
  • If criticized for teaching a controversial issue, encourage rational discussion. Do not be angry or defensive.
  • After the activity/unit, prepare a concise assessment of student learning to share with interested parties.
  • Take workshops such as Project Learning Tree to enhance your teaching skills and add activities to your “bag of tricks.”

When Planning Your Lesson/Unit:

Ask yourself:

  • Does this relate to my curricular objectives for these students?
  • Is factual information available from several points-of-view on this issue?
  • What community resources can I involve in studying this issue?
  • What is my own position on this issue? On what is my position based?
  • Have I allowed sufficient time to study this issue?
  • Am I prepared to be a facilitator of learning, rather than a provider of “right” answers?

During the Lesson:

Work with students to:

  • Raise questions that clarify values and challenge their thinking.
  • Recognize stereotyping and avoid polarization.
  • Distinguish between fact and opinion. Learn how facts and statistics can be “twisted” to validate certain points-of-view.
  • Relate issues to their daily lives. Students are often more closely connected to issues than they realize.
  • Expand their understanding of issues by role-playing value positions different from those they currently hold.
  • Be positive! Be for something rather than against something.

For additional reading:

Project Learning Tree Activity Guide, Appendices 2 & 3; “Two Hats,” “Teaching Controversial Issues”

Guidelines for Dealing with Differing Viewpoints; USFS Alaska Region, Alaska Education Department, and Alaska Project Learning Tree

The Teacher’s Role in Dealing with Controversial Issues; C.E. Knapp, Project WILD handout