How to Teach Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Over the past few years, my students have become more curious about the world. I teach high school students, and I’ve noticed that they are paying more attention than ever to world events, politics, and controversial issues. Sometimes their questions and opinions filter through into my lessons. I thought it would be a good time to share what’s been working for me in terms of engaging with them about these questions and opinions.

Teaching controversial issues in the classroom means paying attention to the delivery of your content, how students recognize and respond to it, and anticipating questions, inquiries, or disagreements. Teaching controversial issues also offers students the chance to practice important skills like critical thinking, communication, and compromise.  

The suggestions below have worked well in my high school classes. Of course my experiences are likely different from yours, so please consider each point as a reflection of what’s been working for me, and not necessarily a set of rules for everyone to abide by. After explaining some general strategies that have worked in my classroom, I’ll explore a few of the most controversial issues at the present time (mid 2023) and how I’ve fostered discussion around those specifically. Some links are affiliates. Please see our affiliate disclosure policy here.

Strategies for teaching controversial issues

Understandably, a lot of teachers worry about touching on controversial issues. Backlash from parents, arguments between students, and administrative regulations often deter teachers from approaching anything that might be considered controversial. In my opinion, approaching these issues from a fair and open position works as long as teachers have cultivated a classroom of openness and inquiry. The strategies listed have worked in my classes with both elementary and secondary-aged children, but I find that the secondary students are more inquisitive and ready to engage in healthy debate.

 I’ve also found that improving my own professional learning has helped me tremendously. A great book to help you approach controversial issues is Judith Pace’s book Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues; it’s filled with anecdotes of teachers who have worked to develop their own expertise to feel confident in teaching these kinds of controversial issues. It also helped me tremendously in my quest to be more equipped in tackling these issues in the classroom and facilitating meaningful discussions with my students.

Knowing your students and the classroom environment

From day one, teachers and students should work together to create a classroom that values respect, kindness, and trust. A classroom where questions are welcomed, and respect is shown for different likes, interests, and curiosities is one where students feel safe to broach potentially sensitive topics. Practicing active listening, empathy, critical thinking, and respectful dissent help students build healthy habits when it comes to discussions and debates. Creating an authentic classroom that values these things is important and should be fostered from day one.

Communicate to both students and parents

One of the things I’ve noticed throughout my experience as a teacher is that communication is one of the most helpful ways to dispel fear or uncertainty. Being clear about how you approach controversial topics does a few things:

  • Prepares students to think critically about issues that are relevant to them (without feeling like they have to adopt a specific position on the issue)
  • Gives parents a heads-up about the content their child will be exposed to and thus makes them feel less threatened or anxious about what will take place
  • Reduces the chances of a student going home and relaying parts of a lesson that might get miscommunicated to their parents, potentially leading to queries and complaints
  • Demonstrates to students and parents that you see the value in discussing controversial topics and that you trust your students enough to have these conversations

Choose authentic and relevant issues

Controversial topics and issues, although interesting to talk about, should still have links to the curriculum and be framed as open-ended questions. There shouldn’t necessarily be a “right” or “wrong” answer; rather, the focus should be on developing critical thinking skills. Moreover, choosing topics that students are interested in is also important. Just because a controversial topic appears in the curriculum doesn’t mean students will be interested in it. Sometimes, taking the crux of the issue and seeing if there are any modern, relevant examples to draw from is a good strategy. Not only does this ensure that the core idea is being taught, but also that it’s being taught in a relevant way to students. We’ve written about how to make learning more relevant for students if you’d like some more strategies!

Prepare your discussions and consider follow-up questions

Nothing is worse than starting a lesson and having a student throw a curveball that catches you off-guard. Being mindful of what you intend to teach, but also considering what potential questions students might ask is crucial. Broadening and deepening your understanding of the topic and its related parts is important. However, I would argue that preparing for questions and rebuttals, and potentially a counter-argument, is even more important. Thinking about how you will respond to these questions while also demonstrating patience and fairness to your students is important as well.

Moreover, consider how your students might respond emotionally. Controversial issues can lead to emotionally-charged conversations and impulsiveness. Be mindful in how you raise issues, counter points, and make conclusions. The best way to do this (in my experience), is to focus on the issue objectively while still balancing emotional and intellectual engagement. De-escalation techniques might be needed; for example, giving a student physical space, allowing bouts of silence, or neutralizing your body language.

Leave time at the end of your lesson or discussion for students to debrief and reflect. This is a great chance to practice metacognitive skills and individual reflection. Acknowledge that students might feel uncomfortable, but that can sometimes be a part of the learning process. Students will all react differently, so ensure that their needs are being met in a respectful and inclusive way.

Be selective about your accompanying resources

When discussing a controversial issue, it’s good to be prepared with suitable and age-appropriate resources to accompany your lesson or inquiry. For example, simply reading a newspaper article isn’t as effective as including interviews, opinion pieces, or primary source documents in the discussion.

Make time for students to read and analyze different perspectives and talk with their peers about what they’re noticing. For example:

  • What questions do they have?
  • How can they relate to the perspectives they’re reading?
  • How does the news sometimes give us an incomplete picture of a situation?
  • Is there evidence of bias in these documents?
  • What perspectives are being shown (or not) in what they’re seeing?

Act as a facilitator

One of the things I’ve noticed in my teaching experience is that it is better to act as a facilitator during discussions about controversial issues as opposed to using your opinion as a starting point. For example, if a teacher began a discussion about the effectiveness of politicians by declaring that they weren’t a fan of Donald Trump, this might have a few repercussions:

  • It would skew the perceptions that students have of you (for better or worse) and possibly change their approach to the discussion in order to seem like they agree with you or are “on the teacher’s side”
  • It could potentially lead to complaints from parents about the teacher being partial or biased on the issue
  • You could unintentionally lead to a biased conversation within the classroom if only one “lead viewpoint” is being debated

Much like with inquiry learning, acting as a facilitator has several benefits for students. First, it honours student learning by allowing them to freely discuss their ideas with their peers without the teacher injecting their viewpoint. Second, acting as a facilitator allows teachers to learn with the student. Encouraging students to dig deeper with well-thought-out questions and prompts helps guide students through their own thoughts, highlighting the importance of being prepared. It also gives them the space to come to conclusions on their own.

Example – Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory (CRT) has been floating around for quite some time now (since at least the 1970s), but has only recently garnered attention in the education sphere. By definition, it is the idea that race is a social construct, and that racism is embedded in our society and culture in a way that seeks to oppress and exploit people of colour – particularly in the United States. Those who study critical race theory are determined to eliminate race-based and other unjust structures in society.

It is connected to our current landscape in a few ways that students might have noticed:

  • Sociologists study the links between political power, race, and social organization and use critical race theory in their discussions
  • Critical race theory has informed diversity and inclusion efforts around the world (for example, LGBTQ advocacy in schools, the free-speech debate, etc.)
  • The distribution of funding that is allocated in minority communities (which might affect some students and their families) is often a talking point when discussing CRT
Photo by Shelagh Murphy

Introducing the topic to students requires an understanding that what they know about critical race theory is likely mixed. For example, some students might think it is an important component in understanding culture, power structures, and politics. Conversely, some may have a more skeptical view of the theory, or disagree with it completely. What’s important is that the topic is addressed in a safe and open way.

There are a lot of ways teachers can facilitate a discussion or inquiry about critical race theory. The first is to initiate an inquiry that asks, “Why is there so much debate around critical race theory?” By asking the question in this way, it opens the topic up to discussion and leaves room for multiple opinions to be heard. You can dig deeper and ask “what is systemic racism?” to get students thinking about the foundations of critical race theory and why it has become such a popular topic in the last few years.

If you’d prefer to stay away from the specifics of the theory, or it’s off-limits in your school board or district, you could use a social justice inquiry to explore similar issues. Alternatively, a literature or language arts inquiry that focuses on the history of literature, and how voices are amplified through literature, might be a good place to infuse learning about social justice and race issues.

Putting it Altogether

Teaching controversial issues gives students opportunities to practice important skills like critical thinking, communication, and compromise. Knowing your curriculum and being prepared to answer questions is important. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers is also important. Students often attempt to simplify controversial issues to fit into their worldview so they can make sense of them; this is a common strategy but should be opened up for questions and considerations, as long as it is done respectfully.

Here are some helpful links to guide your facilitation of controversial topics:

Cover image by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

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