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:
- 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