Organizing Discussions on Controversial Topics

About Ric Doringo

Ric is a social studies teacher in Northeast Ohio with twenty years experience in high schools and univerisities. He currently teaches courses in U. S. history (is an approved AP grader), economics and human rights.

We are always challenging students to think differently: branch out, think outside the box, get out of their comfort zone. As a social studies teacher, I’m often trying to incorporate issues and ideas into our study or conversations that are relevant to students’ lives; things they may be facing now or will likely deal with in the future. When appropriate, I want to bring those controversial issues into our classroom discussions.

This means that many of these topics will be very controversial and challenging for students. In U. S. history we try to deal with issues of identity, race, and ethnicity, not to mention lots of political controversies. I teach a class on human rights, obviously fertile ground for some hot-button topics. Even in a course like Applied Economics, there are areas where students disagree: the role of government in the economy or environmental policy.

I think it’s important to bring these topics in the open and the allow students to talk them out. Just as with adults, however, heated exchanges occur. I have had some very difficult discussions over the years on issues such as race and immigration. We live in very polarized times, and students are charged by that as much as their parents or anyone else. After some disastrous attempts at dealing with tough topics in an open and honest way, I’ve tried to develop some guidelines to help these conversations be as constructive as possible, while still allowing students to feel as though they had a chance to voice their opinions adequately.

After some disastrous attempts at dealing with tough topics in an open and honest way, I’ve tried to develop some guidelines to help these conversations be as constructive as possible, while still allowing students to feel as though they had a… Click To Tweet

Step 1: Start with Opening Statements. My current school puts a great deal of emphasis on Socratic seminars. I love them and do them a lot. But it can also be a place where two or three students can dominate a conversation if there are no guidelines. One technique that works is to have the conversation begin with each student giving a brief opening statement: How did they answer the essential question of the seminar and why? A short, two-sentence statement, before any open discussions begins, gives every student the chance to be heard up front.

Step 2: Questions Only. This is a very effective second step, especially with controversial topics. Make it clear to students that they should be taking brief notes as everyone gives their statements, paying very close attention to the arguments that are counter to their own positions. Once opening statements are given, open up the discussion with questions only. Students can direct their questions to a particular student, or make a more general one. Questions should not be personal but based on the arguments and evidence provided. This step encourages students to really listen to arguments from each side as they consider their own position.

Step 3: Open It Up. Allow students to speak their mind. They can start by addressing the questions offered in the previous step. I try my best to be a facilitator during this entire seminar process, but I will intervene to call on students who might be on the quieter side. I will always take notes myself on the opening statements so I can direct my questions to a particular issue.

Teachers can always set some sort of parameters and still have very open discussions. One point I emphasize is don’t make it personal. Let students know that first, all statements and questions should be courteous and non-accusatory. Although you want students to personalize material, in the discussion ask them to avoid using “I” or “me” and focus on the issue in the setting of the larger society.

Step 4: Finding Common Ground. After the discussion winds down, I set students on another thinking exercise. I require them to identify something in an opposing argument that might serve as a common ground for both sides of the issue. Put another way, what argument(s) from the opposing side did they find most convincing and why? This can be done verbally after a few minutes of reflection, or as a post-seminar writing exercise. Regardless, it asks students to be open-minded and to take the other side seriously.

Step 5: Closing Statements. As we started, I often will close the seminar with a closing statement in the same format. Give students a minute or two to consult their notes, consider the discussion, and reflect on their own opening position. Then, again in a sentence or two, allow each student to make one last statement. Though students don’t often change their original argument, I’ve been surprised how many times they have seen an issue in another light or from a different perspective.

This last point, after all, is the goal. We give the students the tools to look at issues as deeply as they can and, regardless of their teacher’s biases, they need to come to their own conclusions, as they will throughout their lives. We cannot make them think about the world in a particular way. What we can do is give them the skills and the patience to see the world around them openly and honestly, and to consider and even be empathetic to the views of others.

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About the Author:

Ric is a social studies teacher in Northeast Ohio with twenty years experience in high schools and univerisities. He currently teaches courses in U. S. history (is an approved AP grader), economics and human rights.

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