Navigating controversial topics in the classroom

Navigating controversial topics in the classroom

If your syllabus includes controversial topics, you will want to plan and anticipate difficult and emotional classroom discussions. Discussions may consist of multiple phases such as the initial discussion, a need to restore community during or after the discussion, and reflection after the discussion. Remember always that your role is to provide a safer learning environment for every student during the conversation.

Facilitating Discussion

  • Remind your students of the ground rules for class discussion covered in your syllabus and other additional rules you have provided.
  • Direct the conversation to the issue, and don’t let students attack other students in personal terms. Students should focus on the argument, not the person.
  • Do not ignore the situation when a student makes a hurtful comment to you or another student. Acknowledge that inappropriate behavior has occurred. It would help if you decided how much time you want to spend on it in class or address it after class.
  • Do not be defensive, even when the student is disruptive. Listen respectfully and acknowledge the possibility that the student may be correct. Your behavior in such a situation will be a role model for your students.
  • Try not to let yourself be rattled by the event, or try not to make it look like you are. If you, as the instructor, can hold yourself steady, you will create a holding environment where people can work out the issues that have arisen.
  • Protect the lone outlier (the attacked or attacker), regardless of their position.
  • If you run into problems that may escalate into an unresolved conflict in the classroom:

Restoring Community

  • You may want to ask students to step back after a heated discussion, analyze what went on and what they learned from the process.
  • Defer. Tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up in the next session. Use the time to think and plan a strategy. Make sure you return to the topic later, as promised.
  • Go around the room and ask each student who has spoken (and others if they wish) to state their view and explain it. Do not permit interruptions and acknowledge each student’s comments, no matter how you feel about it personally.
  • If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, recognize it and ask the student if they would like to remain in the classroom or take a break to pull him- or herself together.
  • If necessary, stop the class, assign students to research the issue, and write a short essay for the next class meeting. Ask students to write about the topic for five minutes in class and then invite them to share them out afterward.

Restoring Community

  • You may want to ask students to step back after a heated discussion, analyze what went on and what they learned from the process.
  • Defer. Tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up in the next session. Use the time to think and plan a strategy. Make sure you return to the topic later, as promised.
  • Go around the room and ask each student who has spoken (and others if they wish) to state their view and explain it. Do not permit interruptions and acknowledge each student’s comments, no matter how you feel about it personally.
  • If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, recognize it and ask the student if they would like to remain in the classroom or take a break to pull him- or herself together.
  • If necessary, stop the class, assign students to research the issue, and write a short essay for the next class meeting. Ask students to write about the topic for five minutes in class and then invite them to share them out afterward.

Navigating controversial topics in the classroom, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Navigating controversial topics in the classroom, is a derivative of Managing hot moments developed by Harvard University‘s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning retrieved (November 1, 2016) from http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/managing-hot-moments-classroom