Addressing Controversial Topics in the Classroom
Contributed by: Sean Arseo
Throughout the duration of the last president’s terms in office and most recent American election, the country has seemed more politicized and divided than ever. In turn, even the most seemingly mundane aspects of social and scientific life can take on a controversial character. The many varied positions that any one person can hold on a given question and the force with which they might defend said position means that we as teachers must be prepared to facilitate (or divert from, if necessary) these controversial topics in our lecture halls and discussion classrooms. Today’s discussion centered upon developing a skillset to better prepare us to enter into these conversations.
The first part of understanding our role as facilitators requires us to develop our pedagogical outlook during these discussions. Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning provides three ideal typical approaches that any one instructor can take. Liberation pedagogy derives from Brazilian critical educational scholar Paolo Freire’s work, centering student’s critical development of their surroundings as the guiding point for discussions. A civic humanist approach centers instructors’ work as preparing students for future political engagement: the goal is to develop formal debating and argumentation skills while maintaining democratic decorum. Finally, instructors may view their role as academically detached in which they function as a neutral vessel through which objective facts flow. These three ideal types are not mutually exclusive, and in fact we may want to function as all three in any one given discussion.
Next we reviewed University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching guidelines for facilitating controversial discussions and participants offered ways in which they could modify the steps to better smooth the engagement. The steps are as followed:
- Identify a purpose of the discussion
- Develop ground rules, guidelines and expectations
- Requiring students and instructors to develop individual compacts as working agreements holds everyone to certain agreed upon standards and helps to encourage “buy in” from all parties.
- Establish a “common basis for understanding”
- Require everyone to read a short passage to establish a common thread from to which students can refer back, and on which individuals can bring their own knowledge
- Maintain a focused and flowing framework
- Our role is to facilitate. While we may have skin in the game, we should be mindful that we have an added responsibility of keeping the discussion on track.
- Be inclusive
- Every person may not want to voice their position or opinion to a large room. Designating time for small group or pair-and-share may coax discussion from students reticent to speak.
- Actively facilitate
- Pay close attention to participants’ words and be prepared to reword their questions, correct misinformation, provide reading or content references, and any other problem that may arise.
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.