Most faculty members are reluctant to engage students in the discussion of controversial issues for various reasons. Some fear how such discussion will be received by students in the classroom. They argue that students’ lack the knowledge and confidence in their ability to discuss topics that are controversial, they often become more emotional than intellectual in such instances and as such in order to avoid conflict among their students, these critical issues are constantly swept under the rug. Others do not see the connections between their discipline and these controversial issues.

On the other hand, some instructors believe that students need to practice civic engagement and that these issues need to be brought out in the open; Students need to learn how to discuss these issues on an intellectual level. In my opinion controversial issues such as racism, abortion, sexuality, religion, politics, social injustice, environmental sustainability, etc., need to be part of student learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Personally, I think students do already talk about these issues and have formed some opinions on them. It is important to hear where they stand and provide them with experiences that could further shape such thoughts. 

Students need to be provided with a safe space where they can have intellectual conversations around these topics. It is important that students learn how to listen to others’ opinions, critically think about these issues, and engage in healthy discussions in an atmosphere where everyone has mutual respect and tolerance for each other.  In order to achieve this, instructors must also be skilled in how to successfully introduce and negotiate such discussions.

I picked up a few pointers on how instructors can do this from a session on Controversial Conversations: Engaging Students and Faculty that was offered at the 35th conference of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education. The conference was held in St. Louis, Missouri from November 3 – 7, 2010. According to the presenters, faculty need to integrate discussion of controversial issues into their courses since “questioning assumptions and learning to critically evaluate the status quo is a fundamental skill that every student needs”. Faculty can do this by using the following:

  • Start with a very easy and familiar topic to gain the skills in facilitating discussions before taking on the very controversial ones.
  • Always engage in self reflection after each discussion.
  • Remember to foster an environment that promotes conversation instead of competition.
  • Help students to step back and reflect when tensions are high. Request them to write out their thought to help them organize their thinking.
  • Take the role of a facilitator and not an active participant.
  • Use case studies to depersonalize the discussion.
  • Explain the objectives of the discussion.
  • Remember to establish classroom norms, codes of conduct, and guidelines or agreements for discussions.
  • Base discussions on an assigned reading.
  • Be honest and open with students when you make a mistake.

To learn more on teaching controversial issues, see the annotated collection of links for university instructors.

Please join the conversation. What strategies have you found helpful to facilitate effective conversation on controversial topics in your classroom? Share your thoughts.