How to teach controversial topics and issues fairly and courteously
From classroom antics to highly-publicized terrorist attacks, there's a lot of pressure on educators not to support controversial topics or issues. But the reality is that it's a part of life — from religion, to sex, to gender identity — and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
You know that controversy can be a good thing if it drives your students to think. But as a responsible adult with a position of authority, you also need to teach controversial issues courteously. It's crucial that you do not force your personal views on your students.
We often get asked how we handle certain topics in class. Often these questions refer to controversial and sensitive issues such as politics and religion. Every teacher who is worth his salt knows that the best way to teach controversial topics is to encourage dialogue.
As teachers, we have the difficult task of navigating this delicate balance between supporting students' right to free speech while also supporting our own need to create a safe environment for all students.
In this article...
The importance of teaching controversial issues
An unquestioned truism: that the world is divided into right and wrong, good and evil, those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. This is as true for society as it is for individuals.
We do not tolerate those who choose to be neutral on slavery or abortion or reparations or global warming or abuse of power or any of the host of other issues that we care passionately about. We assume that they must be either evil and on the wrong side of history, or dumb and unable to see the truth.
An important part of education is to help students understand how the world really does work, which means teaching them how to think more deeply about these issues. Learning to think well requires practice in thinking about hard things.
Students need practice overcoming their emotions so they can think logically about the world. So they can weigh evidence fairly, consider alternative points of view, resolve contradictions, distinguish between facts and opinion. The importance of doing this cannot be overstated.
The importance of teaching controversial issues fairly is equally obvious. If you don't, then one side will come away believing that you are on the other side. This will damage your relationship with students — even if they are wrong in their thinking — and it will also undermine your credibility with others are listening.
Teachers sometimes worry that if they teach students about controversial issues, students (and/or their parents) will get too worked up about them. But, controversial topics should be taught in schools because they can help (and sometimes force) students to learn how to think.
The best teachers I know are pretty good at getting students to calm down. They know that students often get upset when they don't understand an issue, or else when they do understand it, but find it morally repulsive.
Still, there is more to thinking well than just being calm, and thinking well about controversial issues is harder than most kinds of thinking. It has to be taught directly, explicitly, and with practice.
It helps to explain why thinking well about controversial issues is so important. Thinking well on any subject involves making judgments about how evidence relates to a conclusion. Often these are difficult judgments because the evidence isn't clear. There are different kinds of relevant evidence, the quality of the evidence varies widely, or the conclusions are hard to evaluate for other reasons.
Again, teaching students to think well about controversial issues is harder than teaching them to think well in most other ways. It has to be taught directly, explicitly and with practice. It is not something that happens automatically.
Teachers need to convey some background information about the issue and its history; provide some terms and concepts; make clear the kind of thinking that is expected; and give examples of how to think well on such an issue.
Biases, preconceptions, and habits of mind interfere with good thinking on every subject, but they are more dangerous when they get wrapped up in our emotions or our sense of identity. Students need to learn how to recognize these obstacles and overcome them.
They also need practice: they need to get used to thinking this way, so it will come naturally when they really have something at stake and strong opinions and biases.
Finally, teachers need to help students see why we care about this kind of thinking — what we hope they will get from it — so they can develop a reason for taking it seriously, even when there isn't a test right around the corner.
Teach a controversial issue with fairness and courtesy
Teaching a controversial issue with fairness and courtesy is both necessary and difficult. Necessary, because it is an important part of educating students to become informed citizens of a democratic republic. Difficult, because any attempt to teach a controversial issue will attract the interest of the media, which are always looking for stories that will ruffle feathers and attract viewers.
If you say anything that sounds remotely inflammatory, it will be reported in an inflammatory way.
What does it mean to teach a controversial issue fairly?
It means teaching it in such a way that students are not only exposed to the strongest arguments on all sides of the controversy, but also taught to recognize fallacies, biases, and other ways in which they might be misled.
In a controversy, there are always at least two sides, and the best way to teach a controversy is to present both sides. The problem with this approach is that it's sometimes not easy to find two legitimate sides.
There are dishonest arguments on both sides — arguments that use valid logic but omit key facts, arguments that attribute good motives to people on one side but bad motives to people on the other side, arguments that start by calling attention to what seems like an innocent fact but then, at once, exaggerate and distort it.
For every honest argument, there is a dishonest argument of exactly the same form. They're mirror images of each other. Teachers who don't know this may end up seeming dishonest themselves because they inadvertently only show one side of each issue.
If you present only one side in your teaching, it will probably be an oversimplification. And if you present both sides, you'll have to say something about what the other side says — although sometimes this may give students a mistaken impression that there is sound evidence for an alternative view even when there isn't.
Stay neutral when teaching a controversial issue
Every teacher has to walk a line between sharing controversial beliefs and showing respect for all students. The trick is to present the controversy in an honest way, not taking sides but still acknowledging that it exists.
The first rule of staying neutral is to call things by their real names. If you are talking about creationism or intelligent design, then say so. These are not scientific theories because they have no testable predictions, but they should be taught in science class because they are ideas that people have about the world.
If you are talking about human evolution, then say so. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't talk about it because it's religion. Evolutionary biology is not a religion any more than astronomy is. Science is an attempt to describe how things work using evidence gathered from observation and experiment, not from reading scripture.
What do I mean by observations? I mean getting your hands on data — whether the data are in the form of books or fossils or observations of other kinds. What do I mean by experiments? I mean studies that test hypotheses — which means trying to use evidence to figure out whether one idea is better than another.
How can you stay neutral when you teach an issue that is inherently polarized, like sex education or creationism?
The key thing is to recognize that there are two kinds of neutrality. There is an external neutrality, which is about what you say, and an internal neutrality, which is about how you feel.
External neutrality means not taking sides on an issue, so that students aren't led to think one position is better than another. You don't have to deny your personal conclusions; just keep them out of the classroom. You can do this by using standard techniques for handling controversial issues in the classroom.
If you are neutral externally, then there is no way for students to tell what your personal position on the issue is. And if students cannot tell what your personal position on the issues is, then they cannot tell where you are coming from, and therefore they cannot tell whether or not they agree with you.
If you are neutral internally, then it doesn't matter whether or not students know your personal position on the issues; it doesn't even matter whether or not they know that there are sides to the issues. Just showing them both sides will do the job of teaching them how to think about these issues.
Teaching controversial issues fairly means, in part, that you are not taking sides. But it doesn't mean that you are pretending the controversy does not exist. You can acknowledge that there is a controversy without adopting one side or another.
For instance, in teaching about the origins of life, you might want to describe the evidence for and against the idea that life on Earth originated when an asteroid hit the Earth about 4 billion years ago.
You might also want to raise some questions that remain unsolved, such as what kind of organism could have survived in space after an asteroid impact. That would give equal energy to both sides in the controversy, but you'd still be giving students information about how scientists try to answer questions — including some reasons they disagree with each other.
When a topic is controversial, it may seem impossible to teach it fairly. Any approach you take is going to offend someone.
This is a problem teachers face all the time, and there are two broad strategies for dealing with it. The first is to say, "I don't want to deal with this controversial topic." Good luck with that. The second is to find a way to talk about the issue that is as neutral as possible.
The simplest way to do the latter broad strategy is by asking students what they think. In fact, most of us have been doing this our whole careers. There might be a teacher who wants to lecture on the evils of abortion, but instead he asks everyone in class what they think about abortion, and then he lectures on their responses.
Teaching a controversy this way has some advantages over teaching one side or the other, like:
Students have an incentive to listen carefully and support their claims with evidence because they know your response will depend on how well they do that.
You can ask follow-up questions that will help students see their own biases more clearly.
Staying neutral in the classroom is not the same as being objective. To be objective means being fair to all points of view. To be neutral means being fair to the students.
Do not use inflammatory language in your lesson plan
Examine the language you use to describe the issues you are teaching.
When issues are controversial, do not use inflammatory language. Instead, simply describe the facts and circumstances of the controversy.
If the lessons are based on books that use inflammatory language, teach the students how to identify inflammatory language and what makes it inflammatory.
This means that the teacher should refrain from using terms such as "renegade," "radical," "militant," "dissident," and any other adjective that carries a negative connotation. Instead, use neutral or positive descriptive terms to get your point across.
For example, instead of calling a group a "radical group," call it a "controversial group."
Do not give false information about other cultures, religions, ethnic groups, races, or people with disabilities.
Students need to be taught the difference between stereotypes and generalizations. A stereotype is a fixed and oversimplified idea about a person or group of people. A generalization is a broad statement about a person or group of people based on a sample of individuals in that group.
Students need to be taught that some beliefs about other cultures, religions, ethnic groups, races, or people with disabilities are false stereotypes. These include beliefs that all members of each group are the same; all members of each group have certain characteristics; and all members of each group behave in certain ways.
Why is inflammatory language potentially harmful?
If you are teaching controversial topics or issues, do not use inflammatory language in your lesson plan. Inflammatory language has the potential to cause harm to your students by causing unnecessary stress, fear, and prejudice.
When students feel stressed, afraid, or prejudiced against someone or something, it can be difficult for them to concentrate on learning material. Students may also act out in negative ways during class time. Using inflammatory language in your lesson plan could lead to disciplinary action against you.
Therefore, when writing your lesson plans, always use respectful and appropriate language for all types of people and organizations that may be included in your lessons.
Use a fair and balanced approach when presenting a controversial issue
Teaching a controversial issue is challenging. If you teach it in a way that is consistent with your own values and beliefs you can be accused of bias. It is easy to fall into the trap of teaching issues in a way that will not offend anyone. The problem with this approach is that it also does not help students become effective critical thinkers. Students are not likely to learn critical thinking skills if they are never challenged to think critically about any issue or idea.
We cannot afford to avoid controversial issues in the classroom.
A fair and balanced approach to teaching controversial issues is not censorship, nor is it "political correctness"—it's just good teaching.
Note that the goal of this technique is not to create controversy or heighten conflict, but rather to help students understand the controversy in a way that helps them understand the issues presented in class. The fact that students may disagree with each other about controversial issues is unavoidable; this technique allows teachers to encourage critical thinking and respectful communication among students as they discuss such issues.
Issues can be controversial because they are sensitive or because they are complex. Sometimes both factors apply. The idea of fairness and balance applies to both types of issues. For example, it may be appropriate to give advanced notice that a sensitive issue will be covered and to offer a chance for students who do not wish to discuss such an issue to opt out of class time spent on it. It may also be appropriate to warn students that their own strongly-held views on a complex issue may need to be revisited and reconsidered as they learn more information about it later in the course.
If the topic is controversial, it might be best to avoid teaching it until late in the course or curriculum. That way you can spend more time on other foundational skills, such as how to:
collect and analyze data
structure arguments logically
think through ethical dilemmas
Then, later, when these skills are well established, you can move into more challenging material that may be less comfortable for students.
If you are still uncomfortable with presenting both sides of an issue, consider whether it would be better to avoid teaching controversial issues altogether. Some topics should be avoided because they are so complex that it is easy for a teacher who is unaware of this complexity to simplify things in ways that are unfair and unbalanced.
As a teacher, it is important that you teach students how to think critically about sensitive topics, while being courteous at all times.
It is important that you teach students how to think critically about sensitive topics, while being courteous at all times. It is also important that you do not teach them to be disrespectful.
Sensitivity and respect are not mutually exclusive. You can be respectful of a person while disagreeing with what they think or say. In fact, if you are truly respectful of a person, you should disagree with them when they are wrong. To do otherwise would be disrespectful.
It's part of your job to help students develop their critical thinking skills by exposing them to controversial issues, opinions and ideas. It's also part of your job to ensure that students learn how to treat people who hold those opinions with decency and respect.
The best way to accomplish both goals is by modeling both sensitivity and respect in the classroom yourself.