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Dealing With Controversial Subjects

It is all but impossible to avoid controversial subjects or topics. And there is a wide range of opinions on how to handle things when they come up. Having a plan in place ahead of time can help.

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Handling Sensitive and Controversial Issues

The authors of this British site feel that controversial topics will come up -- they can be found in some curricula -- and they should be tackled head on. They feel students "should not be sheltered from difficult issues – it is important for them to clarify their emotions and values and learn to think for themselves. ... Additionally, using controversial issues helps young people to develop a number of skills, including inquiry, critical thinking and analytical skills." The site provides concrete guidelines and ideas for how to handle these topics in the classroom.

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Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics

Topics come up out of the blue, and an immediate response is usually called for. This article from the University of Michigan suggests taking these 3 steps..

  • Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
  • Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.

If students want to have a dialogue, but you want to wait, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students can prepare.

This article suggests additional steps when discussing controversial topics, including...

  • Identifying a clear purpose
  • Establishing ground rules
  • Providing a common base for understanding
  • Summarizing discussion and gathering student feedback
  • Handling issues that involve the instructor's identity
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Teaching Controversial Issues & Critical Thinking: Evidence of Importance & Outcomes

This post looks at some of the outcomes when dealing with controversial issues in the classroom. Some of the takeaways include:

  • 93% of higher education faculty believe critical thinking is an essential learning outcome.
  • Critical thinking is considered the second most important life skill after interpersonal skill.
  • Studying and debating controversial topics in school helps increase student attention, motivation, achievement, creativity, and self-esteem.
  • Controversial issue assignments increase critical thinking skills and appreciation of cultural diversity.
  • Teaching controversial topics helps students develop non-violent strategies for dealing with conflict.
  • Students who debate controversial issues in school are more likely to be engaged and active citizens.
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Teaching Controversial Topics

These workshop notes from Carilton College looks at the some of the issues surrounding controversial topics -- pre-held beliefs, biases and stereotypes, and all or nothing attitudes -- and how to deal with them.

Includes details and strategies on teaching evolution and environmental issues.

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Dealing with Controversial Issues

The Annenberg Foundation's encourages teachers to use past controversies to teach students how to see different points of view, separate fact from opinion, and develop skills for dealing with controversial subjects.

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ProCon's goal is to promote "critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan, and primarily pro-con format."

They have an extensive set of free resources, including lesson plans, critical thinking how-to's, and critical thinking quotes.

It's always a good idea to check with your principal or administrator to see what the school's policy is regarding controversial topics.

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