Controversy in the Classroom

by Michael Ernest Sweet

Teaching controversial issues can be an easy way to engage reluctant learners—kids love controversy. But should we be wading into such deep waters as educators? If you believe we should, is there a limit, or is anything fair game in the name of academic freedom?

All teachers come up against controversy, even in subjects like math and science. It is, however, in the social studies classroom where things might become really heated. Did man actually land on the moon? What exactly happened on 911? Has religion been a positive historical influence or a thorn in our side throughout time? These questions, and dozens like them, often pop up in the classroom under quite normal circumstances. The real question here is what we should do when this happens. Move on? Parrot the answer we believe to be safe, or politically correct, or in the curriculum? The right course of action might not always be simple or easy. Here’s my take on things.

I think controversy should be embraced. If we avoid it we are escaping not only the controversy itself, but our duty as teachers. Opening doors to “what if ” and “what could be” or “what could have been” is exactly what we should be doing in our classrooms. Teaching needs to be about the questions and not all about the answers. We should allow students to question anything and everything, and to allow discussion-based teaching to flourish unfettered.

I can hear some of you protesting. You’re thinking that allowing any and all discussion about anything and everything is going to lead to classroom chaos and, perhaps more critically, to misinformation. You’re quite right, it could. The key is to structure the controversial discussion with a few key points in mind:

1. Prepare students - students need to be prepared both mentally and emotionally for heated classroom discussions. Everyone should be ready and willing to embrace disagreement and to do so with grace and dignity. When things become overheated or personal, a time out should be called. This break in the discussion will allow tempers to cool and participants to refocus their discussion on the facts at hand.

2. Maintain academic detachment - both teacher and students should remain detached from the issue and discuss the topic from an objective perspective. There should be no personal investment and certainly no personal hangups. For example, I’m an atheist, but this does not inform my debate regarding whether or not, historically speaking, religion has been a positive or negative on the human condition. My allowing a discussion on the validity of religion is not coming from a place of disbelief, it’s coming from a place of neutral enquiry. If I am, however, to reveal my personal opinion on something it needs to be clearly stated as just that—my personal opinion. I also need to be prepared to support my opinion and be open to having it examined in the classroom.

3. Speak from authority - both teacher and students must speak from a position of authority and back up claims and assertions with evidence and data. This is important when it comes to things such as 911, for example. There are many claims and assertions out there, but how many of them are supported with verifiable evidence? Anyone can say anything these days and easily find a forum for their claims—the Internet has done wonders in this area. Students need to recognize this phenomenon and be able to sift through material which simply does not have any substantiating basis. This skill—of interpreting the validity of Internet materials—is a crucial skill for preparing citizens in the information age. In today’s world something can make it from someone’s mind all the way to publication without any other actual person even having read the material. This is a substantial shift from only a couple of decades ago when virtually all published material was buffered by some type of editorial process.

4. Move beyond certainty - one of the greatest teachable moments in a controversial debate might be to highlight the possibility to multiple truths, or to embrace the realization that not everything is known. Not all debates will have a clear winner or a right answer outcome. This will be very uncomfortable for students in the beginning (and remains so for many adults), however, it is a valuable lesson for responsible citizenship in our modern democracy.

5. Allow students to draw their own informed decisions - and allow the student to own that decision. Students must come to trust the process of judging bias and reliability, and analyzing material in order to arrive at a conclusion or decision. It’s okay to call on students to give reasons for their particular views, but we should not pass judgement on their opinions or conclusions, no matter how absurd or unlikely it may seem to us. The point here is that the students commit to their points of view and any subsequent fallout. This, of course, being another crucial component for active and responsible citizenship in a democracy.

Controversy is not always comfortable, but it is almost always a significant opportunity for teaching some of the most basic democratic citizenship skills. Rather than shy away from heated debate, or the idea of multiple (or inconvenient) truths, seize the moment and watch your students come alive as they debate one another and, most importantly, simply engage!



Michael Ernest Sweet

Michael Ernest Sweet is an award-winning educator, writer and photographer. Michael is a national recipient of both a Prime Minister’s Award and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for significant contributions to the field of education in Canada. He teaches for the English Montreal School Board.

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