Teaching Controversial Issues

The dreaded controversial issue.  In many peoples opinions, any topic that falls under this category is off conversational limits, both in polite society and at work and to some extent even schools.  People don’t want to risk offending anyone, which is a noble intention I suppose, but if we never discussed controversial issues aren’t we just allowing ourselves, as a society, to just follow the crowd?

In education, especially in Social Studies, controversial issues are a great way to develop critical thinking skills, open mindedness, and respect for others.  I remember, during my practicum we discussed different controversial issues and whether it was appropriate to bring them up in the classroom.  One of my peers commented that in his class he would never bring up the topic of religion, because it was impossible not to offend someone.  But, isn’t this the main reason we SHOULD be discussing this in school? How will students learn to be open-minded, and respectful if these issues are not discussed in the classroom? It is of course very important to build up to controversial issues, so that students can learn to discuss them in a way that is beneficial to society rather than harmful.  I usually start by going over the different kinds of perspectives,  impartial versus biased.  When students learn about and understand the different perspectives, they can better understand how to discuss controversial issues and how it is even possible for people to disagree respectfully.

In my class this year, we talked a lot about controversial issues.  I must admit teaching at a religious school makes it “easier” to discuss because for a large part we have the same views on many of these controversial issues.  However, as an educator I think it is important  that students learn about ALL sides, remain open and then in the end the student is able to decide for themselves.  One stereotype that I find annoying, is that religious people are “brainwashed” and unable to “question”.  We are challenged to search for truth, and that is what I encourage my students to do each and every class.

The best intro activity for controversial issues,  I have used so far has been to discuss the different kinds of perspectives.  Students are then encouraged to think-pair-share about it.  The main definitions that we discuss in class.

Impartial Perspective:                                                

  • Open-minded
  • Full-minded
  • Fair-minded

Biased Perspective:

  • Closed-minded
  • One-sided
  • Prejudiced
After we have gone over what each mean, I’ll hand out an activity sheet with different scenarios and students will have to match scenario with perspective.  Another fun addition to the lesson is getting the kids into small groups & having them do short skits where the rest of the class has to guess what perspective they are.  For the rest of the year students will be given opportunities to constantly be checking their own perpective, when we do current events, discuss controversial issues or other new scenarios that we encounter from history. 
I also stress with my students, that being open minded, doesn’t mean you have to accept everything and anything.  In the words of Richard Dawkins “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.”  Being open-minded simply means that you are open to accept new ideas and alter your opinion if you feel better evidence has presented itself.  You are willing to hear someone else’s side, study it, and if you still don’t agree than you “agree to disagree” and that’s okay.

Although complicated and controversial in itself, I believe bringing up controversial issues with your students and developing critical thinkers is one of the most important tasks of the Social Studies teacher.

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