Teaching controversial issues when democracy is under attack

Thorpe Creek Elementary first grade teacher Courtney Gibson, center, works with students Maddie Watson and Katherine Sukhanych during class Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 in Fishers. Several teachers are related at the Hamilton Southeastern school. Gibson's sister, Kristi King, also teaches at the school.There Are A Lot Of Family Connections At Thorpe Creek Elementary In Fishers

A new poll released by the Harvard Kennedy School reports that 52% of young Americans believe our democracy is “in trouble” or “failing.” Conflicts over many issues, such as election outcomes, climate change, and police violence against people of color seem intractable.

Political divisions have erupted in education as well. Public discourse in school board meetings on critical race theory, transgender students’ rights, mask and vaccine mandates, and pandemic-related restrictions has become vitriolic. Attacks on critical race theory have driven bans on teaching about systemic racism, sexism, and other politically charged topics.

In this climate, discussion of controversial issues in classrooms seems more fraught than ever, and teachers are understandably fearful to engage. But exploring political questions from multiple perspectives is a cornerstone of democratic education. It cultivates civic reasoning and discourse, which embody the skills, understandings, and habits required of democratic citizens. Furthermore, research shows that discussion of issues in an open classroom climate generates increased political knowledge, interest, and engagement.

Classrooms are typically the only space where young people learn to exchange perspectives with peers from diverse backgrounds, identify credible sources, and weigh evidence to inform their thinking. As one of the authors (Pace) writes in her new book intended for use in teacher preparation and professional development, we know a lot about how to successfully explore controversial issues in classroom settings. In fact, a well-developed set of practices has been advocated by and for educators around the world.

We are former K-12 teachers who are now teacher educators, and we understand that teachers, especially now, are keen to avoid risks that may accompany frank discussions of volatile issues in the classroom. These risks could include loss of classroom control, recriminations from administrators, and attacks from parents and community members, among others. However, controversy often enters the classroom whether or not we plan for it. How are teachers to effectively address controversy during these intensely polarized times?

Teaching controversial issues - A framework for reflective practice

This research-based tool that Pace developed represents an approach to teaching controversial issues known as “contained risk-taking.” It encourages teaching controversy through inquiry and discussion while proactively addressing risks. This framework for reflective practice consists of eight elements:

1) Cultivate a supportive environment

Teachers first get to know their students and create a classroom culture of trust and respect. They spend time learning about their students’ identities and ideas, building group cohesion, and promoting collaborative learning. Their classes collectively establish and practice norms such as active listening, respectful dissent, sensitivity toward others, and evaluation of knowledge sources. These classroom practices are always helpful but are especially critical when charged topics are to be addressed.

2) Select authentic issues

Teachers select issues relevant to their subject matter and make judgments about which are open versus settled. Scholars explain that open issues generate critical examination of multiple perspectives underpinned by legitimate sources of knowledge. Teachers frame questions that generate inquiry and discussion on these perspectives. They start the school year with issues that are less contentious and gradually build to politically and emotionally charged issues. Empirically settled issues—for example, the reality of climate change—need to be studied but not framed as debatable questions.

3) Prepare thoroughly

Mindful lesson planning is essential. Opening up discussions on controversial issues without preparation on the part of teachers (and students) can lead to the reinforcement of uninformed opinions and potential harm. Teachers broaden and deepen their content knowledge on the issues they address to develop a robust purpose, rationale, and goals for lessons. They create developmentally appropriate curriculum based on knowing their students and school communities well.

4) Choose resources and pedagogies

Teachers select rich resources to stimulate thinking and provide entry points to discussion. They choose pedagogical approaches, such as structured discussion activities, that allow many voices to be heard and that align with the discussion issues and students’ identities. If the issue is highly charged and students from specific communities are directly implicated, then we recommend pedagogies aimed at surfacing, understanding, and analyzing different perspectives. If the issue is not highly charged and student identities are not implicated, then we recommend pedagogies such as role play or deliberation – as long as it doesn’t set up a “false equivalence” that normalizes what are plainly ill-informed or offensive viewpoints.

5) Think through teacher stance and roles

Teachers reflect on their own positions, the roles they adopt during discussion, and whether, when, and how to disclose their views. The ultimate purpose is for students to critically examine and discuss different perspectives, develop well-informed views, and understand that additional knowledge may prompt them to change their minds. Teachers take up roles to advance that purpose; for example, if students are stuck in groupthink, they may play devil’s advocate to introduce a competing perspective. Alternatively, if a student is expressing an important minority perspective, they may take up the role of ally. Scholars have deliberated on the question of teachers disclosing their own views. In the current political climate, disclosure is not advisable unless there is a clear and compelling purpose and potential consequences are considered.

6) Guide discussion

Teachers use questioning, discussion formats, and protocols to guide discussions. They facilitate exchanges among students rather than defaulting to teacher-student recitation-style interactions. Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) is a highly effective approach to deliberation. But as we note earlier, if issues are highly charged, implicate student identities, or set up false equivalences, we advise carefully facilitated, exploratory conversations instead of deliberations.

7) Communicate proactively

Teachers transparently communicate their curricular rationales to parents and administrators in advance. They make clear that the goal is not for students to take a particular stance on an issue, but rather to understand multiple perspectives and form their own views. They let students know the controversial issues they will be studying. If stakeholders understand teachers’ thinking behind their curriculum and practice, and lines of communication are open, they are far less likely to feel threatened and criticize them.

8) Addressing emotions

Teachers balance affective and intellectual engagement. They provide a space to process emotions, use de-escalation techniques when needed, and get students to think metacognitively about emotionally entrenched perspectives and social divisions. Teachers anticipate and acknowledge feelings of discomfort that may be part of the learning process, and they are careful not to demonize or alienate students.

A real-world example of teaching controversial issues

An example of the reflective practice framework comes from Pace’s cross-national research. In Northern Ireland (NI), a student-teacher she interviewed, Margaret, described her approach to the political controversy over who should quality for government compensation as a victim of violence during the Troubles—a period of violent conflict that rocked the country for decades during the 20th century. Margaret chose this question because it was debated by the two main political parties in the NI government: the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with roots in the Protestant community and loyalty to Britain; and Sinn Fein, the left-wing party that emerged from the Catholic community and wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. She decided to conduct a deliberation (SAC) after learning it was preferable to debate because it made students take up competing perspectives instead of trying to win a competitive argument.

Margaret prepared by researching the controversy within the Northern Irish Assembly and curating a packet of sources, including proposed legislation and excerpts from a question-and-answer session in which politicians argued over how to define a victim. She gave students a class period to examine the sources and prepare arguments for the deliberation, which took place the following session. For homework, she assigned students to find additional sources that expanded or supported their arguments.

Although the issue was not as emotionally charged for young people, she understood it was difficult for students at her Catholic school to argue on behalf of the DUP. Margaret listened as students expressed their feelings, and she assured the pupils that, while they didn’t have to believe these arguments, it was important to understand them as a source of ongoing division in Northern Ireland. This is just one example of how the contained risk-taking framework can be applied to many different types of issues and topics. It can also be used for situations in which teachers face unexpected controversy in their classrooms.

Schools play a crucial role in strengthening democracy through education, and school leadership also has a role in helping to support teachers when addressing these challenging questions. The framework for teaching controversial issues and related resources offer a sorely needed pathway for educators striving to fulfill their democratic mission while coping with the risks of teaching in our politically polarized reality.

To learn more about the contained risk-taking framework and the research that underpins it, read Pace’s new book, “Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues,” or visit: