Why it matters: Teaching controversial topics


I’m right, and you’re a moron!” There are as many possible routes to public disagreements as there are opinions. Inside the classroom, these routes often unexpectedly result in students and faculty struggling with “anger, fear, and guilt,” and lacking appropriate language skills and perspective to engage “controversial” topics respectfully. Further, controversial topics often elicit sharply divergent viewpoints, with few individuals changing their views over the course of a discussion, semester, or college career. A recent study found in the UC Berkeley Greater Good Magazine concludes that while we certainly experience “barometers” of “moral elevation” as participants in these highly contested debates, the reality is that minds are rarely changed. Thus the goal is to teach students about “caring deeply, seeking to listen rather than change someone’s mind.” 

Following are strategies to use in the moment and resources to delve deeper. The quick “tips” are a listing meant for more immediate responses to difficult conversations in the classroom or independently with students. The “Pathways” link to essays and media resources offer helpful rationales, with learning frameworks, examples of lived experiences, and possible solutions for addressing rhetorical, evidence-based, and behavioral responses. 

See also Political discussions in the classroom for more guidance, do’s and don’ts.

Strategies & tips at-a-glance

  • Validate/Affirm students’ concerns: Validate and affirm your own sense or a student’s concern that an inappropriate or offensive assertion or remark was made. Quickly assess if the comment is a misstatement you can correct or something more inflammatory that needs more intervention or discussion. For example, a student who identifies as another gender is upset that you mistakenly used the incorrect name for them when taking attendance. A quick solution is to apologize and immediately acknowledge your mistake. Explain that their “assumed” name has not been updated on the roster, but that you will make a note for the future. Thank them for their patience and understanding. Not only does this provide a “teachable tool” for other students, it demonstrates “how to” de-escalate a misunderstanding without dismissing legitimate feelings. 
  • Empathy: Practice and showcase empathy: seeking to understand each point as well as expressed points of view. Help students to understand that even in disagreement on an issue there can still be kindness. When possible, share a personal narrative to humanize the subject matter or ask yourself the question posed by Paulo Freire: “Do you know to whom you are speaking?” An example might be how informing someone of the correct spelling or pronunciation of your name is analogous to an appeal made by a  transperson or someone with a disability or English Language Learner (ELL) to be properly identified. Why this request is often seen as confrontational or causes discomfort is worth exploring with students.
  • Differentiate between topic and issue: Differentiate between “topic” (or category of discussion) and “issue” (a matter that erupts, often from the larger topic of discourse). This can be introduced to students as a tool for mediating anger and opening up the discussion.  Examples of topics would be Gun Control or U.S. Incarceration. Issues that flow from each could be communities disproportionately impacted.
  • Collective inquiry: (Also sometimes presented as “Collaborative inquiry,” or “shared knowledge“.) This approach allows faculty to strengthen their craft or “knowledge” and provide a shared vision with students. Examples might be to engage in collective inquiry in a subject just as University health protocols, or to a controversial topic or current event. A framework of collective inquiry helps learners understand how and why these topics are relevant to their lives and how to fairly and impartially address them. For example, introducing students to a collective inquiry approach to a controversial topic can serve to interrupt line-drawing and opinionating and re-focus attention on learning: gathering information, understanding the context and mapping out the controversy.  Essentially, moving back to inquiry and learning, and away from staking out positions. 
  • Shift to small groups: Shift from students listening only to the “teacher” by providing opportunities for them to share ideas, listen carefully to their peers, and practice being open to and respectful of others’ viewpoints. Use small group work to identify what the issues are then create a safe open classroom forum to share solutions. The goal first is to stress “proactive” accountability and recognition of an oversight. Next, encourage students to provide examples of corrective “tools” they use to navigate difficult conversations or inappropriate remarks made by peers.
  • Respectful discourse: Help students build knowledge and respectful discourse skills to facilitate effective participation within the classroom and beyond. Collectively set and follow classroom rules and structures that support respectful and generative discussion, online and off. Ask students to share their suggestions for useful rules. Another strategy is to establish and remind students of “Classroom Citizenship” agreements, what they are, and when those rules or policies have been breached. Inflammatory language, snickering, shouting or exaggerated physical gestures (pointing) can be perceived as rude, threatening, and discourteous.
  • Accountability and reflection: As a takeaway, develop self-accountability through a self-reflective exercise that fosters understanding and civility. First, invite students to reflect personally.  Second, invite students to practice academic reasoning on the topic under discussion, asserting positioning but also supporting statements with evidence and sources.


Gender Pronouns: What are they and Why we use them?

What are gender pronouns? Why they matter and how to use them?  mypronouns.org offers a comprehensive collection of resources and powerful video interviews for understanding pronoun use through the lens of “the trans people and gender nonconforming people whose lives are impacted by pronouns more profoundly than for most.” The website also reminds us that we are all human and that mistakes and misunderstandings will happen. But as with any new subject, self education is key to correction rather than relying on “the subject” of our personal discomfort for context or explanations.

Is Climate Change Real? / STEM Inclusion and Learning

350.org – Embrace experiments & solutions for the discussion of fossil fuels & climate change An international advocacy and activist movement founded by Bill McKibben, 350.org creates a platform for educating and informing communities and business sectors on how to be strategically proactive on such topics as: reducing emissions, carbon footprints and overall harm to the planet. At the same time, they strive for personal, circumspect understanding and presenting evidence-based science on the issues that impact us rather than strident alarms and finger-pointing. 

Climate analytics: BLM_The link between climate change and racial justice Social movements influenced by BLM activism are central to global and local organizing and educating students and communities about climate change and related environmental justice matters. 

Learning clusters for inclusive and antiracist teaching strategies in STEM and Evidence-based Fields

“Unexamined biases in institutional culture can prevent diverse students from thriving and persisting in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Given the daily personal interactions that faculty have with students, we suggest that individual educators have the opportunity, and responsibility, to improve the retention and persistence of diverse students.” —Tess L. Killpack and Laverne C. Melón, Toward inclusive STEM classrooms: What personal role do faculty play?, NCBI

STEM and Inclusion/Angelique Geehan

Critical examination of the role of STEM in propagating and maintaining race and gender disparities

Much more than bones. Insidehighered.com_2022/02/15 An anthropologist at San José State University says she’s being retaliated against for her views on what to do with human remains in research facilities and for her handling of those remains. Her critics question her understanding of the discipline as a whole.


 Ten myths about immigration This list, composed by learningforjustice.org uses evidence-based metrics, historical and socio-cultural narratives and legislative actions to help debunk some of the most common biases. 

Sara Abou Rashed – Syrian raised, war refugee and poet, now living in Ohio. Rashed provides stirring evidence of the power of “mapping identity” and crafting “voice” as an immigrant-American in her Hidden treasures of a refugee’s journey_TED Talk.

Religion / Faith-Based

Religion: How to talk about it properly_Chicago Tribune

“The trick to a good religious conversation is humility, humor and sincerity — applied in the right way” writes Stephen Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago and author of, among other books, “Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism With Red Meat and Whiskey.

Why Are Christians so angry these days?_America: The Jesuit Review  

A practicing clergy speaks to tempering the anger.

Routes to Racial and Social Justice Literacy

In her instructive essay, Why teaching black lives matter, Jamilah Pitts writes, “all educators have the civic responsibility to learn and teach the basic history and tenets of this movement for racial justice.” Her question provides a rhetorical point of entry for responses, and as a thought-piece, provides strategies for teachers navigating “the basic facts about the movement’s central beliefs and practices.” 

Listening:  Paula McVoy a participant in the Teacher’s College webinar series, Hearing the other side of the story suggests “Listening is the key to creating mutual understanding of how we differently experience the world […]. 

Defunding the police pros and cons | Top 3 arguments for and against

Procon.org offers a non-partisan, comparative argument consisting of three pro and con rationales with statistical data on the impact of defunding police departments in the aftermath of events surrounding George Floyd’s violent death.

In a 2017 essay in the New Yorker, “James Baldwin’s lesson for teachers in a time of turmoil,” former high school teacher Clint Smith argues that teachers should help students explore the complexities of their world and consider how they might reshape it.

In a 2018 edition of Social Education, Diana Hess introduces a series of articles, “Teaching controversial issues: An introduction.” The articles below provide teachers with resources and ideas for teaching about topics including immigration and race. “Rethinking immigration as a controversy”