Controversy in the Classroom

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 -- Scott Sterling

Problem: A student, out of genuine interest, brings up a controversial topic you would have rather avoided. For example, the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Suddenly, the lesson is derailed (especially if you teach an unrelated subject area, like math). Valuable time is spent making sure the students don’t get in a shouting match rather than accomplishing your learning goals.

Solution: We’ve been conditioned, in today’s politically correct climate, to avoid controversy. That mindset is ignoring a potentially valuable learning opportunity. Controversy simply means people have varying opinions, which is healthy and is how progress is made in society. Harnessing it can help teach students valuable interpersonal and conative skills. Here’s how you do it:

▪ Don’t entertain unimportant issues
▪ Establish a time limit
▪ Refresh linguistic communication skills
▪ Focus on being able to see varying perspectives
▪ You won’t solve the issue

Don’t entertain unimportant issues

There are issues that are full of teachable moments, like Ferguson, and then there are interpersonal controversies that will spill into your room from other classrooms or lunch. For example, so and so said something about someone else or a couple broke up. Firmly nip these in the bud. Those are best handled by parents or guidance counselors (or, if serious, administration). Don’t waste your time. Move people from their normal seats if needed.

Establish a time limit

This is especially important for subjects unrelated to the issue at hand. If an important, and potentially historic, topic comes up, allow it. But give the students a time limit right from the start—no more than 10 minutes. Then they will know that this isn’t a blank check to get out of work for the day.

Refresh linguistic communication skills

Take this opportunity to remind students about the civil, effective communication skills that they have learned in other classes. These skills actually make quite a few appearances in the Common Core and other new standards, so they are worth spending time on. If you have to, write rudimentary respect rules on the board.

Focus on being able to see varying perspectives

In particular, the new standards require what are called “conative skills”, the interpersonal skills that make someone a valuable college student and professional. One of these is the ability to see various perspectives on a problem or issue. In guiding the discussion, point out those perspectives and model the appropriate consideration of those viewpoints.

You won’t solve the issue in class

Make sure students understand that a resolution to complex issues, like race relations or gun rights, will not be accomplished in your class. No one will win or lose. People might not even be persuaded to think differently. The purpose of people talking about these things is so they can learn more from—and about—each other.