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You Want to Teach What?

How preservice teachers learn to address controversy and prepare students for democracy

February 2, 2022
Controversial Issues Infographic

Many teachers worry about bringing controversy into the classroom because it could spark conflict between students or result in reproaches from administrators or parents, but addressing and thinking through divisive issues is necessary for children who are learning to live, participate, and empathize with diverse perspectives in a democracy.

University of San Francisco professor Judy Pace, an alum of Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied the predicaments and possibilities of tackling charged topics in class. In her recent book, Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues, she explores how preservice programs prepare teachers to include controversial issues in their teaching

What Is a Controversial Issue?

Importantly, Pace notes that controversial issues are not the same as controversial topics, which are polarizing subjects that some stakeholders argue should not be taught. Instead, controversial issues “have to do with open questions that are significant in terms of society or the past on which it is important to explore different perspectives that have legitimate sources of information,” says Pace. “We’re not talking about something like, ‘Do humans contribute to climate change?’ because that’s a settled question.” For example, open questions that introduce controversial issues and promote critical thinking could range from, “Should we lower the voting age?” to “What kinds of reparations should be paid to the descendants of enslaved people?”

Preparing Teachers for Controversy in Classrooms

Of course, generating these kinds of questions and leading students through open and fair discussions requires skilled teachers. To better understand how educators learn to teach controversial issues, Pace conducted a series of interviews with and observations of four teacher educators — instructors who teach people how to be teachers — and 15 preservice teachers in three different countries including the United States, Northern Ireland, and England.  

While the preservice teachers often worried about the risks associated with teaching controversial issues, Pace noted that the teacher educators acknowledged these anxieties and taught specific strategies to help address these concerns, rather than ignoring them. “In these methods courses, [teacher educators] encouraged [preservice] teachers to explore controversial issues using a variety of pedagogical approaches” that contained the risks, says Pace. Preservice teachers, she found, were often able to adapt the strategies they learned to fit their teaching contexts and their own identities as teachers. “I think [contained risk-taking] provides a way forward in this incredibly contentious political climate we’re trying to navigate.”

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Controversial issues "have to do with open questions that are significant in terms of society or the past on which it is important to explore different perspectives that have legitimate sources of information. We’re not talking about something like, ‘do humans contribute to climate change?’ because that’s a settled question.”

Here, Pace provides a few instructional resources, strategies, and practices educators can use when teaching controversial issues:

  • Know your students and understand the community. “I’d hope every teacher from day one would start developing a culture of trust and respect,” says Pace. A supportive environment provides a foundation for a classroom where students feel they can express themselves and explore ideas. Drawing on existing research, Pace recommends teachers use preliminary surveys to get to know where students stand on issues and what issues they care most about to prepare for discussions and know what voices and perspectives to bring into the conversation.
  • Communicate clearly. Teachers should be transparent about their rationale for teaching a particular issue and explain how they’re approaching it — the goal is not to get students to adopt a particular stance but to get them to think critically. Parents and administrators should also have an awareness of what’s going on. “I think when teachers are transparent about why and how they’re doing this and keep the lines of communication open, that makes people feel less threatened and less likely to jump to conclusions about what’s going on in the classroom,” says Pace.
  • Be thoughtful when selecting issues. Again, controversial issues are not the same as controversial topics. They should be related to the curriculum, draw from valid information sources, and should be framed as open questions. Additionally, teachers shouldn’t lead with the most charged discussions but gradually build up student capacity for these issues as the year progresses. Resources like Civic Online Reasoning can help.
  • Guide the discussion using appropriate strategies. Consider your role as a teacher. Will you step in to play devil’s advocate if the class is showing signs of groupthink or jump in as an ally? Will you disclose your own stance? Consider the format of the discussion as well. Discussion formats, thinking routines, and learning strategies help provide structure so conversations don’t go too far off the rails, ensure students listen to one another, use reliable sources, and consider different perspectives and ideas. These formats include protocols like:
    • Structured academic controversy, where students take turns understanding different perspectives presented by sources before coming to a compromise or consensus.
    • Town hall meetings, where groups of students present differing viewpoints and then answer questions before reflecting on their own position.
    • Walking debates, where students physically identify whether they agree or disagree with a particular statement before discussing.
  • Leave room to reflect. Try to leave time, if not at the end of the class at the end of the week, for students to address emotions, reflect, and debrief. Use writing as a vehicle for individual reflection. This is beneficial not just for students but for teachers as well. Teachers should also find colleagues they can process and reflect with. Additionally, be aware of your own limitations, blind spots, or biases. Actively seek out professional development to provide additional support and to build facilitation skills.

More on teaching controversies from Pace's website. 

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