Teacher Op-Ed: Creating a Safe Space for Teaching Science in a Divided World

[Editor’s Note: This blog post is being shared anonymously by a high school science teacher in the Midwest.]

It happens every year. I teach evolution, and I feel as though I am walking on eggshells the whole time. You see, I teach in an area that is rural and mostly conservative, and I know that evolution can be a very controversial topic for some people. The last thing I want is to jeopardize my job or have to design an alternative curriculum for a student whose parents are not going to allow their child to be taught about evolution.

I always begin the unit by trying to soften the topic and explaining that I am not on a mission to change anyone’s views on evolution. The test will not ask if students believe in evolution—they just have to be able to comprehend the subject and answer questions on it. After all, evolution is on the state test.

I also begin every year by hearing a student inform me and the rest of the class, “We didn’t used to be monkeys!” And I quickly agree with that student! Because that statement shows that the student already has misconceptions about evolution, this is my chance to help guide the student towards better understanding of the science. I explain that, no, we were never monkeys, but we instead share a common ancestor with them. I ask who has heard of the so-called “missing link” and then explain that is the common ancestor that we seek to identify. This usually gets the students interested, and after this initial conversation, they have always been more willing to learn about evolution.

Evolution is not the only controversial topic a teacher must tackle; it seems that the list goes on and on. I had a friend contact me about the recent national student climate-change walkout. She asked how it went. I told her it did not go anywhere! I do not think the students in my building even knew the event was taking place. Why? They’ve already been told that climate change is a hoax or that it is not caused by humans. This makes it extremely difficult to teach such a topic. How can we as teachers open our students’ eyes to scientific facts without losing our jobs or upsetting parents to the point that they are contacting the superintendent or school board?

The answer? Very gently.

Discussing Sensitive Topics in the Classroom

The number one thing that can change a person’s mind (once we have gotten them to open it up) is factual information. I spoke with several colleagues who also teach controversial topics in their disciplines, and the consensus was that presenting the facts is the best method for opening students’ eyes. It is important to present a set of well-rounded, scientific, evidence-based facts so students can process that information and build their own opinions based on this factual knowledge.

We do not want to seem biased, so it is best to present as much information about the issue as possible so that students may think, critically analyze the topic, and draw their own conclusions. If we only present a small piece of the argument or our own opinions, the students may immediately feel defensive and think that our main goal is just to convince them that they are wrong. Instead, we must work to create an environment where students feel comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions while being respectful of others who may not agree with them. If we present the various views and invite a healthy debate, students will often come to their own fact-based conclusion without being told what the correct answer is. This is also helpful in building empathy and the critical thinking skills that our young people will need in their adult lives.

As we have a healthy debate based on the presentation of facts, it is best to remove as much emotion as possible from the discussion. Controversial topics exist because people feel passionately about one opinion or the other; they are emotionally invested in proving their point. But, have you ever tried to enlighten someone with new factual information when they are emotionally tied their own opinion, which was based on old information? This is not an easy task. And it is even more difficult if the person feels you are just trying to convince them they are wrong. It is best if we ask our students, as well as ourselves, to set aside emotional attachment to controversial issues and examine the most recent scientific research or data available. If we open our minds, we can all learn something new or see things from a new perspective. Most teachers will easily admit that they learn a lot from their students; this is a golden opportunity to listen to them. 

While a healthy debate and presentation of the facts from all sides are important, the most critical component is respect. In order to foster the honest scrutiny of the facts, arguments, and opinions presented, students must feel safe. They must know that the rest of the class is not going to go against them and say derogatory things to them just because they express different ideas and opinions. No student wants to be embarrassed in class or be the odd person who stands alone, but students who feel safe in their environment are more likely to express their opinions or offer a new perspective to the class. This takes consistency, but it is worth the effort.

I once had a student who would make negative comments about one political party. I stopped him every time and told him that we would gladly have an intelligent discussion about any topic he wanted, but I would not permit him to just make blanket statements about large groups of people. I asked him if he knew every member of this group personally and, when he said no, I asked him how his assessment of them all in one statement could be anywhere near accurate. He really did not have an answer to my question, just replying that he did not like this particular group. I repeated my request for him to avoid making blanket statements about groups of people. He did not do it again in my class after that day. I like to believe that he finally came to understand my point.

When tough topics come up in your class, stand by these practices:

  • Be respectful of your students.
  • Stick to the facts—scientific, evidence-based facts.
  • Create a safe environment.
  • Examine the issue from all angles.
  • Set emotions aside.

Teaching controversial issues in today’s hyper-political climate is not going to get any easier any time soon. In the meantime, we teachers have to find ways to teach our students, keep our jobs, and open students’ eyes all at the same time. Many of our students come to school with preconceived notions they have learned at home—some of which are accurate, some of which are not. Our job is to foster critical, independent thinking in our students and help them practice having respectful discussions while working with people who have different opinions or ideas. As adults, we are well aware that our students will likely go on to diverse workplaces and that their success depends on them being able to work with others who have different perspectives on issues while respecting and embracing those differences. These young people are the leaders of tomorrow, and these are skills we want them to have in the future. It is our job to make sure they are prepared.

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Learns about HMH's K–12 science programs, which are designed to encourage student-directed learning and deeper understanding of concepts.

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