5 Ways to Teach Controversial Issues in Class

Controversy in the classroom isn’t new. If you were teaching in the 1960s during the Vietnam War era or the 1980s when affirmative action was first introduced, you would have faced controversial topics, such as “Should the U.S. be fighting the Vietnam War?” or “Should affirmative action be used in college admissions?” There’s always been controversy in the classroom. However, the approach teachers use to address and teach it is continuously evolving. Also, what’s considered controversial may change and depend on the political climate.

Dr. Erin Fouberg, co-author of Human Geography for the AP® Course, hosted a webinar in 2020 entitled Discussing Controversial Topics in Your High School Class. She equipped educators with tools and techniques for discussing and teaching controversial topics with their students. Read on to learn why it’s essential to teach controversial issues and ways you can teach them to students with diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

What Qualifies an Issue as Controversial?

Almost anything these days can be thought of as controversial. However, not everything is, in fact, controversial. Here are a couple of key indicators Fouberg says will determine if an issue is legitimately controversial:

  • Legitimate differences of opinion around the issue by knowledgeable people qualify it as controversial. Whether or not Earth is flat isn’t a contentious issue, for example, since knowledgeable people know the Earth isn’t flat despite the ongoing conspiracy theory.
  • The issue must matter to members of the public. The viral internet sensation known as “The Dress” from 2015 isn’t a controversial issue since it doesn’t truly matter in terms of civics, governance, or justice.

Tip: Have your students come up with three issues that they consider controversial. Then, depending on the answers they provide, explain to them why the issues they share are—or are not—controversial.

Why Should You Teach Controversial Issues in Class?

Students have a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs that are both their own and highly influenced by their family and community. They might cling closely to their family’s views, find themselves often swayed by the internet and social media, or possibly live inside neighborhoods consisting of segregated groups of people with similar thought patterns and ways of living.

Fouberg believes that exposing students to other viewpoints outside of what they know is essential. Students’ knowledge, thinking, and ways of processing information can change in your classroom. Students should wrestle with complicated ideas, including ones they’ve never thought about before. They should become comfortable in not knowing how to solve complex issues while seeking meaning in what they’re learning and thinking about ideas from multiple points of view.

Teaching controversial issues also helps students learn to think geographically, according to Fouberg, which builds more complex structures in their brains to process and think about information. By having students learn and understand geographic concepts, not just memorize terms, they can then engage in these controversial conversations.

5 Ways You Can Teach Controversial Issues

Fouberg offers insight into how to address and teach controversial issues in class. Her five techniques will ensure more meaningful discussions:

1. Use first-person narratives, such as interviews, documentaries, and documents.

Students may encounter perspectives they’re not comfortable thinking about. But you should encourage them, even through the discomfort. Using first-person narratives allows you to introduce subject matters to your students that may be difficult to discuss any other way. This technique can crystallize issues for students, with images helping them remember what they consume. Using authentic accounts can also save educators from falling into a “preaching” mode, which is essential for human geography because of how easily the subject can invoke personal passions. First-person accounts can also add credibility to topics.

2. Start with concepts and direct discussion.

Explain concepts first. Keep bringing discussions about controversial topics back to the concept. What geographic concepts are your students using to talk about a controversial issue? What evidence are they applying to support their arguments, for example first-person narratives or documentaries? After understanding concepts, students can then apply them to a controversial issue rather than focus only on opinions.

3. Give students space to experiment with geographic concepts and apply them to real issues.

Students often learn by first hearing a concept’s definition and then applying it. To really make this process work, you must personalize the concept and somehow apply it to their worlds. Here’s an activity Fouberg gives to help personalize a concept using cultural landscape:

  • Ask students to go for a walk around their school or neighborhood. Then, have them find something in the cultural landscape with a visible human imprint and have them try to determine why it’s there. Afterward, have them share what they discover. This powerful activity gets students thinking about cultural landscapes.

Think of other activities your class can partake in to help personalize other geographic concepts, such as authenticity, the commodification of culture, public memory, iconography, activity and residential segregation, or activity spaces. Come up with ways these activities can also help them retain the information they learn in class, think geographically, and process the world around them by attaching the information they learn to real life. Students need both the understanding of concepts and real-world application.

4. Change the geography—region or scale—to help students process a controversial issue in the abstract.

Change the geography, either region or scale, of the example you are using to allow students to process the concept in a place where it doesn’t feel too personal. For example, you may not want to talk immediately about the Confederate battle flag directly, given the opinions some students may already have. Instead, explore the meaning of a flag that represented the losing side of a different civil war. Or, examine other flags that have strong associations with a particular ideology.

In general, look for topics that aren’t personal or not too big of an issue to your students and their communities. After discussing those indirect issues, weave in the controversial topic you intend to approach. This technique arms your students with all the geographic concepts they can use beforehand for a richer discussion that uses evidence rather than opinions and feelings.

5. Give students time to read or watch materials in class before a discussion.

It’s impossible to teach about human geography without introducing newspaper articles, speeches, and other contemporaneous writings, images, and videos! Provide students with access to reputable news sources, such as NPR, the Associated Press, CBS News, the New York Times, and the like. Here you have an opportunity to ensure class begins with all students on equal footing.

Set aside 5–15 minutes at the beginning of class to give all students a chance to read material or watch a video right before in-class discussions. This allows them to have a meaningful analysis and discussion using geographic thinking and concepts. Plus, the material will be fresher in their minds.

Setting aside 5–15 minutes to give students time to read material keeps crucial details fresh in their minds while also allowing for a rich discussion using geographic thinking and concepts.

Continue to Encourage Effective Deliberation

Controversial issues aren’t going away. Your students will encounter these issues throughout their lives. Therefore, continue to address and teach controversial issues in your classroom, and encourage your students to engage in thought-provoking conversations. Watch Fouberg’s full webinar for tips on how to frame a controversial topic in class and have a thoughtful, evidence-based discourse with your students.

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Prepare your students for the AP® Human Geography exam with our prep guide that introduces specific strategies and tips.


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