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:
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