Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion

Many instructors consciously avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions. However, controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. Research has demonstrated that conflict or controversy during classroom discussion can promote cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. The links in this section offer guidance for how instructors can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics.

Making the Most of Hot Moments in the Classroom (CRLT)

CRLT developed this brief handout to offer instructors ways to make the most of "hot moments" as learning opportunities. It includes specific strategies to prepare for, respond to, and follow up after eruptions of tension or conflict in the classroom. 

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom (Warren, 2000)

The challenges of dealing with “hot moments” are 1) to manage ourselves so as to make them useful and 2) to find the teaching opportunities to help students learn in and from the moment. This resource suggests tips for instructors faced with hot moments in the classroom.

CRLT Discussion Guidelines

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) routinely develops guidelines to help instructors facilitate classroom discussion when controversial or tragic incidents become foremost in students' minds. Topics include Affirmative Action, the War in Iraq, and Racial Conflict, among others.

Tactics for Effective Questioning (Stanford University)

This posting on tactics for effective questioning is adapted from Tools for Teaching, a book by Barbara Gross Davis, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, University of California, Berkeley.

Why Teach Controversial Issues? (Flinders University, Australia)

This site discusses the characteristics of controversial issues and benefits of addressing them in the classroom; also includes four strategies for discussing controversial issues.

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