Communication Skills

Productive Classroom Debates on Sensitive Topics

When teachers keep their own views in the background, they can guide students to explore their different views with empathy and respect.

June 4, 2021
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy

With so many recent high-profile and polarizing current events, teachers have been making decisions about what to address and how to cover civics and current events in the classroom. Further, with recent district, state, and federal debates over civics, patriotic education, and critical race theory, educators may have to censor their words and class dialogue or be subject to parental and administrative backlash due to the political nature of the class discussions.

Let’s begin with one hard truth: Teaching is political and we all have biases that influence our practice. Further, every textbook, worksheet, and app is written or edited by people who hold political beliefs or ideologies that may influence their work. Daily campus decisions like mask wearing, how to teach science, whose stories are represented, and even whether or not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance are arguably influenced by politics. So how can we navigate political questions as they arise to make sure that everyone’s voice is represented and respected?

Keeping Your Politics in the Background

Teaching is political, but teaching can also be nonpartisan. You can navigate difficult classroom discussions and help students examine diverse perspectives to draw their own conclusions. To reduce the risk of bringing your personal views into class discussions, try to do the following three things.

1. Recognize that your ideological beliefs are not hard facts: When you acknowledge that what you believe is only one possibility in a realm of many, you’re making room to accept the validity of the beliefs of others. The best way to do that is to learn about cognitive bias and how it affects our thought processes. So far, social scientists have labeled 188 different biases, and understanding and combating the most common of them can help you guide discussions neutrally when discussing potentially divisive content in the classroom.

2. Familiarize yourself with diverse points of view through the media: If you can understand a topic from various sides, you’re more likely to accept and empathize with students and staff who don’t share your beliefs. You’ll also be inclined to create a more fact-based, less emotional foundation for discussion.

Explore other perspectives using sites like AllSidesMedia. You can also examine American news through the eyes of the world on Watching America, a website that translates foreign coverage of U.S. news into English. The enlightenment that comes with finding out that others have a very different view of us than we do of ourselves can be instrumental in helping us identify our biases and see our cognitive processes through a different lens.

3. Study (and pop) your filter bubble: You’ve probably noticed those sneakers you left in a website shopping cart keep popping up in ads, but you may not know that your browser and social media feeds do the same thing with whatever content you read and share. Your news and social media feeds use algorithms to literally feed you more of whatever you click on, and then, naturally, seeing is believing.

To learn more, read Shane Parrish’s Cliffs Notes-esque blog or just go looking for content you might not follow. Then, consider using tech tools like the MIT-developed Chrome extension FlipFeed or BeeLine Reader’s Read Across The Aisle, a “Fitbit for your filter bubble,” to widen your perspective. These apps can make you more attuned to how likely you are to see your point of view as fact and how likely you are to miss the influence of your cognitive biases.

Bringing Student Voice to the Foreground

Once you work on your own awareness so that you can speak as a knowledgeable, neutral professional with understanding of and respect for various sides of any historical or current event, you’re ready to teach your students the same skills.

1. Lay a strong foundation for empathy and respect: “You can begin early in the school year by providing your kids with vocabulary words appropriate to their grade level” using tools like the CASEL 5 and Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, says Jorge Valenzuela. If you foster an empathetic, respectful class culture and teaching students to appropriately express their emotions, not only will the stage be set for civil discourse but students will be better able to collaborate and navigate everyday stressors.

2. Explicitly teach civil disagreement: This can be a part of every content and grade level. Begin with low-stakes “this or that” debates like pancakes vs. waffles or salty vs. sweet. Move on to have students argue for the other side—the view they don’t agree with—explicitly teaching them to use “I feel…,” “I read…,” and “I think…” sentence stems to disagree in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t include name calling or inflammatory language.

3. Plan and practice temperature control: If your classroom discussion starts to get heated and students are agitated, stop the conversation and use the time for journaling—setting the same expectations for respectful communication. Alternately, you can use mindfulness exercises like those from Calm, Flocabulary, or Mindfulness for Teens, which have options to use as you lay your foundation before discussions and tense classroom moments ever happen.

Finally, let parents know that students will be learning to disagree respectfully in your class and that divisive topics may come up. Let them know that your position is not to present any particular viewpoint to students, but to give them room to think, learn, reflect, and disagree. As long as you’re being a neutral party to discussions largely led and carried by students, their parents—and our society—can be grateful for your investment in tomorrow’s citizens.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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