Teacher’s Guide

A Note on Teaching Controversial Topics

Constructive discussions of controversial topics like the death penalty can build an array of life skills—a respect for civil discourse, an understanding of how laws are made and amended, and the ability to think metacognitively about how opinions and biases are formed. But discussing controversial topics also presents unique challenges for teachers and students alike. Following these five general rules can help your lessons run smoothly and effectively:

  1. Scaffold appropriately.  Too often, teachers treat controversial topics as though they are “just another unit.” Take time to prepare students for what is to come. If you plan on holding a class debate or town hall simulation, make sure to practice those strategies. If you plan on culminating the unit with a letter-writing campaign to legislators, make sure students understand how state and federal laws are made, and what impact they can expect their letters to have. If you’re concerned about discussions getting heated, create and consistently enforce ground rules throughout the year.
  1. Use primary sources whenever possible.  Primary sources—firsthand accounts of historical events— are crucial for exploring controversial topics. Primary sources force students to confront the opinions, feelings, and biases of people in the past, as well as the circumstances that gave rise to them. More importantly, a wealth of primary sources exists to support both sides of any given issue. Supplying students with firsthand arguments both for and against the death penalty, for example, destabilizes the idea of a “right answer” and forces them to critically weigh evidence and draw their own conclusions.
  1. Allow students to discuss, debate, and reflect upon their opinions.  Make sure that your unit includes space for students to discuss their feelings and opinions with one another, including space for disagreement and debate, and the opportunity for students to change their opinion. Most importantly, students must be given time to reflect on their opinions: What is their conclusion about this issue? How did they arrive at it? What evidence was most important? What are they still unsure about? Answering such questions not only deepens student understanding of the topic at hand; it also forces them to critically examine and re-examine their own beliefs and reinforces the need to justify their conclusions with evidence.
  1. Create an atmosphere of respect.  Your classroom must be a space in which every student can feel free to express his or her opinion, as long as it is stated respectfully and backed by evidence. Above all else, keep in mind that some of your students may have a personal stake in the topic you’re discussing. In the case of capital punishment, some may have a friend or relative in prison, or may have experience with the corrections system themselves; others may know, or may themselves have been, victims of violence. If students feel comfortable sharing such experiences with the group, encourage them to do so, validate them for having the courage to share, and make sure their stories are treated with sensitivity and respect by their classmates.
  1. Make learning relevant.  To carry learning forward, culminate your lesson or unit with an action project that provides students a way to act on their opinions. A letter-writing campaign is the simplest version of this, but many legislators are also open to face-to-face meetings with school groups. Similarly, you might ask representatives of nonprofit and advocacy groups to meet with your students and show them how to get more involved. Acting on their learning helps deepen understanding by connecting the abstract to the concrete, and offers students a chance to hone their skills in critical thinking and citizenship—skills they can use for a lifetime.

Explore discussion ideas and activities designed for the following subject areas: English Language ArtsSocial Studies, and Theater.

~ John Gieger and David Bates, College of Education, DePaul University