Some topics invite more discussion than others and even conflict.
This is actually good for discussion, that students have strong opinions on the topic and that they are willing to engage in defending their ideas. However, just because an issue is controversial and a discussion heated and even emotional does not mean it is a good discussion. A discussion should evoke interest and willingness to engage, but students also have to be willing to listen to other students and consider the logic of their own opinions as well as their challenges and responses to others.
6 Methods for Avoiding Pitfalls Choosing Topics for Discussion
Careful Choice of Topics. Enlist Student Help
Begin by asking students what they’d like to talk and write about over the course of the term. A few students might venture a few topics that are popular in the current discourse, such as bullying and immigration legislation. The instructor can offer guidance by asking what can be discussed about the topic, if everyone is likely to agree or disagree on the topic—for example, most people will be able to agree bullying is bad, so it seems like it may not be much of a controversial topic, but there are differences in opinion on what exactly bullying is, what behavior might be considered bullying, and how we should address it, so there are topics for discussion. The point is that a topic has to be somewhat “controversial” and have room for disagreements so that a discussion beyond “good point; I agree” can take place.
Add That topic That “No One Wants to Talk About”
Force students out of their comfort zones. Students may be fall back on the topics that have little room for disagreement and are relatively safe, such as a topic like “bullying” often is, if handled superficially—what reasonable person is going to say that there are positive aspects to bullying? If students are only approaching topics in a very superficial manner like this, the teacher can step in and suggest some likely topics. Often it depends on the area and “culture” of the place the school is located in to determine what issues are “controversial.” In one college where I’ve taught, in a rural area of northern California, controversial topics surround issues of water rights, gun ownership liberties, and animal cruelty and protection issues. Specifically, students often disagree on where personal liberty leaves off and societal responsibility steps in, such as how societal responsibility and protection of society must be balanced against an individual right to own a gun or a potentially vicious animal. These topics are of interest to the students because they are not so far removed in this area from the Wild West, in its location and only two hundred years in time. Students often have strong feelings on the topics of gun rights that they would not often feel comfortable raising in class, but this is one reason they should be raised.
Agree to some basic ground rules on courtesy. Students may not yell at each other, lapse into sullen silence, stalk out of the room, and so forth. They must listen with courtesy and not interrupt. These seem basic principles, but it is surprising how often they are violated. Failing to observe common courtesy may result in being asked to leave class for a day and losing points that may not be made up.
Beyond “the Ground Rules”
Basic rules of courtesy, however, are not enough for a good class discussion. Students must go above and beyond mere courtesy and actually work at engaging each other through, first, active listening. This requires more than just nodding and saying “uh-huh” occasionally but also asking for clarification or elaboration of a point when needed. Also required is more than just stating whether you agree or disagree with a peer or with the topic of discussion but really engaging with the topic and being able to give reasons for your position and then supporting your reasons with personal experience and/or research. Engagement with the topic and with one’s peers beyond the superficial and “basic courtesy” is required for full credit in discussion.
Students Must Inform Themselves
A lot of the problem of controversial topics is that lack of understanding or knowledge of the basic concepts of that topic and/or misconceptions about its basic premises. Therefore, the discussion can easily devolve into an emotional, “received” opinion, opinion that has been passed down, like a family heirloom, and taken on faith. Students must inform themselves on all sides of the debate. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is this kind of “received” opinion that students repeat without much analysis. Further research on the topic and its issues is necessary—students often have not even read the text of the Second Amendment, for example, which is the basis of the right to own a gun in the United States.
More beyond Basic “Courtesy”
Students may not subject a quieter peer to “benign neglect.” While it is the student’s individual responsibility to contribute to the discussion, if someone in the group is not contributing, it becomes also the responsibility of her peers not to just ignore her but to encourage her to speak by directly asking her thoughts, if she would agree or disagree with the topic, if she has a relevant experience to add, etc. Because some students come to discussion group unsure of or uncomfortable about participating, especially if the topic is controversial and the student has been taught that “such things are not discussed in polite company,” it becomes the collective responsibility of the group to mentor the hesitant student in contributing for the sake of the individual student and well-being of the group as a whole.
Group discussions can be difficult to guide, especially if the topic is deemed “controversial.” However, almost by definition, “controversial” topics are really the only ones worth discussing as there is little point is talking about a “safe” topic everyone already agrees on. It may take most of the semester, but through learning he ground rules and beyond for engaging with each other as well as thoroughly researching their topics, students can hold surprisingly good discussions using a set of skills that will serve them throughout college and beyond.
What are your methods for managing discussion of controversial topics?
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