Controversial topics make many teachers want to run away from the curriculum screaming, but for ESL teachers, they offer an unequaled opportunity to foster discussion in the classroom. This is largely because the right thought-provoking topic can spark an interest in middle school, high school, and even adult students to participate and motivate them to push their language skills.
Though you may feel uneasy about the minefield that some controversial topics can present, choosing the right one for your class can turn your lessons into a vibrant discussion center. We've provided a list of classroom-friendly topics as well as strategies so that you can make controversial topics a teaching triumph rather than a classroom catastrophe.
How to Teach Controversial Topics
Introducing the Topic
Before giving students any materials supporting one side or the other about a controversial topic, it's important to set some ground rules. Debates on controversial topics can get quite heated so students need to be reminded that in order for a discussion to run smoothly, there should be no name-calling or insults directed at each other, students need to respect the other person's point of view even if they don't agree with it, and they need to allow people to express their points of view without interruption.
The next step is to introduce the topic and ask your class what they already know about it. This is only the first of many opportunities for discussion in your class. If you are teaching adults, you may be surprised at the experience your students may already have with a given issue. Also, letting students volunteer information may give you a heads up that they could have deep personal connections to the topic or it might be out of their frame of reference.
Present Both Sides of the Issue
As the facilitator of the debate, you'll move from introducing the topic to then providing insights into both sides of the argument. Though you almost certainly agree or disagree with a controversial issue, leading a unit on a touchy subject requires the teacher to be the moderator and set an example of how to respectfully communicate thoughts and opinions. As such, it is your responsibility to present both sides of the issue no matter where your opinions lie. This will also give your students a starting point that will help them establish whether they're for or against the particular topic you're debating.
You can present both sides by giving students two separate selections, each supporting the opposite opinion, or by presenting material that covers both points of view in one piece. This is the perfect opportunity to initiate discussion as to why the topic is controversial in the first place - why might a student disagree with another? From here, make sure your students understand the issue, the problems connected with it, and any unfamiliar vocabulary they may encounter.
After presenting both sides of the issue and making sure students understand the controversy, give small groups of students an opportunity to discuss the arguments each side presents. To add an extra level of learning and practice, students can fill in a debate planner like this one to help them organize their thoughts, key vocabulary, and stances.
They will be sure to offer their own opinions, perhaps vehemently, and you should not pressure them with discussion as an entire class. As students talk about the issue, they will be able to help each other further understand the arguments posed by each side. Just be sure that all groups are allowing free expression from everyone. You may have to step in if one or two students are being bullied by opposing opinions. You want all your students to feel free to speak and express themselves even if their opinion is the minority. Remember, you are the facilitator.
Express Your Own Opinion
After introducing both sides of the issue and allowing students to discuss their opinions, now is your opportunity to express your own opinion on the subject. Waiting until this point to uncover your own viewpoint gives your students the freedom to express themselves honestly without fear of repercussion. Students can be intimidated to support a point of view in conflict with their teacher’s. If you wait until students have already had the opportunity to discuss their opinions, you remove the intimidation that comes with disagreeing with the teacher.
Present a Case Study
It's one thing to have a theoretical discussion about a controversial topic, but when you add in the element of real-life through a case study, it adds a whole new dimension to the discussion experience. In your lesson planning, try to find a case study that will help foster discussion. A good case study will not have a clear-cut or straightforward course to a conclusion and reinforce that life is not black and white.
Not only will struggling with the situation encourage discussion, it will provide a more lifelike and realistic use for language. Life itself is not cut and dry, and if your students will be using language in real-world situations, they will have to express themselves in difficult circumstances. Encourage your students to take risks and express their opinions.
Facilitate (More) Discussion
Now that students have heard both sides of the issue, discussed the topic with their peers, learned where you stand on the issue and looked at a real-life case study, it is time to discuss the issue again. Go back to the discussion questions you provided at the beginning of the unit and allow students to express any changes in their opinions or share things that they have learned. The goal in teaching a controversial subject is not to sway students to one opinion or the other, but they may change the way they feel after further discussion. They may also strengthen the beliefs they had at the beginning of the unit, but hopefully, they can express themselves more clearly and give strong support for their beliefs.
When handled correctly, controversial topics can be a gold mine of conversation in the ESL classroom.
Though it is sometimes necessary to create discussion with supplied curriculum topics, using controversial issues in the classroom allows a natural and emotional pathway to conversation. If you are sensitive to your students’ opinions and aware of their feelings, tough-to-tackle-topics just might provide the best lessons all year.
Example controversial topics:
- Should a university degree be a pre-requisit to get a good job?
- Are robots and AI replacing human's jobs a good or bad thing?
- Are homeschooled children at a disadvantage socially?
- Should religion be taught in schools?
- Schould religion be separated from the state?
- Men are better CEOs and executives than women
- Mental illness are created by a person's thoughts and behavior
- Should sex education at school include LGBT+ issues?
- Should the Second Ammendment be overturned? (Is the right to bear arms still relevant today?)
- Is allowing a child to be overweight a form of child abuse?
- Should the Internet be subjec to the same regulations as TV, print, and radio?
- Are social media sites responsible for the content on them?
- Women will never be equal to men in the workplace
- You can’t have a happy family life and a successful career at the same time
- Marriage is outdated
- Should the voting age be lowered?
- The death penalty is acceptable in some cases
- Foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to vote
- Celebrities earn too much money
- Military service should be obligatory
- War is never an option for solving international disputes
- Torture can be acceptable in some cases
- Curfews keep teens out of trouble
- We are becoming too dependent on computers
- Smoking should be banned worldwide
- Single-sex schools are evil
- Homework is harmful
- A woman’s place is in the home
- Committing suicide should be made legal
- A man should have a wife for the family and a mistress for pleasure
- Soft drugs should be legalized.
- Those who can - do, those who can’t – teach
- You will be happier if you stay unmarried
- Software piracy is not really a crime
- We do not really need religion
- Your race affects your intelligence
- Euthanasia should be legal
- Obesity is a disease
- Video games contribute to youth violence
- Drinking age should be lowered
- Steroids should be accepted in sports
- Cloning has a lot of benefits
- Prenuptial agreements make families stronger
- Corporal punishment should be allowed in schools.
Have you ever taught any controversial topics? What topic was it and how did it go? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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