Why We Need Controversy In Our Classrooms



Ask any teacher about teaching about a controversial topic, and most will tell you to avoid it at any cost.

School administrators hate controversy and will often discourage teachers from discussing hot topics in their classrooms at all. Teachers routinely get fired or reprimanded for opening discussion in their classroom about ideas that some may take issue with. Teaching subjects like art, literature, theater, and even history and science, can be fraught with difficulty, as teachers navigate minefields of potentially offensive ideas and images. And since today’s teachers often have less protection than teachers in the past, allowing controversy into the classroom can come with truly nightmarish consequences.

But in this day in age, when even the most high-ranking officials are saying and doing inappropriate things in the public eye, when our nation is starkly divided and intolerance creates a constant "us-versus-them" attitude among social groups, now is exactly the time to teach students how to deal with controversial subjects and how to cope with a plurality of ideas and identities. Here are just a few reasons we need teachers who will tackle these subjects:

We Need to Teach Students How to Cope With Diversity

Years of keeping controversy out of our classrooms has created a society that doesn't know how to deal with diversity. But, at age seventeen or eighteen, we send kids out into a world full of diversity—of races, religions and gender, but also of ideas, methods and perspectives in the workplace. Being able to deal with diversity of people, but also plurality of ideas, perspectives and work methods is crucial to becoming a competitive member of the workforce, especially in higher-paying fields. Many companies now include questions about candidates' attitudes toward diversity in their interviewing processes.

We Need to Teach Students How to Respectfully Disagree

How can you teach students how to disagree if students never get an opportunity to discuss things they feel passionate about? The “safe” way of teaching students how to disagree by giving them non-controversial topics to share pro- and con- arguments about doesn't work, because students don't feel much ownership over these opinions. Students need to debate things they feel passionate about, even if those things are controversial. It is important that students have a safe space to test drive their ideas and learn to see disagreement as an opportunity to learn, not as invalidation. 

We Need to Teach Positive Digital Citizenship

Because so much of our information-sharing happens online, we can't neglect the digital world and all its controversy. Rather than blocking controversial subjects online, we should be teaching students how to find trustworthy sources, identify false information and to share information responsibly online. We also need to teach students how to deal with online disagreements, including cyberbullies, trolls and others who create unsafe online situations that can have dire offline consequences. Teaching students how to be discerning consumers of online information is crucial to have an informed society in the future.

We Need to Give Students a Voice

“Student voice” is a phrase you will find over and over in academia. It's great that students are being encouraged to share ideas through speaking in class and through structured dialogue, but we also need to promote students' creative voices. Arts programs have long been the ideal forum for student voice and exploration of sometimes controversial ideas. Art is a great way to introduce students to appropriate ways to approach debatable topics, because artists have, throughout history, used art to express things they could not say with words.


Article written By Rebecca Recco

January 2018