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Discussing not Debating Controversy in the Classroom

Full article from September 2019 newsletter

Discussing not Debating Controversy in the Classroom

The 2019 Law & Citizenship Conference is fast approaching! Depending on your teaching style, this year’s theme can either strike fear in your heart or ignite enthusiasm. There is often fear that a “discussion” will quickly devolve into dissension, or worse, a fight. There is a better way! By acknowledging controversy and proactively teaching your students how to have a discussion, you can better prepare them for the civil discourse that we, as a society, should aspire. 

In its 2010 report “Guardians of Democracy,” the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools established a roadmap for how educators can work to ensure a robust democracy for our future. The Campaign dug into the research and extracted six research-validated actions that teachers can employ, known as the Six Proven Practices of Civic Education. These techniques are designed to get students practicing the “work” of engaged citizens and to give them tools to become lifelong participants in our republic. 

Teachers familiar with OCLRE programs already employ many of these techniques, such as simulating democratic processes like We the People and Moot Court, or offering opportunities for civics-themed activities through programs like Mock Trial. But, number two on the list of proven practices is one that many educators find themselves doing less often: incorporating discussion of current events and controversial issues into their teaching.  

Students need a place to practice respectful discussion and disagreements---the classroom! By talking about issues from a mindset of sharing information and making good decisions, students will become  citizens who can make informed and empathic choices. Just as we practice other life and career skills in our classrooms (writing, planning, analyzing, etc.), we should have students practice the skill of having a well-reasoned, civil conversation with one another. 

Often, “discussing” controversy in class takes the form of a debate, where the goal is for one side to “win” and disprove “opponents.” Approaching controversy using debate can cause students to put on blinders, practice confirmation bias, and overly personalize the process in a way that creates hurt feelings. In a discussion, however, there are no winners and losers; the parties are partners, not adversaries. While there is certainly merit in having students address both sides of an issue, it is equally valuable to have students tackle a viewpoint that is not their own. Students who learn how to discuss tough subjects and consider other perspectives are more likely to develop into adults able to do so with their colleagues, fellow citizens, and elected officials.   

Attendees of the Law & Citizenship Conference on September 23 will have the chance to learn more about this process and see the practice in action. Sessions are designed to provide overviews of topics that may come up in your classroom, techniques to spark lively discussion, and tips to keep the process from devolving. You can learn more about the conference or register to attend at 

Controversial issues do not have to be scary; when taken with the right approach, they may even become your favorite part of teaching! 

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