Instructional Strategies for Teaching Controversial Topics

Controversial Topics in the Adolescent Classroom


What defines a controversial topic?

Any issue which tends to create polarized viewpoints may be considered controversial (Teclehaimanot and Lamb 2004). Evans, Avery and Pederson identify some controversial issues as taboos: beliefs that constrain actions by making certain behaviors and discussion of certain topics forbidden (2000).


 A website that advocates for teaching controversial issues and cites the NCSS as a source. The main ways that this site advocates for teaching controversial issues are as follows:

  • conducting research using several resources,
  • discussing the facts linked to the controversy,
  • determining points of view,
  • supporting a point of view with evidence gathered from research,
  • listening to opposing points of view and engaging in a debate, and
  • proposing solutions.


“Controversies constitute a normative anchor within citizenship education curriculum, and the degree to which they are subjected to reflection has profound implications for the vibrancy of a democracy. Engaging controversial issues pays a democratic dividend for student-citizens by increasing civic participation, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, content understanding, and political activity. These judgments also elevate interest in current events, social studies, social issues, and increase the development of tolerance while developing democratic values, such as open-mindedness, dissent, skepticism, and embracing diversity”

Thomas Misco (Miami University)


Textbooks rarely present various sides of controversies and almost never reveal to students the evidence on which each side bases its position (Loewen 1995, p. 265).

The best way to implement controversial topics in a classroom is through structured discussion/deliberation.









Textbooks can also lessen the impact of controversial issues and downplay how controversial they were. Below is a link to a famous example of a textbook issue with slavery.


Role of Teacher

1. The teacher as presiding judge

2. The teacher as determined advocate

3. The teacher as nurturant facilitator

4. The teacher as Socratic cross-examiner


These are recommended by Alan L. Lockwood who is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


Teachers should not dominate the discussion of these controversial issues because the students should be the ones leading the way. Teachers should serve as mediators in case the discussion goes awry and should control where the discussion goes without totally taking it over.


“In my experience, few teachers give sustained thought to their role in helping students discuss controversial issues. While this is especially true among beginners, veterans as well often do not make time or believe they have time for such needed introspection. A major effort is expended in gathering materials, arranging for speakers, setting central questions, and attending to activities necessary for building the curriculum. Given this reality, thoughtful consideration of the teacher's role in managing classroom discourse on controversy is frequently lost in the midst of other instructional preparations. One consequence of this is that classroom discussion develops more by accident than by design, and the probability of achieving desired goals becomes more a matter of chance than of likelihood.”

                Alan L. Lockwood (University of Wisconsin)


ASCD’s site has wonderful resources for any teacher looking to get more information about teaching controversial issues and for looking to justify their teaching of these topics.


Rationale/Literature Review for Controversial Issues


Social Studies is not only a field of study but also a mindset. The teacher is responsible for creating an environment that not only encourages but also fosters the creative growth of future citizens within the democracy of the United States and the world. It is pivotal that social studies teachers educate students on controversial issues because of its’ importance in moral education, it allows for reflection of the students, and it will ultimately strengthen the students’ role as citizens within a democratic society.

Teachers are tasked with the duty to allow every voice to be heard within the classroom. Often times, the voices of the peers and the family outweigh the position of fact and truth. Teachers must ensure that students are not limited by these constraints that have ultimately shaped their identities (Bull, 2006). Controversial issues also go beyond the “most basic form of moral response” (Barton & Levstik, 2009, 92) meaning that students will be given the opportunity to create their own ideas of right and wrong. These issues also allow for students to “make moral judgments about their ideals” (Bull, 2006), and controversies allow students to modify their ideas about a certain topic.

                                                                                                          Teachers who prepare their students through a moral education also allow their students to reflect upon themselves. Teaching controversial issues allow for “the process of making rational, considered, well thought-out decisions” (Barr, Barth, & Shermis, 1977, 27).

       In this setting, students have the opportunity to reflect upon the issue at hand. There is often some difficulty within this practice because students fear that their dissenting opinion may have a negative result for themselves (Misco, 2011, 13). It is important that a teacher remains a reflective inquirer during this practice because they encourage students to change the way in which society functions (Barr, Barth, & Shermis, 1977, 28). Reflection can never be limited and neither can controversial issues because “it is surely better for our young people to face controversial issues in the open atmosphere of the schoolroom, than to seek out what is forbidden in some dark, unwholesome corner” (Dewey, 1940, As quoted in Misco, 2011, 9). Simply transmitting the details regarding issues will leave the students unfulfilled, but when teachers control these controversial issues they can direct students to a justifiable end that was constructed due to the free flow of ideas (Dewey, 1933, 103).

       The greatest goal a teacher has is to make students better citizens. Engaging in controversial issues makes students more aware of the world around them, and they are more inclined to engage in civic participation, interpersonal skills, content understanding, and political activity (Misco, 2011, 9). In the United States, students must be able to understand their role in the democracy, and how they can maneuver within it to create social change (Ochoa-Becker, 2007).


Studying controversial issues allows students to be “well-positioned to become agents of change and recognize and celebrate diversity among and within groups” (Misco, 2011, 9). Even curriculum standards have changed to cater controversial issues, so that there will be an increase of critical, thoughtful, and responsible citizens ready to take action within our democracy (NCSS, 2010, 169). Dewey wrote that the mind must never be halted, and it must “overflow” with information in order for a person to grow intellectually and then use that intellect to better the society in which one lives. (Dewey, 1933, 274) I refer to Dewey in this instance because controversy is the highest test of personal development and understanding.

Allowing the instruction of controversial issues not only provides students with an opportunity to reflect and have a moral education, but it prepares them to become active members of this beloved democracy.


Literary Citations


Barr, R. D., Barth, J. L., & Shermis, S. S. (1977). Defining the social studies. Arlington, VA:

National Council for the Social Studies.

Barton, K.C. & Levstick, L.S. (2009). Teaching history for the common good. New York:


Bull, B. (2006). Can civic and moral education be distinguished? In D. Warren & J. J. Patrick

(Eds.), Civic and Moral Learning in America (pp.21-32). New York: Palgrave


Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Lexington, MA: D.C. Health & Company.

Misco, T. (2011). Teaching about controversial issues: rationale, practice, and need for inquiry.

Int'l J. Educ. L. & Pol'y, 7, 13.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2010). National curriculum standards for social

studies: A framework for teaching, learning, and assessment. Maryland: National

Council for Social Studies.

Ochoa-Becker, A. S. (2007). Democratic education for social studies: An issues-centered

decision making curriculum, 2nd ed. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.


Background for Controversy


When it comes to background information, there is very little on controversial subjects. Controversy is decided as an event progresses and evolves. Its’ place in the classroom, however, can be tracked through the paradigm shift that the educational system has undergone in the past couple of decades. In the beginning, education was taught through lenses of progressivism, essentialism, and perennialism. Common themes included archaic classics from philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, a drill and kill approach to ‘major’ educational courses like reading, writing, and arithmetic, and a comprehensive duty to cultivate intellect and rationality. While these themes were once noble and held a purpose in education, they have now fallen to the wayside to more intellectual and moral philosophies, critical theory and social reconstructivism for example.


The paradigm shifts to these philosophies of critical theory and social reconstructivism in order to promote higher levels of critical thought and self reflection. The goal of these new constructs is for students to challenge the world around them.


The students gain a strong sense of community within the classroom, within the school, and within the community at large. The use of service learning is required to make students think about the minutiae and broad picture of individuals and their needs. Maybe the most important aspect is that students are taught to believe in equality of education, cultural pluralism, and futurism. What is so exciting for social studies teachers is that they are making a move from a role where they are the authority to one where they are agents of social justice and change.










Interview with a School Board Member

Mike Randolph, Twin Valley Local Schools Board of Education, President



1. Do you believe that controversial issues should be taught?

Absolutely. Life is controversial, and students should be prepared for that reality. We don’t live in a world where every person believes in the same thing, and that’s okay. Our different thoughts and different views of the world is what makes humanity so great. And thankfully, we live in a country where we get to share those different views with one another freely.


2. Why do you think teaching controversial issues is a good idea?

I believe that the fundamental goal of education is to get students to a point of free thought. I want our teachers to provide the information as thoroughly as possible so that the students can open their mind up about the topic at hand. Controversial issues are the greatest fosters of independent thought amongst students. They give them the opportunity to explore multiple points of view and perspectives of the world. These issues allow for students to reflect on the information and become informed, rationed decision makers.


3. What are some limitations or drawbacks to teaching controversial issues?

There are several limits when it comes to teaching controversial issues, starting with parents. The legalities of education always seem to come into play when parents become upset over what their children are learning about in school. There is an obvious risk of increased rage and separation of the student body. Teenagers have trouble understanding the fact that not everyone thinks the same way they do. And of course, there is risk within the classroom itself. The teacher may not be objective as they could be or the students may become upset during a particularly difficult controversial topic.


4. How can a teacher or other staff member help solve the above mentioned limitations or drawbacks?

Fortunately, the limitations that accompany controversial issues can be remedied. The first and probably largest solution is to come prepared. Teachers need to come knowing all of the facts. Hearsay and misinterpretation had no room in an intellectual forum. Anticipation is also key. If a member of the staff notices a topic becoming heated or students beginning to lash out at one another, then they need to step in and end the session. The last thing is for the staff to remember that it is their job to cultivate young minds. They need to create the space for students to openly discuss the issues at hand.


Top Ten Strategies for Teaching Controversial Issues


  1. Always come prepared. Teachers need to have all the information they can on a topic to insure that all of the facts are available to the students. It would be very difficult for them to make a rational decision based on misinformation.

  2. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to objectivity. The lesson is for the students to think about an issue, not follow the lead of the authoritative figure in the classroom. While it is important that students hear about the perspective that you align with, you shouldn’t skew their thoughts and decisions that way.

  3. Create a space for meaningful discussion. In order for students to contribute in the discussion of these controversial issues, they need a space where they can talk to one another. The teacher is responsible for making sure that every voice is heard, and that the discussion explores relevant ideas and situations.

  4. Evoke self-reflection in your students. The greatest way for students to connect to each other and to their communities is if they question themselves. They need to have an opportunity to take the information, review how they feel about, and then make a decision based on those feelings. The idea is to challenge a student’s beliefs so that they might strengthen their belief or change it.

  5. Collaborate with the families of the students. The goal as teachers should be to educate everyone. Learning isn’t something that stops when a person graduates from high school. Social Studies applies to everyday life, and we want the families of our students to understand what the students are being taught so that they have the chance to learn something too.

  6. View classroom, school, state, nation, and world as community. Civic participation is an idea that students view themselves as members of a community. The objective of the individual is to contribute towards the betterment of the whole community. We need students to learn this concept in order for society to progress and grow.

  7. Give students the ability to think. Controversial issues are always going to be complex. There are always multiple perspectives that conflict with one another. Students have to be given the time to address each perspective and create a working theme that guides their decision. The only way this can be done is if students have the appropriate time to tease out the topic.

  8. Provide an exhaustive list of perspectives. As was just stated, controversy is always filled with multiple perspectives. Dissecting and understanding every perspective will make students credible and rationed decision makers.

  9. Explore the most salient topics possible. Controversy can be found everywhere; some people believe that milk should go before the cereal while others believe the opposite. This is an example of a trivial controversy that needs to be explored on one’s own time. Social Studies teachers need to find the in-depth and hard to think about topics such as slavery, the Holocaust, and gun control. Students need to be pushed to a state of being uncomfortable so that they can really reflect on all of the issues.

  10. Don’t force a decision. When it comes to controversy, there is no right answer. Students can believe whatever they want to believe. The biggest point, however, is that they are able to defend their decision using research, ration, or perspective. It is not our goal to force students into an answer, either. If a student simply doesn’t know which way to go, they need to know that such an occurrence is acceptable.