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Learning from Conflict: Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Help students have constructive discussions that represent differing perspectives.

Chris Sloan | July 29, 2021

When highly charged events happen in the world, it’s not always easy for classroom teachers to help their students make sense of things. But whether it’s raw emotions that surface during civil unrest or the human suffering associated with natural disasters, students benefit from constructive discussions about sensitive issues.

In fact, research shows that discussing conflicts is good for students both cognitively and developmentally. This research holds that learning takes place under these conditions:

  • All students have ample opportunities to explore and explain various views through perspective-taking approaches.
  • Teachers ensure that different points of view are listened to, and then confronted.
  • Teachers encourage controversy while stressing cooperative contexts.

Perspective Taking Activities for Students

To introduce a controversial issue that’s in the news, I begin with a common text where I model summary skills to the whole class and add pertinent background information. On particularly complex issues, the next step might be for the class to engage in the "Circle of Viewpoints" Visible Thinking routine from Harvard's Project Zero, which encourages students to consider diverse perspectives by envisioning the questions that different stakeholders might have.

For example, incidents where people of color -- including young people of color -- have been killed by police have been prominent in the news. During class, I've used the "Circle of Viewpoints" routine to have students try to imagine these tragedies from the various perspectives of community members, for example a sibling of one of the victims, the son or daughter of a law enforcement official, a local business owner, a neighborhood activist, etc. An activity like this helps students move beyond their initial bias about the issue and see things from a broader perspective.

Finding and Analyzing Media Texts

The texts and multimedia stories I use for the activity described above often come from the Discussions section of KQED Learn, a program that aims to build students' civic engagement and digital literacy.

For example, the KQED Learn discussion titled Should the U.S. have Universal Healthcare? has stories from nine different sources offering a mix of perspectives on the issue, such as the OECD, Harvard Health, and the Heritage Foundation. The sources themselves offer a mix of video, text, infographics, and data sets which would integrate well with informational writing units.

Another site I use in my class is ProCon.org, which aims for an informed citizenry by presenting multiple sides of controversial issues in a nonpartisan format. For media literacy teaching resources, you can go to the Media Education Lab's Teaching Resources page, and of course Common Sense Education's Digital Citizenship Curriculum. If you're looking to help students decode political language, check out the Teen Fact-Checking Network from Poynter and Media Wise, as well as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

When exploring conflict, students learn best when they rely on others for crucial information; it has also been shown that students learn least when they avoid conflict altogether or merely acquiesce.

Confrontation in a Cooperative Context

Sociocognitive conflict research shows that students learn better when teachers create resource interdependence, where members of the class receive only part of the total information and access the rest through other class members. This is opposed to resource independence, where students have access to all the information before the discussion and so possess identical texts. When exploring conflict, students learn best when they rely on others for crucial information; it has also been shown that students learn least when they avoid conflict altogether or merely acquiesce.

One such powerful cooperative approach to controversial issues is known as constructive controversy, where students are given articles that take different positions on a pro-con type issue and then go through the following process: 1. prepare a persuasive case for their position, 2. present their position in a compelling and interesting way, 3. refute the opposing position while rebutting criticisms of their position, 4. take the opposing perspectives, and 5. derive a synthesis or integration of the positions with a partner who began arguing from the opposite perspective. For details, see Johnson and Johnson’s book, Creative Controversy: Intellectual Challenge in the Classroom.

We need to be prepared to show [our students] how to have constructive discussions that represent differing perspectives, and then show them ways to effect positive change in their world.

As a result of the activities described above, it’s possible that your students will want to take some kind of action or become politically involved in a cause. A way to start is to help students think about audience. One thing I do is show my students how to write a letter to an elected official. Sometimes, this literally takes on the form of a letter sent via the U.S. mail; other times, it results in a more open video statement from students to elected officials and stakeholders in general.

The issues we and our students deal with can be complex and overwhelming. We need to be prepared to show them how to have constructive discussions that represent differing perspectives, and then show them ways to effect positive change in their world.