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Learning from Conflict: Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Help students have constructive discussions that represent differing perspectives.

June 18, 2015
Chris Sloan
Classroom teacher
Judge Memorial Catholic High School
Salt Lake City, UT
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Students
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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: Teachers give all students ample opportunity to explain various views through perspective-taking approaches, we make sure different points of view are listened to and then confronted, and we encourage controversy while stressing cooperative contexts.

Perspective Taking

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 Visible Thinking routine, Circle of Viewpoints, which encourages students to consider diverse perspectives by envisioning the questions that different stakeholders might have.

For example, in the past couple of years, stories have regularly appeared in the news regarding young people of color who have been killed by police. During one class last year, I used the Circle of Viewpoints 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 that I use for the activity described above often come from the KQED Do Now resources, a program that aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy in students.

income inequality page screenshot on KQED website

For example, the Do Now resources page for income inequality has stories from four different sources and a mix of video, text, infographics, and data sets. 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. In addition to the Digital Literacy and Citizenship Classroom Curriculum from Common Sense, one more place to go for guidance is the 5 Key Questions from the Center for Media Literacy and their YouTube channel. For help decoding political language, check out 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.

Photo "_MG_8944" by Basil-Malik. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


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