“How do I engage students in an inclusive, constructive discussion about a controversial issue?”
Discursive strategies guide student interaction with one another as they engage in learning. While some students are more personally impacted by a controversial issues than others, it’s important that all students engage in critical conversations about them, as these problems tend to be systemic. In other words, the pain or injustice at hand / in question is not simply the result of the actions of a small number of unethical people; instead, pain and injustice are somehow built into the status quo of our institutions and dominant systems of thought. This means that all citizens are connected to the problem in some way; it also means that all citizens are empowered to do something about it within their own spheres of influence.
Just as teachers differentiate instructional strategies, they can differentiate discursive strategies to respect students’ needs and thresholds. There are many ways to provide students with options for how they process the issue, including the option of engaging in dialogue with an elder or a trusted peer and the option of journaling privately. These criteria can help to identify fitting strategies for collective inquiry:
All students . . .
1. have voice and express their thinking, ideally multiple times during the lesson.
2. are protected from unwanted exposure and personal attacks.
3. are exposed to, actively consider, and fairly represent multiple points of view.
4. participate in generating new questions which address newly discovered complexities.
5. reflect on the shifts in their thinking which occur as a result of new learning, and the implications of these shifts.
When students are engaging in learning about a controversial issue, the goal is not to solve the issue or reach consensus. Instead, the goal is for students to have the opportunity, through dialogue with others, to deepen their understanding and form their own opinions.
To set students up for success in this kind of learning, it’s important to provide and establish a shared base of knowledge that students can use as a reference point. It’s also important to take time to explain the process they will be using, including its purpose, norms, and expectations.
Discursive Strategy Process
Processes often start and end with individual reflection . The teacher provides or co-constructs with students a prompt, often an essential question, to invite engagement. Then, students move from individual reflection to small group sharing to large group synthesizing and back again to individual reflection. This progression ensures that all students participate in deepening both self-knowledge and shared understandings.
Students respond individually to prompt, recording thinking and experiences in a way that can be shared. (Sticky notes work well!)
Students have the opportunity to see and / or hear the thinking of their peers, identifying points of convergence and divergence –ideas which affirm and unsettle the student’s own thinking.
Students now move into small groups and, using a process, think and reflect on the ideas they chose in Step 2.
Move from small groups to large group, using process or question that invites small groups to share their thinking and questions, identify key issues, consider implications, generate new questions
Return to individual reflection, inviting students to respond to the initial question again in light of new understanding: “How has my thinking shifted? Why? What have I learned about myself, my classmates, this issue? What are the implications of this new learning for me a as a person and citizen?”
Here are links to some strategies that create the conditions described above and follow the process represented here:
Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside
Debate Team Carousel
The book and website, Making Thinking Visible, contains many processes that can be used in steps 2, 3, and 4.
One of the best ways to prepare students for learning about controversial issues is to embed discursive strategies in their learning every day. This allows them to develop confidence in their own self-expression, trust in their peers, strength in their critical thinking skills, and resilience in their response to complexity. Creating a classroom culture with these attributes brings everyone involved further along on the Cultural Competency Continuum.
If you would like collegial support to include a controversial issue in your instruction, feel free to ask for help, from within your staff or from myself and my colleagues at Central Office.