Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching Controversial Topics

This teaching module does not tell you how to teach a particular subject; rather, it is designed to provide you with tools and principles that can be applied to a wide variety of settings. introduction

This teaching module has two goals: first, it will prompt you to reflect upon your role as the teacher in dealing with controversial issues in the classroom and with the challenges they raise. Second, it will explore concrete strategies for teaching these issues and making them positive pedagogical opportunities. See also, Managing Controversy, from the Graduate School’s guide to teaching at Yale.

Topics typically become controversial when students have competing values and interests; when they strongly disagree about statements, assertions, or actions; when the subject touches on some particular sensitivity (e.g. political or religious); or when they arouse an emotional reaction. These topics may relate to events in the past, to a current state of affairs, or to some future desired outcome.

As the teacher, it is helpful to consider a variety of perspectives on teaching controversial subjects when reflecting on how you will approach such issues in the classroom. In higher education today, there are three prominent paradigms:

  1. Liberation Pedagogy.The teacher should seek to develop a “critical consciousness” among students. She should allow the students to bring their own experiences and perspectives to the problems investigated in class, with the aim of having students come to a new understanding of their place in the world. In this view, the classroom should not be seen as a world separate from wider society, but as enmeshed and invested in the problems of the social and political world. (See, for example, Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed for the pdf or check out the Wikipedia page)
  2. Civic Humanism. Teaching should prepare students for the responsibilities of active citizenship. Teaching should be concerned, in part, with developing moral virtues, such as religious and cultural tolerance, a sense of social responsibility, etc. (e.g. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges)
  3. Academic Detachment. Teachers should discuss all subjects in a detached fashion. Rather than discussing head-on what should be done, the point of academia and teaching is to inquire as to the origins of the controversy and the structures of competing arguments. The teacher should make controversial topics into objects of academic investigation and analysis. (e.g. Stanley Fish, “Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job”)

Once you decide which approach is yours, or what aspects of each approach you will incorporate into your teaching, you should employ some specific strategies to give your students the best chance for success.

  • Establish clear ground rules (see below). Clarify what will and will not be permitted in terms of arguments and rhetoric, and make it clear to students what the consequences will be if they ignore these rules.
  • Model civil behavior through your own actions. Students will watch to see how you handle yourself. If you speak with respect and care in the context of a heated discussion, then your students will also be more likely to do so.
  • Keep the discussion tied to the material. You do not want your class to devolve into a debate of current events. Rather, use real-world problems to investigate what is at stake in the concepts of the class. In this regard, controversial topics can be useful pedagogical tools, for they can spark greater interest in the ideas raised in the lectures and readings.
  • Moderate negative thinking and strong emotions in your students and in yourself. Model for your students how to reframe strong feelings into productive dialogue. Teach them how to disagree with someone else’s ideas without attacking them personally.

Sample ground rules for teaching controversial subjects

  1. You and your students only make statements about an issue, person, or group if you are prepared to make the statement directly and respectfully to a person to whom the issue is important.
  2. Encourage students not to argue from authority and to link their claims and assertions to appropriate evidence whenever possible.
  3. Cultivate “tentativeness” among students: encourage them to explore their fixed ideas and prejudices, and have them recognize that confusion and uncertainty are stages in their development toward independent opinion.