Too close to home: How to handle controversy in the classroom

Steven Campbell Harris

Steven is a philosophy specialist and teacher trainer at the Philosophy Foundation. He facilitates philosophical enquiries in schools, in ...

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Image credit: Chris Shelton // YouTube Image credit: Chris Shelton // YouTube

In my work I get to hear children discuss subjects like gender identity, vegetarianism, doping in sport and free speech. On the one hand, controversial topics like these can stir up, provoke, and engage. On the other hand, they can trigger a defensiveness in students that stifles thoughtful inquiry. Is there a way to keep the benefits without the downsides? Is there a way to support honest inquiry where children can reevaluate their ideas and avoid intellectual stasis?

Here are a few tips for bypassing students’ defensiveness and promoting open inquiry on controversial topics.

Remove the Author

As social creatures, we judge not only what is being said but also who is saying it. This can be a problem in the classroom if we present a controversial view with the identity of its author. Students may fall back on their socially constructed identities as children of, say, Labour voters or Christian parents, and reject or accept the claim without fully engaging with it.

In order to encourage individual responsibility for investigating claims, it helps to present them without their author. I once showed a class a relatively controversial quote on fairness. A majority of the class agreed with the claim, and we had an open discussion of the meaning of fairness. When I "There was a significant shift in the students’ perception."later revealed that the source was David Cameron there was a significant shift in the students’ perception; some students became defensive and attempted to explain away their previous justification of the claim. If the discussion had begun in this way it would have dried up sooner and curiosity would have been curtailed.

Minimise accountability

According to a popular theory of reasoning put forward by the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, the primary function of reasoning is argumentative; we are motivated to scrutinise claims made by others and devise arguments intended to persuade. Typically this means that our reasoning is more biased once we have already stated our opinion, as this increases the pressure on us to justify it instead of moving away from it. They call this phenomenon ‘bolstering’.

Bolstering has significant benefits, as anyone who has witnessed someone under attack in an argument will attest. It can increase articulacy and prompt some quite inventive defensive reasoning. However, if we are primarily interested in enquiry into the truth rather than rhetoric and debate (where positions are fixed and the main aim is to persuade) then it helps to reduce accountability in the discussion. Inviting people to say at any point if they have changed their mind and refraining from dividing the class into opposing camps could do this. Another approach is to ask students to write their view anonymously on a small piece of paper before gathering them together, and then reading them out to the class. Since the students are not publicly committed to their initial position they are less likely to bolster and more likely to engage in open discussion.

Convey the message indirectly

When we express something directly and with the clear intent to persuade, we often activate others’ defences. They prematurely cut off their engagement, or begin to prepare their rebuttal before we have even finished speaking. Witness any political argument at a dinner party.

When we communicate indirectly, by contrast, we hide the message in a way that allows the listener or reader to realise it for themselves. Since the meaning arises in themselves, they must take greater responsibility for it than if it came from a foreign source. As such, they will be more likely to wrestle with it. A few common ways of communicating indirectly are jokes, stories, irony, and play acting. When we don’t feel that we are being persuaded, we are more open to it.

I once had a class discuss what counted as ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s clothing’. I showed some pictures of various, sometimes strikingly different clothes throughout history worn by men and women and they had to state if they thought it was ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ clothing. This was a playful, indirect way of approaching the topic of the social construction of gender, and meant that we could discuss this issue in a non-threatening and less defensive way.

In the classroom I often use tools like this bypass students’ defensiveness. By approaching something at a sideways angle, the students are more likely to come at the issue with an open mind.

Avoid Newton’s Law

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This, Newton’s third law of motion, applies to arguments as well as physics. When people present their view forcefully in argument, they are often met with an equal and opposite resistance from others. By contrast, when they speak charitably of others’ views their opponents are more likely to respond in kind. While ‘safe spaces’ are often maligned as contrary to a healthy discussion of ideas, it does help to have some ground rules around respect and turn taking that are enforceable. Without a certain baseline of respect, the conversation risks turning into an argumentative shoving contest.

Break up the echo chambers

When like-minded people get together to deliberate about controversial subjects, they tend to end up, after discussion, believing a more extreme version of what they believed before. Our conversation partners act as mirrors to us, reflecting and reinforcing our initial perceptions. The legal theorist Cass Sunstein refers to this as the ‘Law of Group Polarisation’. This presents a challenge in the classroom, as students will often sit together with their like-minded peers. At times, this risks turning the classroom into a loose collection of echo chambers.

In order to combat group polarisation in the classroom, I often ask my students to show whether they agree, disagree, or are undecided about a controversial statement. I then ask them to stand up and reveal their attitudes by putting their thumbs up, down, or sideways after a count of three. After this, students have to find someone who has a different sign to them, sit down with them, and discuss the reasons why they differ. By breaking students out of their echo chambers the natural tendency of small groups to polarise is disrupted, and students are required to engage with alternative points of view.

Start with fiction; end in reality

The former secretary of defense for the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, once famously claimed that “there are known knowns; there are things that we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

Borrowing Rumsfeld’s terminology, I would argue that doing philosophy requires a shift from considering a topic "Students have to discuss the reasons why they differ."as a known known (something we know we know) to a known unknown (something we know we don’t know). If I begin a session with a controversial question about the merits of alternatives to ‘one person, one vote’ in UK elections, it is unlikely to generate much discussion. We feel that we know we know; we are familiar with the concept of democracy and we know it’s the best system available.

On the other hand, if I begin a session with a similar discussion point in a fictional setting, students are more likely to engage with the underlying principles at stake. For example, I sometimes tell students to imagine that in the next school term some space has been found in the school timetable to fit one new subject. The school is unsure of what subject to introduce, so three proposals are made about how to make the decision:

  1. Let every child vote on which subject to introduce.
  2. A brochure is made that explains what each of the subjects are, what the benefits of the subject are as well as any possible problems with introducing it in the school curriculum. If a child reads the booklet and passes a short test showing that s/he has read and understood the contents, s/he can vote. If not, s/he can’t.
  3. Every child gets at least one vote. However, if you read the booklet and pass the test you get an additional vote.

Task question: which is the best way to decide?

After discussing this thought experiment, I have found that students are much more willing to engage substantively with the principles underlying democracy. The familiar has been rendered unfamiliar, and this shift in perception makes it more possible for students to consider the issue at hand

How do you broach such subjects in the classroom? Let us know below.

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