Teaching Controversial Topics

This summary was compiled by Karin Kirk, SERC.

Some subjects are largely cognitive, while others involve more of the affective domain. Learning to read topographic maps or balancing chemical equations are probably cognitive exercises for most students. But studying the Kyoto Treaty will elicit a host of affective issues. In order to teach controversial topics effectively, we must be especially aware of the role of the affective domain and the potential for affective roadblocks. If a contentious topic doesn't sit well emotionally, then students may be unable to learn the science.

Affective challenges for teaching controversial topics

A thoughtful student. What is he thinking about?
Pre-held beliefs
The student may enter the classroom with a lifetime of personal beliefs on a topic. These beliefs may extend from family, social experiences, church or other influences. How can your teaching allow students to be open to these topics?
Biases and stereotypes
Unfortunately, many controversial topics are loaded with baggage. Biases may originate from media or political influences. For example, does practicing an environmentally-conscious lifestyle make you a "granola?" Is it true that only college professors drive hybrid cars?
All or nothing
Science is often thought of as a black and white, all-or-nothing proposition. Scientists are portrayed as purely logical with no personal feelings. Of course our students do not aspire to emulate that behavior. Can we show students that there is room for both emotion and science? In order to accept the science of evolution, must a student abandon all of their religious feelings on the topic?
As teachers, we need to be careful not to preach or be judgmental about topics like evolution and environmental conservation. This may be a sure-fire way to irreparably turn students off. Worse yet, we may not even be aware when our word choice, attitude or body language may be broadcasting a judgmental tone. How can we establish an open and non-judgmental learning environment?

Learn more

See suggestions, literature and examples for teaching evolution and teaching environmental issues.

Additional Resources

Teaching Controversial Issues: Resources from GSA Short Courses - 2016 Edition

Diving into the Trenches: Rules of Thumb for Teaching Controversial Issues by Don Duggan-Haas, from In the Trenches, January 2015 v5, n1.

In the Trenches - July 2015 Special Issue: Teaching about Fracking

There's no such thing as a free megawatt: hydrofracking as a gateway drug to energy literacy – Discussion Guide, by Don A. Duggan-Haas, & Robert M. Ross, The Paleontological Research Institution: Ithaca, NY