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 Bowen's Reaction Series is probably a cognitive exercise 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
- 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?