Engaging Contentious Political Issues

Parakh Hoon, South Puget Sound Community College
Author Profile


Faculty and students of politics inevitably engage with contentious debates about global inequality and development, conflict, and environmental sustainability. Teaching and learning outcomes in politics tend to emphasize critical and analytical thinking, but have paid less attention to emotion and feeling in considering how to navigate current issues. How can contemplative practices help instructors and students not only intellectually consider, but also emotionally hold difficult and often divisive and unsettling issues? In what ways can such practices both create space for honest, compassionate discussion and encourage engaged citizenship? By using a guided exercise of self-reflection and dialogue, students will develop self-awareness of their emotional responses and of their peers to contentious political issues, and recognize the importance of open listening and dialogue for gaining a deeper appreciation of contrasting views.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Teaching politics in these times requires a willingness to confront contentious issues. Especially since the divisive elections of 2016, discussions about environment and climate change, immigration, healthcare, and other issues reveal contrasting and often diametrically-opposed positions. The result is that often, students who identify with conservative positions on social issues feel excluded in in classroom contexts when liberals dominate, and vice-versa. At the same time, there are also students with a range of opinions in the middle—whose views are not heard and remain silent when the discourse is polarized. How do we engage polarized political issues in a meaningful way? This guided exercise is designed to help students:

1) develop awareness of their emotional responses and those of their peers to contentious political issues;
2) recognize the importance of open listening and dialogue for gaining a deeper appreciation of contrasting views;
3) recognize and appreciate perspectives different from one's own;
4) identify and recognize how personal experiences shape our political beliefs and attitudes;
5) deepen knowledge of the powers of American presidency and relate it to basic principles of American government; and
6) enhance understanding of political ideology and debate over partisan polarization.

Context for Use

This exercise can be used as a twenty-minute segment of a class period or it can be extended to include a whole class-period. The reflective exercise can be used in introductory and lower-division courses, and adapted to upper division and graduate classes to engage any contentious political issue. The exercise can be an entry point to develop and engage further with an issue, or it can be used a closing exercise – after an engaged and contentious debate. There are no skills or concepts that students need to have mastered in advance.

Description and Teaching Materials

Step 1: Pre-Class Reading and Reflective Writing (see below suggestions for topics)
Step 2: Guided Listening Practice and Open Dialogue
Step 3: Post-Class Reflective Writing

Step 1: Pick any contentious political issue, identify a recent news report or article on the issue (for example, analysis of results of the 2016 Presidential Elections 2016; interpretation of Presidential Executive Orders (EOs) impacting the environment, climate change, immigration, etc.).

Assign the reading before the class meets and have students write 1-2 paragraphs reflecting on how they felt as they read the article/text, or watched a brief video. It is important to emphasize that students focus on their feelings while reading about the contentious issue.

Step 2: An open-listening dyad allows students to gain a deeper appreciation of contrasting views and recognize and appreciate different perspectives.

I guide the students through a reflective listening practice in a dyad. After students have taken their seat, it is important that everyone has a partner. If there are any students who are left out, I pair them up, and if no pair can be made, I assign the last unpaired student to be the 3rd person in another pair. After everyone has an opportunity to find a partner, the students should take a few moments and "take their seat." That is, they need to sit in an alert manner, with an awareness of the present moment. After everyone has settled they should introduce and greet their partner. They should also decide who would speak first. You can leave this decision to the students, or provide instructions such as, "...the person with the longer hair should speak first."

Open discussion: After every student has had the opportunity to share their feelings and opinions about a contentious political issue with their dyad partner, I invite the class to join in an open discussion. To guide this discussion, I usually pick pairs, asking each person in the pair to share what they felt. Prior to beginning this open discussion, I indicate that, at this point, we are only trying to learn how each of us feels about the issue(s); and, later in the class period, we will begin to engage the issue critically and analytically to further unpack it.

Step 3: Post-class Reflective writing exercise

Following the listening exercise and open discussion in class, one way to critically make sense of contrasting perspectives on the contentious issue is by a reflective writing assignment analyzing the Pew Research's poll on Political Polarization in the American Public.

Instructors: You can create a group poll for your class. http://www.people-press.org/quiz/political-typology/; and contrast with arguments by Morris Fiorina https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/06/23/americans-have-not-become-more-politically-polarized/?utm_term=.739b4e583d80
Reflective writing prompt: Contrast the arguments in the Pew Report with Fiorina's argument about polarization. Which/Whose argument(s) do you find more convincing? Why? (2-3 paragraphs).

Teaching Notes and Tips

I use a chime or bell to guide students through the exercise. I first provided students instructions that they would walk around the class and when they hear the chime, they would stop. From where they are standing, they would look around and pair up with the first person with whom they make eye contact. The purpose of this moving around the classroom is to allow students to be paired with someone in class whom they likely do not know. This is especially important because it opens up the possibility of finding someone who has different opinions. It also allows students an opportunity to get to know and hear from someone with whom they have not previously interacted. Prior to and during the listening exercise, I have found it important to emphasize that the purpose is for students to openly share their feelings (whatever is arising) rather than attempt to analyze a particular issue.

For the dyad listening practice, I have found it important to emphasize that the person who is speaking is not interrupted and the person listening should keep a neutral and open stance. After one student finishes speaking, the person who is listening repeats back what they heard. Then, the second person in the pair shares their thoughts. After the second student finishes speaking, the listener repeats what they heard. For instance, the listening practice that I undertook in class the day after the 2016 elections, students were eager to share their feelings about the election results, but I asked that when one member of the dyad spoke, the other person was asked to listen with full attention, and then summarize what they had heard.

After everyone dyad has gone through the exercise of open listening, have an open discussion in which everyone shares what they had talked about and how they were/are feeling. As students in each dyad share their views, if their responses vary, I ask the class, "Who had similar views?" and allow those students to comment. If the dyad pair's responses are more or less the same, then I ask if any students in the class had a different view. Based on your understanding of your class, and as the open discussion unfolds, allow the discussion to unfold organically, as students build on and respond to each other; or steer the discussion.

There will be a few difficult moments during the open discussion. I have found it important to pause and allow students to stay with these moments and use them to help cultivate an empathy for multiple perspectives. When I undertook this exercise the day after the elections results of 2016 were announced, almost everyone was either shocked and/or surprised; some felt it was surreal and the whole process has been like a reality show. Some students reflected their unease being a minority, but others spoke about being hopeful for the future--that something good would come out of these results. A few pointed out that they appreciated the checks and balances and limits that Constitution places on politicians, and others reflected on how the Supreme Court could shift direction and were concerned about the super-majority of one party. Everyone's comments were insightful and heartfelt. I felt that we were more at ease when we critically examined the results.


I assign grades for the pre-class and post-class reflections, and engaged participation is a important aspect in each class. This exercise, however, is not graded formally. Nonetheless, it is an important anchoring point before moving to the more typical academic work of critical thinking and analysis. How we feel about any issue certainly influences how we encounter it objectively. The exercise provides important insights to students about their own feelings as well as of their classmates on contentious issues. This creates an opportunity to inculcate respect for each other's positions, and also allows space later to dig deeper analytically examining contrasting perspectives on any issue.

References and Resources