The argument for courting controversy in the classroom
- Teachers may want to avoid controversial topics in class, but conflict is something all students will have to handle in their lives, Rebecca Recco, an Apple Distinguished Educator, writes in an opinion piece for EdSurge.
- Classrooms can actually be a “safe space” for these kind of conversations, believes Recco. Educators can use these difficult topics to reinforce digital citizenry, teaching students how to find accurate information online, and also helping them learn how to artfully, and respectfully, disagree with each other.
- When controversial events happen outside the classroom, telling students they can’t talk about them in school can make them feel “cut-off,” says Recco. This can “reinforce,” she writes, the idea that their education has nothing to do with anything they’ll need in the real world.
It’s not uncommon to find teachers trying to sidestep controversial subjects — whether that’s the role of nude paintings in the history of art, to today’s political environment. Few want to court problems with administrators and parents. More keenly, many educators may feel ill-equipped to handle an uproar in a classroom. As a result, classrooms can feel constrained.
Yet respectful discourse is one of the cornerstones of a successful society — the idea that one can agree to disagree. Teaching young children how to verbally spar, to discuss their unique points of view, to attempt to sway someone’s mind but remain content if they can’t, is as useful a skill for their lives as knowing how to interview for a job.
There is a need, then, for curriculum that taps into current events, and teaches students not just about facts but also how to interpret, engage with and discuss those details. Learning these social-emotional tools is important. It’s also crucial, though, that administrators develop clear guidelines for themselves, for teachers and for students on how to handle these kind of topics. These can include rules of behavior, so teachers can model the way they want their students to act, and even tips on how to keep emotions tempered so students can explore and discuss their opinions calmly. Children who scream at each other when they have different viewpoints grow up into adults who do the same.