Strategies For Dealing With Controversy In Humanities Class


Teaching a curriculum that holds at its core culture, individual identity, and civic ideals, controversy is at the heart of what is studied. When a history curriculum does not seem controversial, it is because the (hi)stories have been mollified in order to appeal to a wider population.

For a detailed explanation of how U.S. history curricula has changed over the years, refer to the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Lowen. Or you can compare the content of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn to The Americans by Holt McDougal.

The question is how should a humanities educator deal with controversial issues when they will most definitely arise in the curriculum and in students’ comments. I’ve researched a few credible resources, and discuss them below.

Resources From The University of Michigan

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan offers several white papers, articles, and rubrics for Discussion-Based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics In The Classroom. Let’s take a look at a couple of the linked resources.

A framework that can be applied rather quickly is this Guidelines for Class Discussion by A.T. Miller. If ground rules are establish before a discussion starts, then students are more likely to stay civil despite differing opinions. This resource reminds students to listen to others even though their opinions differ, to not engage in side conversations while others are speaking, and to support statements with evidence.

The white paper Managing Hot Moments In The Classroom, by Lee Warren at the Derek Bock Center at Harvard University, gives guidelines for what to do when things are about to “explode in the classroom.” A suggested strategy is to have students write about the issue before the discussion and research facts that support and challenge their own beliefs. Warren also reminds us to not ignore heated remarks, because this would lead to a missed opportunity for students to reflect on their own behavior and its consequences.

Advice From Annenberg Learner

The Annenberg Learner gives us the video Dealing With Controversial Issues. The first point addressed is to instruct students to use several sources to support their point of view. This can lead to a valuable lesson in teaching reliability and credibility of sources.

Another point is to have students determine point of view. If students can distinguish between point of view and fact, then they are more likely to objectively look at a resource and more calmly discuss the issues surrounding the topic at hand.

The final point mentioned in this resource is proposing solutions. This can be a valuable practice because it will allow students to realize how there are sometimes no good solutions, and that there is a cost to everything. This is what politicians deal with every day and it a basic premise in the study of economics.

Teaching Controversy From Teaching Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance reminds us that educators should not only know how to deal with controversy in the classroom, but we should teach controversy, which is Chapter 4 their publication on Civil Discourse In The Classroom. Teaching Tolerance reminds us that if students can be taught at a young age how to argue and discuss a topic, they will quickly learn how to do so in a civil manner.

According to this resource, the first steps in teaching civil discourse is to teach students how to turn their opinions into argument using the ARE method (assertion, reasoning, evidence). Then students should be taught a process for refuting the assertions of opposing points of view.

In order to promote a discussion-friendly classroom, Teaching Tolerance suggests that discussion have limited and acheivable goals, that the discussions be interspersed with other activities, and that debriefing session should be built in. This is part of scaffolding a lesson so that material has an introduction, buildup, and conclusion.

When teaching controversial topics, Teaching Tolerance advises to build a vocabulary list around the topic to get started. This is what would be advises when introducing any content unit. We are also reminded that persuasion happens overtime. Like so much in education, change is slow to become visible.

What does this all mean?

Controversial topics will arise in your humanities classroom, but the good news is that freely accessible resources give you strategies to deal with this controversy. This post shared a few resources and gave 9 strategies, which are summarized in the below list:

  1. Build vocabulary lists around a topic.

  2. Set ground rules for class discussion.

  3. Have students research and write about the issue before the class discussion.

  4. Guide students to differentiate between fact and opinion.

  5. Teach students how to turn opinions into arguments.

  6. Set limited and achievable goals for discussions.

  7. Intersperse discussions with other activities.

  8. Have students propose solutions.

  9. Debrief a discussion.

cultureBryn Hafemeister2, c