We live in a world where students have the ability to access an almost unlimited amount of information instantaneously. This same world is growing increasingly divided around beliefs and opinions on politics, current events, rights, and civic responsibilities. Because of these features of our everchanging modern world, it often feels impossible for educators to navigate classroom conversations with their students on contentious topics. However, these contentious topics are deeply rooted in the curriculum of many different content areas; these topics are often unavoidable and essential to classroom discussion.
Social studies is especially rich in topics that have been (and are still) considered contentious and continue to shape many contemporary issues. Social studies educators – and all educators – need to build classrooms in which they feel capable of facilitating student discussions on all types of topics, contentious and otherwise. This need is what drove us to write our book Civil Discourse: Classroom Conversations for Stronger Communities.
Through years of experience working inside the classroom and with educators and school districts, we believe that addressing contentious topics should be a critical part of your curriculum, aligned to standards, and supported with structures that develop student skills. Facilitating successful and respectful conversations in the classroom takes time and planning. In supporting this work, we have developed what we call the C.U.B.E.D. approach for civil discourse in the classroom. C.U.B.E.D. stands for:
Since you are already reading this post about contentious topics and have made it this far, you are probably already amongst those who have the courage to have these conversations. Our students and communities need educators and schools who are willing to embrace civil discourse around contentious topics in the curriculum. We hope you agree and we are here to help you get started.
One of the biggest obstacles that we have found with educators hoping to address contentious topics is that not everyone in the classroom has the shared understanding needed to engage in the topic or the discourse. Take time with your colleagues and your students to make sure that everyone knows the difference between different types of conversation. Make sure students know what dialogue, discussion, and debate each look like and what is expected of them when engaging in these interactions. Different expectations and misunderstandings can take a conversation in a direction where you may not want it to go.
A shared understanding helps to build a sense of belonging in your classroom community. How much time do you spend building community in your classroom? To strengthen your classroom community, ask your students to create a set of classroom agreements. Make sure that the agreements are clearly posted and referred to on a regular basis. Leading up to discussion, make sure to remind students of their agreements and use them to evaluate how conversations went. Time spent building trust and belonging will go a long way in your classroom.
Once agreements are in place, identify the topics in your curriculum that could be the most contentious and thoughtfully ease into them. What skills will students need to have these conversations? Identify the skills necessary and start practicing immediately! By having students practice the skills of civil discourse before tackling the toughest topics, you will help students build the empathy needed to understand that they may have different opinions and point of views, and that that is okay. In fact, students will find themselves more comfortable in conversations that focus on solutions to problems rather than deciding which opinions are “right” (McAvoy & McAvoy, 2021). Connect these conversations to social studies skills, like building background knowledge, writing thesis statements, engaging in argumentative writing, using primary and secondary sources as evidence, developing coherent analyses with reasons, and responding to counterarguments.
With all the planning work frontloaded, you should feel confident that your students will have success in whatever structure of discourse you choose. While there are many classroom strategies available to educators, we recommend the following:
- Structured Academic Controversy
- Fishbowl Discussion
- Socratic Seminar
- Philosophical Chairs
- Pinwheel Perspective Taking
- Gallery Walks
Each of these strategies bring different value to your classroom, so think about your students and what you are hoping to achieve in picking which strategy to use. You can read more about each of the strategies in our book as well. We believe that, if implemented properly, any of these strategies will support student success, especially if you are using the strategy as the “discourse” item in C.U.B.E.D. If so, you have taken the recommended steps as an educator to plan for and prepare your students for civil discourse in your classroom. In addressing and engaging with student curiosity about contentious topics in the curriculum, you support student learning by encouraging the skills that are embedded in quality social studies pedagogy.