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Teaching Controversial Issues

A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues


by Pat Clarke

Key concepts: critical thinking, ethical judgment, media literacy, argument analysis

Skills: analysis and evaluation of issues and the arguments relating to them

Time: approximately 2–3 hours; varies with the issue being discussed

Materials: background readings on issues (stories, articles, reports)


For the past decade, one of the most popular workshops offered by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation has been one titled “Teaching Controversial Issues — Without Becoming Part of the Controversy.” The popularity of the workshop reflects a growing awareness of the need to teach social issues. Yet the motivation for teaching about such topics as environmental sustainability, animal rights or euthanasia is tempered by an understandable wariness of controversy. So while our workshop on teaching controversial issues is well subscribed, we know that many teachers avoid the pedagogical danger zone that social issues represent.

Teachers may be uncomfortable tackling controversial topics if they do not feel “expert” or at least well versed on the issues. Furthermore, teachers may be concerned that complex issues will take too long to cover and that mandated curriculum will be neglected as a result. With increasing standardization and calls for “accountability,” many teachers are not inclined to venture down the sideroads of learning where social issues can so often lead. Teachers may also be disinclined to take on “hot” topics for fear that classroom chaos might ensue. We live in a time of general decline in the protocols of civil discourse: television talk shows bristle with outrageous behavior, which teachers are understandably reluctant to see reproduced in their classrooms. And, too, teachers sense that we are living in particularly cantankerous times when their actions as teachers are under close and often uninformed scrutiny. If we teach about an issue, we can easily find ourselves accused of bias or ulterior political motives. In other words, in teaching about a controversy, we become the controversy. Teachers in one British Columbia community experienced this when they attempted to have their students consider multiple perspectives on the first Gulf War in 1990. Some parents and students expressed the view that there were no “perspectives;” there was only the right side and the wrong side, and they didn’t see any merit in spending time talking about the wrong side!

In spite of these impediments to addressing controversial issues, the fact remains that contemporary teaching presents certain challenges, not the least of which is relevance. The value of a formal education is increasingly measured according to the degree that it is future-oriented and helps students think critically about and act upon social issues and problems. Further, there is a growing belief that a good contemporary education is a “global education” — that is, an education that helps students develop an awareness of the planetary condition, understand connections and interdependence, and take action as responsible citizens in a complex world. In that context, the relationship between education and contemporary issues is apparent. We could well ask, what are our chances of providing our students with a global education if we remain averse to taking on controversial public issues as part of our teaching practice?

What is needed is an approach to teaching issues that overcomes these obstacles — specifically, concern for the influence of a teacher’s own biases, fear of becoming a lightning rod for controversy oneself simply because a controversial issue is discussed in a class, and lack of confidence because of unfamiliarity with an issue. The approach to teaching about issues that is put forward here tries to answer these concerns at least partially. It does not deal directly with the role of issues in prescribed curricula because the possibilities for teaching issues as permitted or encouraged by curricula vary from place to place. However, it would not be extreme to suggest that any teacher who wants to can find a way to integrate consideration of issues into regular course work.

I sometimes refer to this approach to teaching issues as a demystification strategy. It is a way of teaching that is helpful for students because it offers them a way of making sense of a complex and confusing world. It is a method of analyzing an issue, considering the merits of an argument and forming an opinion on the basis of critical analysis. As an essentially inductive process, it is student-centered, and the teacher’s role is primarily that of a monitor or resource person. In this way, the teacher’s bias is less of a concern. The risk of public concern over teaching a controversial issue is addressed because the strategy is itself a demonstration of fair consideration. As an inquiry method, it provides teachers a framework for classroom activity that discourages one-sided argument or ill-informed opinion.

The Demystification Strategy: A framework for teaching controversial public issues

This strategy for teaching controversial public issues has four steps or elements. Each step provides a set of questions that give students a number of ways of looking at an issue, as well as a sound basis for making a judgment. In the following, the controversial issue of keeping large mammals in captivity is used as an example for demonstrating how the strategy and related questions work.

1. What is the issue about?

Where controversy is concerned, the question of what the issue is about is not as simple or obvious as it may appear. The task here is to identify the key question over which there is a controversy. Virtually every controversy turns around three types of questions: those relating to values — what should be? what is best?; those relating to information — what is the truth? what is the case?; and those relating to concepts — what does this mean? how should this be defined? In short, what is this controversy about: values, information or concepts?

By responding to these questions, students begin an analysis of an issue that identifies the nature of the controversy. In doing this, they can fairly quickly determine the heart of the issue. The primary value of this element of the strategy is that it helps students get past some of the frustration that can be experienced in trying to understand an issue. It also gives them a chance to analyze an issue dispassionately before any consideration of the merits of a case.

Example: An inquiry into the issue of keeping mammals in captivity would start by determining if this is a values issue. Is it a controversy over what should be — that is, whether animals should be in captivity or should be free? Or is it an information issue — that is, is it a controversy about what information is to be believed regarding the harm or lack of it that is caused to animals in captivity. Lastly, could it be a question of what we mean by the concept of captivity? Students would likely conclude that keeping mammals in captivity is mostly a values issue, with information and concepts related but not central to the main question of “Is it right to keep mammals in captivity?”


2. What are the arguments?

Once students have determined what the issue is about or the nature of the controversy, the second element of analysis considers the arguments supporting the various positions on the issue. The key concern here is determining just what is being said and whether there is adequate support for the claims being made. This step is largely analytical in that it calls for some determination of the content of an argument. It is also judgmental to a degree. It is at this step that students can begin judging the validity of a position on a controversial issue. If students have determined that the controversy surrounding an issue involves information, then they should ask questions about the information available or provided. Is it adequate? Are the claims in the information accurate? Is the information appropriate to the issue? Are the sources primary or secondary? In general, are the conclusions presented in the argument reasonable, given the information?

Most controversial issues are about values, and there are critical questions that students can ask about the values stated or employed in an argument. Specifically, what criteria are being used in making a judgment? In general, there are two criteria, moral and prudential. Moral criteria for judgment are based on a concern for how all people will be affected. Prudential criteria are those concerned mainly with how I or my group will be affected.

Other questions students can use to test the acceptability of values claims are well known and quite universal in application. They are: How would you like that done to you? What if everybody did that? Are there any situations in which you would feel different or disagree with this value? These questions give students a set of criteria for making judgments that can take them beyond relativism and, because of their universal application, can help them to reflect on the validity of dogmatic positions.

If the controversy is one that seems to involve issues of definition, meaning or concepts, students should try to determine if the arguments presented use meanings or definitions that are clear. They should also test to see if meanings are used consistently and if they are appropriate and used in a proper context.

Example: If students have decided that the question of keeping mammals in captivity is about values, they will have to respond to a moral question and then decide if it has a universal application. They may decide that it is acceptable to keep mammals in captivity because it has prudential value, that of helping humans to understand mammals. Having decided that, however, they will need to consider the limits of that value, such as how many in captivity is enough? Likewise, if they decide on the moral imperative “I wouldn’t want this for me,” then they also have to ask in what instances that value not would apply, such as with animals that are habituated to captivity.

3. What is assumed?

Once students have considered the arguments in an issue, the critical question becomes what are the assumptions, or what is taken as self-evident in the presentation of arguments? It is at this stage that crucial matters of principle are employed to determine the validity of a position.

This framework or process has at its heart the fundamentally important aspect that there is no values relativity. It is not true that any opinion, position or point of view is acceptable or legitimate. If the assumptions that justify an argument are based in prejudice, if the attitudes behind an argument are ethnocentric, racist or parochial, then these assumptions are grounds for criticism and reduce the legitimacy of the argument. The question for students to pose is, what are the assumptions behind the argument? Is it based on a prejudice or some other attitude that is contrary to universally held human values, such as those set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?

A second element that students can use to evaluate assumptions, or what is “behind” an argument, is the voice of the argument. Who is saying this? Are they “insiders” or “outsiders”? Insiders may have particular information and interests that could give an argument a certain shape or orientation. If the voice is that of an outsider, does the outsider know the issue, or is being an outsider an advantage in this case since outsiders have no special interest? Often the assumptions behind an argument can best be tested by hearing views of both insiders and outsiders.

Example: The United Nations Declaration is not applicable to the question of keeping mammals in captivity, but the question can be analyzed from the “who is saying this?” perspective. Are the people who make a case for captivity mostly those who receive some financial benefit from doing so, such as zoo owners? Are those on the other side of the argument experts on animal behavior or is their advocacy based more on sensitivities and anthropomorphism than on facts? Once the arguments have been analyzed and the assumptions scrutinized, the final step is to consider how the issue or the arguments pertaining to it are presented or manipulated. The final question in the process then tries to help students judge the quality of the information they are receiving.


4. How are the arguments manipulated?

This is the stage of the process when questions are asked on the politics of the issue. This step is particularly important for students because it can help them understand how information can be used to influence opinion.

To determine how an argument is being manipulated, students must first determine who is involved and what their particular interests are in the issue. What is the rationalization for their position? What are their reasons for taking the position they advance? By considering these questions, students begin to see how information can be selected, emphasized or ignored according to its value in supporting various positions on an issue. The degree to which the parties involved are acting in self-interest and use information only to support that interest could affect the legitimacy of a position. On the other hand, a strongly supported position or one with strong moral reasons could add credibility to an argument.

A growing contemporary concern is the role of media in controversial issues, specifically how media can engage in argument manipulation. The question for students to address is, how can the media both reflect and create reality? To what extent on any given controversial issue is the media either creating the issue or manipulating the arguments? Argument manipulation is usually accomplished through such strategies as scapegoating, making false analogies and providing extreme examples, to name a few. The degree to which media or advocates of a position rely on such strategies is an indication to students of the validity of an argument. Detecting such tactics gives students a useful tool for assessing an argument and making a judgment on an issue.

Example: In examining the question of keeping mammals in captivity, students may find a great deal of argument manipulation. In the end, it may not lead to a conclusion, only to an awareness that manipulation happens, which in itself is a worthy learning outcome. Nevertheless, for this issue it is evident that looking at statements on either side should allow an informed opinion on where the manipulation is found and whether one side is more prone to it than the other.

At the end of such an inquiry, or demystification process, students may well be less certain of their position than when they began. That is a legitimate outcome of having more information and going through a process that requires critical reflection and open-mindedness. Most important, they will have arrived at their conclusions through their own deliberation, and we teachers will have provided the lamp of learning, not the pointer and the answer book.


Common Strategies for Manipulating Arguments

Scapegoating: Assigning blame.

Polarized Thinking: Us/them, weak/strong, rich/poor, good/bad; encourages distrust, suspicion; presents limited and false choices.

Ad Hominem Strategy: Judgment based on who said something rather than on the merit of the statement.

Straw Person: Creating a caricature of a person or group.

Irrelevant Appeals: Appeals to emotion, patriotism, tradition.

Either-Or Tactic: Forcing a choice by presenting only two possibilities when there may be others.

Leading Statements, Slogans: Designed to damage credibility, encourage hostility, create a false impression.

False Analogies: An analogy that makes an inappropriate connection or comparison.

Extreme Examples: Used to prove a point, to slant an argument, to support a prejudice.


Now retired, Pat Clarke is a former social studies teacher and former director of professional development for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation in Vancouver.

This article and the BCTF workshop “Teaching Controversial Issues” were based on The Media and Public Issues: A Guide for Teaching Critical Mindedness by Walter Werner and Kenneth Nixon, Althouse Press, 1990.

From Teaching Green: The High School Years.