Facilitating Difficult and Sensitive Conversations in the Classroom


Instructional designers will tell you that it’s always best to design courses and curriculum around measureable, specific learning outcomes. The same rule is true for teaching about controversial or difficult topics. It’s best to clearly state in the syllabus whatever your objectives are. Here are some examples:

At the conclusion of this course, the learner will be able to:

  • Identify, analyze, compare, and explain different approaches, beliefs, and opinions regarding social issues
  • Empathize with someone who comes from a different background, culture, or experience from your own
  • Develop critical thinking skills to increase your depth of understanding
  • Write an essay that explains a complex social issue and the multiple views and opinions around it
  • Demonstrate facilitation skills in tense negotiations or situations

Difficult conversations may happen impromptu, meaning you didn’t necessarily have time to write out objectives for the learning that may happen in your class. That’s okay. If students are learning something valuable, you should give yourself permission to respond and give yourself the freedom to explore the topic as time permits. If you don’t have the time, or you think you simply aren’t prepared to tackle the topic, you can gracefully table the conversation. If you do this, make sure that people understand why you are doing it. Never shut something down with your students without explaining why you are doing so. This makes it seem like you are silencing someone, perhaps because you don’t agree.

Rules of Engagement

 There are two approaches for establishing a set of simple effective guidelines for the conversation. You can set those out yourself in the syllabus, or you can have your students co-create them with you. Setting up the rules with your students takes a lot of time, and if you don’t have much time, it might be best to establish the rules yourself at the start. Another option is to use an online activity outside of class (in the discussion board of Courseweb, for example). Whatever path you take, you must have these rules in place. In addition, the rules must be clear. Use specific language so that everyone is on the same page. For example, don’t just say “listen respectfully.” Instead, say “Practice active, respectful listening to stay engaged with whomever is speaking. This means not interrupting, not looking at digital devices, and not making side comments to other people.”

Another helpful rule is to establish a ‘pause’ button. There are many techniques for doing this so you may need to experiment with a technique that works for you. The idea is that everyone consciously takes a break (perhaps five or even ten seconds) after someone is finished speaking before someone asks a question or responds. It’s a good practice to get your students comfortable with brief moments of silence; however, it may take a lot of practice to implement successfully.

Check your bias

Everyone brings various kinds and levels of bias to every conversation. It can be hard to admit our biases sometimes, but make no mistake, they are there. If you want to uncover your biases in a more systemic way, consider doing this brief survey from Harvard.

Once you know where your pain points are, you can address those reflectively. You might also choose to reveal your own bias at the beginning of a conversation and ask your students to do the same. This can be a powerful way to begin the conversation. If you aren’t willing to admit your own bias, it’s probably best to not ask your students to reveal their own.

Your identity and strongly held beliefs

Sometimes a difficult conversation is so close to home that you aren’t able to separate yourself from the conversation in a way that keeps things productive. These topics tend to be related to our personal identities, or to the identities of someone we love. It might also be related to a strongly held personal belief, such as your religion. When difficult conversations and your identity intersect, you can acknowledge them (like the biases that I mentioned above). If that feels dangerous, inappropriate or just too uncomfortable, you may need to have a co-facilitator or just turn that conversation over to another facilitator entirely. Most people find it very hard to detach from their identity, and in many cases, it’s probably best to not attempt to do so.

Your students are going to struggle with this too. To counter this, you might consider a more gradual approach to the topic. For example, on the topic of abortion (which can be very personal and value laden), consider beginning by facilitating a conversation about how different people have different definitions of the start of life. You might ask what those definitions are, where the definitions come from, and what they might mean to different people. With the election, if specific groups are identified, or values are raised, acknowledge that there are many people that feel that way and explore how people might arrive at those conclusions. Think of all of this as a way to keep the focus on understanding and making sense of something.

Keep time

If equal time isn’t given to participants in the conversation, participants will notice. You can’t just say that responses are limited to a certain amount of time. You or someone else must be designated to keep time and to enforce those limits on everyone. This can be challenging, but it is essential. You only have so many minutes of class time. All voices need to be heard. A good facilitator makes sure that fairness is practiced.

Be present as a facilitator

You are the instructor. It is your job to be fully present for the conversation. The students will look to you to manage the classroom, to keep everyone civil, and to keep the conversation moving. You have to stay engaged. When you aren’t paying attention, things may go off the rails. You can also be very clear to distinguish between debate and dialogue by saying something like “put yourself in a position to listen and understand rather than deciding whether you agree or disagree and formulating how you will respond.”

There’s so much to say about this topic. Here are some additional web resources, as well as scholarly articles and books that you might wish to read. Finally, The Teaching Center would be happy to work with you on designing, integrating, and implementing classroom techniques and activities that can move your class forward. Some of us are trained mediators and we all have years of teaching experience. Email us, and let us help you.

Articles and books:

Barton, K., & McCully, A. (2007). Teaching controversial issues… where controversial issues really matter. Teaching History, (127), 13-19. Permalink: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=25532924&scope=site

Bernstein, D. A. (1995). A Negotiation Model for Teaching Critical Thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 22–24. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top2201_7

Billson, J. M. (1986). The College Classroom as a Small Group: Some Implications for Teaching and Learning. Teaching Sociology, 14(3), 143–151. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318467

Burkstrand-Reid, B., Carbone, J., & Hendricks, J. S. (2011). Teaching Controversial Topics. Family Court Review, 49(4), 678–684. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-1617.2011.01404.x

Cotton, D. R. E. (2006). Teaching controversial environmental issues: neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research, 48(2), 223–241. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131880600732306

Dunn, A. H., Dotson, E. K., Ford, J. C., & Roberts, M. A. (2014). “You Won’t Believe What They Said in Class Today”: Professors’ Reflections on Student Resistance in Multicultural Education Courses. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(2), 93–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/15210960.2014.899779

Evans, R. W., Avery, P. G., & Pederson, P. V. (1999). Taboo Topics: Cultural Restraint on Teaching Social Issues. The Social Studies, 90(5), 218–224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377999909602419

Fournier-Sylvester, N. (2013). Daring to Debate: Strategies for Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom. College Quarterly, 16(3). Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1018000

Hand, M., & Levinson, R. (2012). Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(6), 614–629. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2010.00732.x

Harwood, A. M.-H. (1990, September). Controversial Issues in the Classroom. ERIC Digest. from http://www.pbs.org/teacherline/courses/tech190/eric_controversial_issues.htm?cc=tlredir

Hess, D. E. (2004). Controversies about Controversial Issues in Democratic Education. PS: Political Science & Politics, 37(2), 257–261. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096504004196

Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion. Routledge.

Jakubowski, L. M. (2001). Teaching Uncomfortable Topics: An Action-Oriented Strategy for Addressing Racism and Related Forms of Difference. Teaching Sociology, 29(1), 62–79. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318783

Kitson, A., & McCully, A. (2005). You hear about It for real in school.’ Avoiding, containing and risk-taking in the history classroom. Teaching History, (120), 32-37. Permalink: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=aph&AN=18375909&scope=site

Lesson Plans After the Shock: How Instructors Treated Trump’s Win in the Classroom. (2016, November 10). Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Lesson-Plans-After-the-Shock-/238360/

Levinson, R. (2006). Towards a Theoretical Framework for Teaching Controversial Socio‐scientific Issues. International Journal of Science Education, 28(10), 1201–1224. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690600560753

Lusk, A. B., & Weinberg, A. S. (1994). Discussing Controversial Topics in the Classroom: Creating a Context for Learning. Teaching Sociology, 22(4), 301–308. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318922

Oulton, C., Dillon, J., & Grace, M. M. (2004). Reconceptualizing the teaching of controversial issues. International Journal of Science Education, 26(4), 411–423. https://doi.org/10.1080/0950069032000072746

Ph.D, T. B. N. (2004). Pedagogy in diversity: Teaching religion & spirituality in the clinical social work classroom. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 74(2), 349–358. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377310409517720

Reiss, M. J. (2011). How Should Creationism and Intelligent Design be Dealt with in the Classroom? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45(3), 399–415. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9752.2011.00790.x

Roberts, A., & Smith, K. I. (2002). Managing Emotions in the College Classroom: The Cultural Diversity Course as an Example. Teaching Sociology, 30(3), 291–301. https://doi.org/10.2307/3211478

Schommer-aikins, M., & Hutter, R. (2002). Epistemological Beliefs and Thinking About Everyday Controversial Issues. The Journal of Psychology, 136(1), 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980209604134

Stowell, J. R., Oldham, T., & Bennett, D. (2010). Using Student Response Systems (“Clickers”) to Combat Conformity and Shyness. Teaching of Psychology, 37(2), 135–140. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986281003626631

Wahl, A.-M., Perez, E. T., Deegan, M. J., Sanchez, T. W., & Applegate, C. (2000). The Controversial Classroom: Institutional Resources and Pedagogical Strategies for a Race Relations Course. Teaching Sociology, 28(4), 316–332. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318582

“’You hear about if for real in school.’” Avoiding, containing and risk-taking in the history classroom – ProQuest. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2016, from http://search.proquest.com/openview/936dc81a0d40054860596f4e2b72eff7/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820977