Last February, I showed an Ezra Klein video on the rise of Donald Trump in some of my history classes. The video’s thesis was that Trump is “the most dangerous major presidential candidate in memory.” My stated purpose was that the video served as a timely example of how one’s claim need not always come at the very start of an argument. Also, given the degree of interest my students had in the primaries at the time, it seemed particularly relevant. Yet as someone who had been following the primaries with particular interest as a student of history, a teacher, a father, and a citizen, I knew that I did like the video — not because I was “With Her” or “Feeling the Bern” (I wasn't), but because I was concerned with how flippantly the election of the most powerful person in world history was being treated, and I didn't appreciate the debased rhetoric that was making headline after headline. I didn't tell my students that I appreciated the video giving voice to some of my concerns, but students are smart, and I'm sure many of them sensed my bias.
As it turned out, later that night a parent called my principal, concerned about me “pushing my politics” on students through showing the video. My principal spoke with me the next day, and I submitted a written explanation of why I shared the video along with an apology. That same day, I told my kids I was sorry, and that I hoped any of them knew they and their parents were welcome to come to me with any concerns they had, that it was my job as a professional to listen and make adjustments based on feedback . All said, the problems my mistake started resolved in a gracious fashion (thanks to all involved), and I am very thankful for that .
All of that is to say that I made a mistake, primarily in the area of even-handedness (the First Imperative — see below). And the point of this article is to help you do better than me. So how do we teach controversial topics well, especially the ones in which we have pretty strong opinions ourselves?
The Three Imperatives for teaching controversial topics
The First Imperative for teaching controversial topics (or “teaching the conflicts,” as Gerald Graff wrote about years ago in his Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education) is that we must be as even-handed as possible. This advice isn’t my own; it comes from a recorded conversation I had with Dr. Graff (and his co-author, Cathy Birkenstein) several months ago.
According to Dr. Graff, “Nothing kills an argument more than when the students get the sense that they’re being browbeaten, that the teacher’s on one side trying to convert them, and that the other side isn’t really being aired.” If students sense the teacher’s bias (or see it in the lopsided sets of evidence we provide them with, like my example with the one strongly anti-Trump Ezra Klein video), we won’t really be teaching them to argue and think critically at all; instead, we’ll be teaching them that school is a place where they’re told what to think. Inevitably, this demotivates kids. There’s no autonomy in a one-sided argument.
2. Explicitly teach argument
The Second Imperative is that we must actually teach students to argue. Much has been written on this, but the simplest starting places I’ve found are the “Argument Builder” sheets produced by Les Lynn over at Argument-Centered Education. (See my review of Les’ Refutation Two-Chance here.)
3. Let kids argue
Finally, the Third Imperative is that we then let students argue. Here, classroom management is critical, and I recommend the Pop-Up Debate protocol as a management tool. The goal during a debate on a controversial topic is that everyone participates, that an atmosphere of intellectual engagement is maintained throughout the argument, and that respect and civility are the behavioral norms.
The goal of such lessons is that our students get closer to what I call Fulkersonian argument, from Richard Fulkerson’s Teaching the Argument in Writing:
The goal [of argument] is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own.
Teaching the controversies, to me, isn’t an optional teacher thrill; it’s not the sky diving of teaching. Rather, it’s a central part of the educator’s work in maintaining a democratic society.
- Just for the record, while I do wish the student or parent had come directly to me, I don't believe anyone meant to be unreasonable in the situation. I know that I didn't mean to be — I didn't wake up hoping I'd have the chance to be lop-sided in my treatment of a controversial issue — and I have full faith that the student and the parent didn't, either — they didn't wake up thinking, “Let's take a problem straight to the teacher's boss rather than talking to him about it.” Seth Godin treats this topic very well in his “No One Is Unreasonable” essay, which you can find here.
- Of course, every year there are teachers who receive much more than a complaint when they broach controversial topics — and sometimes, those teachers (unlike myself in this situation) broach such topics with the utmost of care. And since I don’t hope for any of you to lose your jobs using Kelly Gallagher’s article of the week assignment or teaching an argumentative unit or having kids use pop-up debate or leading a discussion on this fall's election, I hope this post helps.
[hr]Thank you to Jerry Graff and Cathy Birkenstein for being a constant source of help in contemplating the teaching of argument. Also, thank you to Jackie, a teacher in Tucson who graciously chatted with me about an earlier version of this post over email. If it is a better, clearer post now than it used to be, it is because of her.