ERIC Identifier: ED327453
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Harwood, Angela M. - Hahn, Carole L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science
Education Bloomington IN.
Controversial Issues in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.
The essence of a healthy democracy is open dialogue about issues of
public concern. An integral part of the training of young citizens, therefore,
includes the discussion of controversial social, political, and economic
policies. This ERIC Digest explores the use of classroom discussions as
a pedagogical technique to examine controversial issues by considering
(1) the nature of controversial issues discussions, (2) the importance
of discussion in social studies instruction, (3) what is known about the
use of controversial issues discussions in social studies, and (4) suggestions
for implementing controversial issues discussions in the classroom.
WHAT IS A CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES DISCUSSION?
A controversial issues discussion is defined as reflective dialogue
among students, or between students and teachers, about an issue on which
there is disagreement. Typically a discussion is sparked by a question
or assertion made either by a student or teacher. The ensuing dialogue
then allows for the presentation of supportive evidence, comments, and
the expression of differing points of view. Discussion is therefore, by
nature, an interactive endeavor, and reflective dialogue engenders listening
and responding to ideas expressed by one's peers.
An idea or viewpoint may be considered an issue if a number of people
disagree about statements and assertions made in connection with the proposition.
Issues that deeply divide a society, that generate conflicting explanations
and solutions based on alternative value systems, are considered controversial
Given this definition, the scope of issues that might be considered
controversial is quite broad. The content of issues may vary from local
problems to issues on the international scene. The censoring of books in
a school library, the immigration policy of the United States, and the
environmental state of the world would each prove to be rich subjects for
controversial issue discussions. Although each reflects a problem area
at a different level of public policymaking, they are all topics that foster
a wide range of sharply differing opinions.
WHY IS A CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES DISCUSSION AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF
SOCIAL STUDIES INSTRUCTION?
Many reasons have been given to support the use of controversial issues
discussions in social studies classrooms. Three of the most prevalent are
(1) preparing students for their roles as citizens in a pluralistic democracy,
(2) developing critical thinking skills, and (3) improving interpersonal
We must prepare students, as young citizens, to grapple with a wide
array of social problems. Newmann (1989) argues that the main task for
democratic citizens is to deliberate with other citizens about the nature
of the public good and how to achieve it. Social studies classrooms should
serve, therefore, as a laboratory in which students can experiment with
The teaching of controversial issues is also proposed as a means to
develop students' critical thinking. Through discussion of controversial
issues, students develop cognitive skills, such as constructing hypotheses
and collecting and evaluating evidence. They also gain insights from sharing
information with their peers.
As students participate in discussions, they also develop important
attitudes and communication skills, such as listening carefully, responding
empathetically, speaking persuasively, and cooperating readily, with others
in a group. Well-managed discussions also promote tolerance of diverse
viewpoints on any single issue.
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE EFFECTS OF CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES DISCUSSIONS?
For the past 25 years, scholars in the social studies field have been
examining the effects of controversial issues discussion through empirical
research. The line of inquiry was sparked by Patrick's ground-breaking
review of political socialization research, in which he noted that educational
programs might have a greater impact on the development of democratic attitudes
"if they were conducted in an atmosphere more conducive to inquiry and
openmindedness" (1967, 71). A number of researchers have subsequently investigated
the role of discussion in preparing students for citizenship.
Early investigations of the effects of discussion indicated that students
who participated in classroom discussions often reported more positive
political attitudes and higher participation in political activities. Adults
who remembered participating in school discussions and debates scored higher
on measures of political efficacy than did their counterparts (Patrick
1967). Long and Long (1975) found that controversial issues discussion
in schools was positively correlated with following current events in the
media and discussing political matters with friends and family.
An important element of productive controversial issues discussions
emphasized by researchers is the importance of creating a classroom climate
which is conducive to the free expression of ideas. Taken as a whole, this
research suggests that when students are allowed to discuss controversial
issues in an open supportive classroom environment there are often positive
outcomes for students' feelings of political interest, efficacy, confidence,
and trust (Hahn, Angell & Tocci 1988). Additionally, issue discussions
have been shown to improve civic tolerance (Goldenson 1978) and increase
interest in social issues (Curtis & Shaver 1980).
Particular climate variables that contribute to the positive effects
of controversial issues discussion include the opportunity to hear a wide
range of views and students' perceived freedom to express ideas (Ehman
1977) and student's perceptions of teachers' willingness to discuss ideas
(Long & Long 1975). Each of these elements of classroom climate, in
combination with the discussion of controversial issues, has been shown
to relate to positive civic attitudes.
In addition to stimulating the development of positive political attitudes,
controversial issues discussions generate more favorable attitudes toward
social studies classes in general. Students have expressed both a desire
to study controversial social issues and more positive feelings about social
studies classes that included discussion formats (Remy 1972). It is probable
that with more discussions of controversial issues fewer students would
feel that social studies subjects are dull and irrelevant to the real world,
as has so often been reported in surveys on student perceptions of social
WHAT ARE KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR IMPLEMENTING CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES
DISCUSSIONS IN THE CLASSROOM?
Conducting beneficial discussions of controversial issues is an art
that requires skill and practice. Teachers must pay careful attention to
preparation for discussions, and the role they will take during the conduct
of the discussion to ensure that interactions will be fruitful. Each of
the following points should be addressed.
In selecting discussion issues, teachers should consider their students'
interest, experience, and expertise regarding the issue; the relevance
of issues to their students' lives; their students' maturity level; and
the significance of the issue to society.
Preparing Students for Discussion.
Given the dearth of discussions in today's classrooms, teachers must
be willing to invest time to train their students in discussion techniques.
Teachers and students should cooperatively determine guidelines for interaction,
and both should realize that to establish a rhythm and flow for discussions
will take practice and patience.
Providing Adequate Information Sources.
Ensuring that students are adequately prepared to handle an issue in
a discussion format requires that teachers provide informational resources,
and that students have an opportunity to acquire background knowledge prior
to the discussion. Background information may be provided through readings,
lectures, films, guest speakers, or field trips. To encourage participatory
citizenship through the exploration of public issues, the National Council
for the Social Studies instituted the Public Issues Program (PIP) in 1984.
PIP offers a variety of materials and formats for the discussion of important
social and political issues, including the town meeting sessions affiliated
with the National Issues Forums, the Jefferson Meetings on the Constitution,
the Great Decisions texts and tapes, and the teaching units included in
the Public Issues Series (McFarland 1989).
Establishing an Open Discussion Climate.
The creation of an intellectually safe environment for student participation
is one of the most important elements of successful discussions. Teachers
should model appropriate discussion behaviors by carefully listening to
and respecting students' contributions. Teachers must tolerate widely divergent
views and encourage expression of them in order to establish a non-threatening
arena for the exposition of ideas. Students must understand that they may
not interrupt each other's comments, and that they may disagree without
Maintaining Focus and Direction.
One of the most common problems faced by discussion leaders is the tendency
for a stimulating discussion to wander off topic. By developing a discussion
agenda and using the blackboard or an overhead projector to summarize and
organize student contributions, teachers can provide the necessary structure
for constructive discussions. An agenda for the discussion might include
defining the problem, summarizing and analyzing evidence, suggesting possible
solutions, hypothesizing consequences of solutions, and relating the issue
to the personal experience of the students.
Ensuring Intellectual Balance.
One of the primary roles of the teacher in moderating classroom discussions
is to ensure that students are exposed to the full range of perspectives
on any issue considered. Teachers should solicit a wide array of opinions
about discussed issues, and expose students to a best case, fair hearing
of competing points of view. If important viewpoints on a given issue are
not expressed, they may be elicited through careful teacher questioning;
or they may be provided by asking students to role-play someone who would
present that perspective.
Encouraging Equal Participation.
To achieve a level of balanced participation it is often necessary to
actively draw reticent students into the discussion and to limit the contributions
of more outspoken students. The establishment of a participation system
is generally helpful in addressing this problem. Student participation
may be directed, for instance, through the use of coins or tokens. Each
student is given the same number of tokens, which they "spend" as they
make a contribution to the discussion. After all students have exhausted
their supply of tokens, the tokens are then redivided. Such a method for
directing discussion will help to equalize the participation of individual
The Expression of Teachers' Personal Views.
Teachers who take a stand on controversial issue in their classroom
must be willing to clearly indicate that it is only one opinion, and must
be willing to provide the evidence on which their decision was based. Additionally,
because all views expressed in discussions of controversial issues are
subject to question and scrutiny, teachers must be willing to reflect upon
their own stances and allow students to challenge them. Taking a stand
on an issue is the right of any citizen in a democratic society; teachers
must be careful, however, that in so doing they do not adversely affect
the ability of their students to freely examine the issues at hand.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are in the ERIC system
and are available in microfiche and paper copies from the ERIC Document
Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact EDRS,
3900 Wheeler Avenue, Alexandria, Virginia 22304; telephone numbers are
703-823-0500 and 800-227-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number are annotated
monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), which is available
in most libraries. EJ documents are not available through EDRS; however,
they can be located in the journal section of most libraries by using the
bibliographic information provided below.
Curtis, Charles K., and James P. Shaver. "Slow Learners and the Study
of Contemporary Problems." Social Education 44 (April 1980): 302-309. EJ
Ehman, Lee. Social Studies Instructional Factors Causing Change in High
School Students' Sociopolitical Attitudes over a Two-Year Period. Paper
presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
New York, April, 1977. ED 142 480.
Goldenson, Dennis R. "An Alternative View about the Role of the Secondary
School in Political Socialization: A Field Experimental Study of the Development
of Civil Liberties Attitudes." Theory and Research in Social Education
6 (March 1978): 44-72. EJ 178 562.
Hahn, Carole L., Ann Angell, and Cindy Tocci. Civic Attitudes in Five
Nations. A paper presented at the International meeting of the Social Studies,
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, June 1988.
Hill, William Fawcett. Learning through Discussion: A Guide for Leaders
and Members of Discussion Groups. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications,
Long, Samuel, and Ruth Long. "Controversy in the Classroom: Student
Viewpoint and Educational Outcome." Teaching Political Science 2 (April
1975): 275-299. EJ 118 337.
McFarland, Mary. "The NCSS Public Issues Program." Social Education
53 (October, 1989): 365-366. EJ 398 356.
Newmann, Fred M. "Reflective Civic Participation." Social Education
53 (October 1989): 357-359, 365-366. EJ 398 353.
Patrick, John J. Political Socialization of American Youth: Implications
for Secondary School Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: National Council
for the Social Studies, 1967. ED 010 835.
Remy, Richard C. "High School Seniors' Attitudes Toward Their Civics
and Government Instruction." Social Education 36 (October 1972): 590-597,
622. EJ 065 209.
Stradling, Robert. "Controversial Issues in the Classroom." In: Teaching
Controversial Issues, edited by Sidney Hill and Colin Reid. London: Edward