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Across the Curriculum

Should schools allow discussions of controversial issues? (Part I)

Author: Stacie Pierpoint

[OP-ED] On Saturday, August 9 in Ferguson, Mo., a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, a young black man, sparking protests in the town and discussions about race and history across the United States. On August 21, Ed Week reported that the superintendent of a nearby school district banned the discussion of the events in Ferguson, Mo. in schools, because “parents complained … that some teachers were interjecting their own opinions into class discussions rather than objectively guiding discussion for students.”

While it’s true that discussions about emotionally charged or controversial issues must be handled carefully in the classroom, what message do teachers send when they have to tell their students, “We are not allowed to talk about that here?” And while parents certainly have a right to be concerned about how teachers will address difficult topics in their classrooms, silencing the discussion all together is not an answer. The ability to discuss public controversy is a sign of a healthy democracy and a right we can share with our students. Preparing a plan for discussing national news events as they occur could help avoid the “shut it down” effect, which cuts off golden learning opportunities to build better thinkers and stronger communities.

School is most likely one of the best places to address controversial news topics, and there are several benefits to providing students a forum to express themselves. (Similar discussions already occur in literature and social studies lessons as students read and talk about literary works and historical themes.)

First, students are already talking about events as they occur, so they will be easily engaged and invested in learning experiences tied to these topics. In the classroom, teachers, as objective moderators, are able to guide students in thoughtful discussions in a safe space.

Second, controversial issues offer teachers an opportunity to develop students’ critical thinking and analytical skills, goals of the Common Core Standards. For example, they may examine the role that emotions and personal biases play in how people initially react to a national news event like Brown’s death and the resulting protests and police response. With appropriate activities, students learn to review available information, evaluate sources, consider multiple perspectives, and propose solutions.

In addition, allowing students and teachers to talk about timely events and controversial issues creates a sense of community and empowers students to take productive actions to correct wrongs within the school, city, even nation or world.

Please share your thoughts on this topic in the comments and read Part II: How can schools prepare for controversial discussions?

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