Highly-charged discussions around current events can make students from a variety of backgrounds and points of view feel silenced and alienated in class by other students or even by a professor. But if thoughtfully handled, they can be highly productive for students, teaching them how to listen empathetically and actively to other points of view and even collaborate across them, giving them practice in critical thinking, and creating new connections to course material.
Whether your course naturally includes highly-charged topics, or you decide to have a discussion in response to a controversial current event, preparing for these moments can ensure they are enriching rather than distressing. Preparing for difficult class discussions requires us to think deeply about our goals and teaching approaches for students in these moments, while reflecting on our own feelings, biases, and motivations so that we can model and promote desirable behaviors.
Here are some important considerations and strategies to help set class up for productive discourse
- Note Upcoming Discussions. It will be helpful to let students know they may be engaging in discussions that elicit strong feelings, opinions, and discomfort. Clearly communicate how you will help students “get comfortable with the discomfort” and help them see the benefits of such moments for their intellectual and emotional development. This strategy can begin with an email pre-semester or open discussion in the first week, supported by messaging in your syllabus and repeated orally throughout the semester.
- Develop guidelines for civil discourse. At the start of the semester, have students collaboratively generate guidelines for class discussion. These guidelines can be posted on Canvas and referred to throughout the semester. Sample guidelines include: listening without interrupting; not turning the conversation into a personal attack; and avoiding inflammatory language. You’ll be surprised how much tougher students can be about these guidelines than you might be, and how much more buy-in you’ll get when they have contributed to the established rules.
- Check your baggage at the gate. Before engaging in these types of discussions, reflect on your own biases and triggers. How might you respond verbally and non-verbally to a contrary statement / point of view about which you have strong feelings? Work on modeling desirable skills: show students what it means to actively listen and how to ask clarifying questions. Review some non-verbal skills that demonstrate caring and compassion, and compare the effects to non-verbal expressions of intolerance and anger. If anyone’s feelings cannot be managed effectively in the moment, it may be better to table the discussion and return at a later time.
- Give students opportunities to practice. Early in the semester, start with discussion topics that are low stakes and won’t trigger strong emotional responses. This allows students to get to know one another and practice listening, evaluate another perspective, and navigate differences of opinion. For instance, you might begin with a reading that (students can evaluate through competing explanations. Whether you have in-person, live, or asynchronous courses, pair work and discussion boards can help students practice listening or reading each other’s takes on a topic. Online, you can use Zoom breakout rooms or private chat to get students speaking with one another. At the end of these discussions, remember to ask students what they learned from the process.
- When It’s Go Time. The following active learning strategies can serve as a vehicle for practicing and engaging in civil discourse on difficult topics:
- Start with prompting activities. Rather than throw a difficult topic wide open, lead into discussion with exercises or questions than help students warm up, sort out their thoughts, and confront their initial reactions. A 1-minute reflection paper before discussion can help students order their thinking. Questions that start with a third party, like “what did x source have to say on this topic?” or “where does this topic currently fit in the national landscape?” give students time to find their feet. A variety of other strategies exist for designing questions that engage students critically while helping them to manage their passions.
- Consider structured discussion techniques. These strategies structure discussion to ensure fairness, inclusivity and focus. In the Circle of Voices activity, each student gets a chance to speak uninterrupted for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on class size. In Circular Response, each student is required to build their comment from the prior comment, or at least address it constructively before adding their own thoughts. In Snowballing, students debate a topic in pairs, then pairs join one another, becoming progressively larger until the whole class reunites. This approach helps students learn that discussions can be developmental as it pivots to incorporate new ideas. Make sure that students also get opportunities to practice the skills they glean from structured discussion in more open discussion scenarios.
- Own the difficulty by setting up a debate. Some topics may be best served through debate, where students are invited to take sides and argue, but interact through established rules. Debates work best when students are asked to reverse opinion and consider opposing views. Check out these guidelines for ensuring an effective debate experience.
- Be prepared for tension. There is always the possibility that a difficult discussion gets out of control. In these “hot” moments, the following strategies can help: remind students of your class discussion agreement; affirm the emotions in the room while rerouting the energy through further questions; ask students to write their thoughts quietly for a moment; in the Zoom environment, remove a student who is overly aggressive or violates policies. Many other strategies also exist for managing these hot moments.
If you’d like to develop a game plan with a CAT faculty developer, or if you would like a developer to sit in on a discussion to give you feedback, don’t hesitate to book a consultation. With some thoughtful planning and some practice, incorporating difficult discussions into your course can be a highly successful pedagogical strategy and may not be that difficult after all!
Cliff Rouder, Ed.D., is Pedagogy and Design Specialist at Temple University's Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Kyle Vitale, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching.