The Importance of Teaching Subjects with Controversy

Schools recognize how critical it is to teach students to debate important topics—often these skills are highlighted in strategic plans and mission statements. And for good reason—how else can teachers prepare the next generation to be engaged citizens who have the ability to think critically and grapple with important issues. To hone these skills, teachers bring issues into the classroom that matter deeply but have no clear right or wrong answer among experts. For example, climate change is not a useful topic to debate since there is overwhelming evidence for its existence. However, students could have useful debates around ways to reduce climate change and the range of reforms and policies that are needed to save the planet.  

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When conducting these debates, teachers should structure discussions that are respectful and encourage participation from everyone in the class. The pro and con arguments should be presented with civility and reason—qualities that may be harder to teach these days as students are often exposed to shouting and disrespectful interactions among politicians and others in the news media.

With the growing polarization across the globe, schools need to serve as a refuge for the safe exploration of controversial issues and a haven for civil disagreements on topics that really matter. And in these situations, students learn far more than the facts that are being debated. Students will also develop the skills they need for lifelong engagement, debate, and critical thinking, along with how to agree to disagree when it really counts.


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