The Prevent Strategy: Practical Tips for Managing Controversial Topics in the Classroom

December 21, 2016
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Controversial Topics: A Guide for Teachers

This guide has been designed with teachers in mind to help you navigate hot topics in the classroom.

Issues like immigration, terrorism, war, religion and extremism, race and racism, and sexism are big in the news. Ignoring them in the classroom isn’t realistic, and you don’t have to do it.

Discussing sensitive issues prepares students for democratic participation in later life. When you choose to embrace hot topics, you’re making a choice to let students learn vital life skills and learn from the moment.

Structured classroom debate provides students with the ability to:

  • Debate their beliefs,
  • Practice and develop reason,
  • Make cognitive gains in decision making,
  • Challenge their views and the views of others,
  • Recognise, unpack, and explain subtext,
  • Take a step back and handle emotions, and
  • Acknowledge and explain the reasons why other people hold their views.

These are skills that children need – especially if they must uphold the British values that Prevent wants teachers to instil. So this requires you to successfully navigate hot topics and keep up to speed on your conflict management skills.

A teacher discusses sensitive issues with a small group of students

 Tips for Managing Controversial Topics

Whether you’re new to teaching or a seasoned veteran, it’s important to have an arsenal of tips for heated moments. Here are our 8 favourites:

1. Never ignore intolerant remarks.

Never leave remarks unchallenged or unexplored. If you ignore something hateful, this teaches students that intolerance and trivialising are okay. Worse, it makes some students feel like they aren’t protected in the classroom. When someone makes a comment that is hurtful, upsetting or intolerant, it’s a good idea to discuss it calmly and try to consider why some people might feel this way. However, you need to balance exploring the comment with making sure the student who said it doesn’t feel isolated or attacked! If you can do this, you can turn a heated moment into an opportunity for deep learning and development.

And remember, all your students should be protected in the classroom, no matter who they are or what they’re saying.

2. Connect students to groups outside the classroom.

Sometimes you’re not going to be the best person for your students to speak to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help – there are plenty of resources at your disposal if you’re willing to use them. If a student feels isolated and alone, you’re in a unique position to lead them towards books, after school clubs, religious groups, and other extracurricular groups. These outlets are places where students can engage with their interests and gain exposure to new ideas and new people in healthy ways.

A Mosque in London, England

Most importantly, for students grappling with their religious identity or with intolerant views they can explore and challenge ideas in a supportive environment free from fear. Helping students to find groups outside of the classroom can encourage them to take pride in their identity, to make new friends, and to become exposed to new people. And, above all, it protects them from the judgement they might encounter elsewhere.

3. Make things comfortable, for everyone, no matter what they believe.

In the classroom, you need to establish ground rules and create an atmosphere of respect and tolerance. It’s important to lead by example, so you’ll need to have a firm grip on your emotions too.

Remember that taboos are different for everybody and never be surprised at what some people believe. Everyone is different. Overcoming intolerant beliefs is hard because these thoughts and opinions are often deeply embedded. But you have a uniquely powerful position as an educator to be a source of inspiration, tolerance, and hope in every child’s life. Remember to keep an open mind, and try to understand how every child came to the opinion they have even if the belief differs widely from your own.

4. Don’t know how to navigate something?

Schedule it for another time. This allows you to do your research, plan a conversation, and let everyone cool off. Making a firm commitment to speak about the issue again with a student or group of students gets them to reflect on the issues raised, and reflection is an important part of learning.

5. Know when to talk outside of the classroom.

Supporting students who’ve had a difficult time in class can help them learn from their experience and feel supported. You may need to support people whom you don’t agree with as well. It’s just as important to speak to the student who got upset as it is to speak to the student who made the remark or held the belief.

A teacher speaking to a student in a school hall

6. Recognise when students are distressed.

Sometimes you may have to guess what’s upsetting a student who’s showing visible signs of distress. Without mentioning who in the room is being affected, it can be a good idea to introduce other perspectives if the conversation begins to get one-sided.

7. Respect that some students might want to remain silent.

Some issues are scarier for some people. Talking about ISIS and Islamophobia might be a terrifying subject for Muslim students. They might be worried about the views of their peers, or they could worry that hateful language and generalisations might be directed at them. If they choose to remain silent be sure to respect this. Don’t put them on the spot and don’t ask for their view as a Muslim.

Students sat round a table discussing sensitive issues

8. Make use of The Five Minute Rule.

The 5 Minute Rule is an activity that allows students to explore marginalised, invisible or controversial views by trying to get into the mindset of a person who holds that view for five minutes.

Students can ask for this exercise to be used or you can implement it at any time.

The 5 Minute Rule requires you to set a timer for five minutes. During this time, the group must refrain from criticising the perspective in question and try to get into the mindset of someone who believes it.

You can prompt students using the following questions:

  • What’s interesting or helpful about this view?
  • What are some intriguing features of this viewpoint?
  • What would be different if you believed this perspective?
  • Under what conditions might this idea seem truthful? Think social, cultural, economic conditions, etc.
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Managing Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

When things suddenly seem to explode or something threatening is said, teaching and learning is compromised. Don’t despair, though; there are ways to claw it back, protect egos, and challenge ways of thinking!

Tears, hurt egos, and anger happen in classrooms everywhere. It’s all part of learning how to discuss issues that people feel strongly about.

These hot moments lead to the recognition that debates on social issues should be handled with care, sensitivity and respect. It also teaches students how to remain abstract from emotions, and that not everyone will agree with you – coming to terms with this is vital!

Exploring these tensions in a carefully managed and structured way leads to deep learning; this is the kind of learning that stays with people. It also ensures that your classroom is not a place of taboo or silence.

There are two big tasks for managing these moments:

  1. Guiding students to make these moments useful.
  2. Helping students to learn in the moment and from it afterwards.

Little boy sat in the school playground alone and isolated

 1. Teach your class to accept discomfort.

This is the first and most important lesson. Learning is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable and there’s nothing wrong with discomfort.

To feel uncomfortable about controversial topics is very human.

Try printing out something that reminds students that it’s okay to find a topic uncomfortable. You can refer back to it during heated moments and before tough discussions to mentally prepare students and lower tensions.

2. Ask students to leave emotions and beliefs at the door.

This isn’t always possible.

But you need to remember that no one makes a controversial comment without reasoning. Try to get students to adopt this attitude because it’s much better to explore the thoughts, experiences, and conditioning that got them there than it is to leave it as an explosion.

Equally, trying to approach topics on an abstract level allows students to take a step away from themselves and consider the perspectives of others.

However, abstract reasoning doesn’t mean that students should say insensitive, cold, cruel or unkind remarks – make this clear. Thinking in abstract terms is useful to allow students to perspective take and remain removed from themselves, not from others.

Managing conflict in the classroom

3. Help students explore subtext.

Subtext refers to the ideas or hidden meanings underneath communication. Sometimes subtext expresses hidden meanings that are purposefully ambiguous – this device is often employed when expressing controversial ideas but not wanting to be pinned down for a controversial view. Body language, tone, and intonation are also a part of subtext.

Sometimes, the subtext is visible to others and invisible to the person who said it. In these cases, it may be that the speaker isn’t aware of the impact of their words.

A common feature of controversial topics and social issues is that, for the people whom the issue does not apply to, they are unaware of the impact of their words and the hidden message within them. It’s also likely that if you explain what is beneath their words, they will deny it. Someone who is unaware of their prejudices won’t consider themselves racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. and it’s possible that they won’t understand the subtle impact of the language they’re using.

Being able to understand AND explain subtext in a clear way is a huge asset for students in their future relationships and in the world of business.

Establishing Rules in the Classroom

If you know the topic you’re discussing is controversial, establish some ground rules with the class and remind them of these rules before beginning.

Before you begin, mention the issues that might come up to prepare students.

You might have your own rules, but here are a few general ones to think about and use:

  • Don’t permit personal attacks.
  • Maintain a zero-tolerance policy on intolerance like homophobia and Islamophobia.
  • Ask students to be open to and examine their own subtext.
  • Ask students to remain open to multiple perspectives.

Primary school children discuss heated topics in the school library

Keeping Your Head

Recognise your biases. Everyone has biases; recognise what yours are, how they could be offensive and remain neutral.

Breathe. Monitor yourself if you know that the subject is something you feel strongly about.

Be a role model. Handle controversy how you want your students to because they’ll look to you for guidance.

Keep some distance. Don’t get involved in the debate. Your role is to facilitate students learning, to guide students, to introduce new arguments, and to remind students of the ground rules.

Prepare. If the issues that might come up are areas that you don’t know a lot about, do your research. Is it an area with many misconceptions? Come armed with facts and statistics. Is it an area where victims are relatively voiceless? Come armed with stories.

Be proactive. Stop the discussion if you need to and interrupt politely to provide guidance and structure if the conversation stops being useful.

Further Resources