Controversial issues provide an opportunity for students to explore and communicate on social and political matters of concern to themselves and their community. In any social or political controversy, there are two or more points of view, and it is entirely possible that some opinions in the classroom expressed by teacher or students will offend certain segments of the community. Nevertheless, if students are to develop a reasonable attitude toward the obligations of citizenship, there must be opportunities to freely discuss the issues that confront the society of which they are a part.

Discussions on controversial issues, whether planned or spontaneous, also provide an important means of modeling and teaching tolerance for disparate points of view. Because controversial issues are frequently fraught with heavy emotion, the classroom discussion must have a clear goal of practicing tolerance. Discussions must be conducted in, and teachers must be prepared to insist on an environment of tolerance.

Discussion on controversial issues, whether planned or spontaneous, must constantly take into account the feelings of participants and the feelings of those closely associated with the participants. These discussions provide an opportunity to model, to teach, and to practice active listening skills (reflecting both feelings and content).

Such discussions also provide opportunities to teach, model and practice sensitivities to the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of participants, and to understand the impact of those backgrounds on one’s views, attitudes, and feelings. Expressions that either acknowledge or violate such sensitivities must be constantly monitored by the teacher for appropriateness.

In any classroom discussion of controversial issues, whether planned or spontaneous, teachers must actively monitor the discussion and activity so that the activity remains within pre-defined parameters. Areas which merit constant monitoring include:

  • The intensity of the teacher’s personal emotions relative to the topic.
  • The intensity of the emotions of each individual participant.
  • The ability of the teacher to maintain control of the activity.
  • The expected environment of tolerance and sensitivity.
  • The personal and instructional skills of the teacher relative to managing the classroom atmosphere and activities given the composition of the group.

If the activity, once underway, begins to fall outside acceptable parameters, wisdom may dictate cessation or at least drastic modification of the activity. If the likelihood of maintaining these parameters is not strong, the activity should be avoided.

Teachers have the right to express their personal opinions on controversial issues provided: a) the opinion is clearly labeled as their personal opinion, and b) no effort is made to indoctrinate students nor to forward the teacher's bias in matters of religion, politics, economics, or social views. There is wisdom in withholding a personal opinion when working with elementary students for whom the expression of the teacher's personal opinion might be tantamount to indoctrination.


Planned classroom discussions of controversial issues, appropriate to the maturity of the students provide a real-life opportunity for students to:

  • seek and understand the conflicting points of view of various people, periodicals, etc.
  • distinguish between fact and opinion
  • develop rationale arguments based on supporting evidence
  • listen actively to the feelings and opinions of others
  • practice metacognitive and introspective skills
  • demonstrate tolerance and sensitivity

Beyond the guidelines in the Board Policy (including prior principal approval), instructional guidelines for planned discussions on controversial issues include:

  • Teach students the research skills necessary to explore the various sides of issues.
  • Insist that students make careful preparation for classroom discussion on sensitive matters; assure all sides are given a proper hearing.
  • Avoid using the classroom as a place to impose or showcase a teacher opinion. Students will “look to” the teacher for support of their opinions. Refrain from providing your own opinion as much as possible. If the teacher offers an opinion, be sure to clearly label the comments as opinion.


As an expression of personal interest in students, and issues which for a period of time may be intensely felt by them, spontaneous classroom discussions may be appropriate. The key to successful spontaneous discussion on controversial issues is early and explicit teacher control of the situation:

Effective strategies for spontaneous discussions of controversial issues include:

  • Assume quick control by recognizing the drift toward a spontaneous discussion and “label” what is happening. (“We are now moving into discussion of . . .”)
  • Assume the role of facilitator rather than participant. A facilitator:

• assures orderly conduct and appropriate environment

• sets parameters

• asks facilitating questions

• limits personal participation

  • Establish guidelines, if the choice is to pursue the discussion. Such guidelines might include:
    • a) time limits,
    • b) insistence on unconditional acceptance of all expressions,
    • c) clear purpose, and
    • d) active listening.