Teaching Controversial Issues

Teaching Controversial Issues

Teaching about controversial issues can seem quite daunting. By their very nature, these are issues that provoke emotion, rile people or lead to argument. Quite the opposite to the sort of calm, quiet and polite discussion that most teachers dream of. Yet many subject areas deal with controversy on a daily basis. It is part and parcel of Social Studies subjects in the US; History, Geography and the Humanities in the UK and crops up across the curriculum in many forms on a weekly, if not daily basis. So, what are the best ways of dealing with and teaching controversial issues?

Teaching Controversial Topics

First and foremost, it is important to identify what ‘controversial’ means. Students of different ages and levels of maturity will have different definitions, though will consistently accept that the term relates to areas where there are two (or more) opposing sides on an issue. They will often also agree that the sides struggle to accept the perspective of their opponents. When the controversial issue is historic, this tends not to engender an immediately massive emotional response: but the bulk of controversial issues have a modern equivalent, or can prompt comparisons from students.

There are plenty of controversial issues that come into this category. Apartheid, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Climate Change, Elections, Environmental impact, Genocides, Globalisation, Human Rights, Justice, 9/11. Poverty, Prejudice, Racism, Reconciliation, Syria, the War on Terror. They all crop up in one guise or another quite frequently. And they affect many students, their loved ones and their communities.

How do you ‘teach’ about these relevant issues without ‘preaching’ or without watering down the significance of issues that are, quite often, incredibly real for students?

Rule 1: Establish the Facts.

Whatever the controversial issue, establish, with the class, what the hard facts are. This gives a basis upon which the different political views have been formed and can be referred back to when interpretations are discussed or misconceptions are raised.


Example: Bloody Sunday, Northern Ireland, 1972.

Establish the basic facts. The date, location and number of deaths and injured can be established through a variety of teaching methods. That could be as simple as having pupils complete a fact sheet from a variety of different sources. It could add in detail such as why the army were there. Which units. Who was marching on that day. What the stated reasons for the army presence were. What the stated reasons for a march were. These are all facts. They can’t be argued with. They are the basis upon which the controversy is discussed and debated.

Rule 2: Be objective.

With controversial issues there is always the danger that one side of the story will receive more coverage than the other. Planning needs to minimise the risk of that happening. Students may form their own opinion and push questioning down one particular avenue but the teaching and the resources need to present both (all) perspectives in equal measure.

Questions to ask to ensure objectivity when exploring controversial topics

Example: Modern Day Poverty

Using the example of the recent Olympics. Show a range of photographs from different parts of Brazil. Have statistics for GDP, Investment, Life Expectancy. Snippets of reports on the availability of clean water alongside adverts for luxury apartments. Information about how wealth has been generated. Information about what is being done to improve favela’s. Extracts from external bodies about the situation.

Why so much? It may well overwhelm some pupils if just ‘dumped’ on them but the wide range of information provides the big picture. There will be a contrast between the rich and the poor. However, there will also be enough there to tell the story of how things have developed and what the future holds. It isn’t quite as black and white as just them and us, and students can understand that.

For political issues such as the US presidential elections or reflections on the EU Referendum and subsequent Brexit vote in the UK could simply make use of flyers, speeches, video clips and newspaper reports to illustrate the arguments being put forward by each side.

Rule 3: Use the Facts

The context differs from one controversial issue to the next. How details of political debate in the United States will be used in a classroom is hugely different to the way in which evidence relating to genocide or war, for example. However, there are several key elements that remain the same.

The evidence will support a theory, back up an argument, suggest that there is weight to a point of view. This allows classification exercises to be done by students. If there is ample evidence, see above, then this provides lots of factual material and references to be used in extended writing about any of these topics.

This lends itself to a variety of teaching methods:

– debate
– groupwork
– presentations
– the Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis for essay writing
– classification tasks
– sequencing tasks

How can these work?


Debates work well with mature students who can deal with controversial content sensitively. It is essentially putting argument and counter argument forward in verbal form. You can opt for the traditional ‘sides’ approach or adapt it based on the needs of your class and the nature of the controversy. I personally tend not to opt for a ‘side’ versus ‘side’ approach when dealing with controversial topics as it infers that there is a winner. There may be a stronger case presented in your classroom, that is as likely to be down to the strength of personality, or the conviction with which one or more talented orators perform rather than the sheer weight of evidence: it would hardly be controversial if a group of students could whitewash all counter-arguments, would it?


My personal preference is to adapt the debate into a trial. Take Climate change. A government or multinational corporation could be subject to a mock trial in the classroom. The evidence could range from ‘expert’ witness material found in research, through to anecdotal evidence suggesting that the government / corporation was, actually, just doing a) what the public wanted and b) what has been going on for years. (That is just an example).

Debates and trials have their place. Perhaps best left to issues that don’t relate to race or religion as they do tend to have students believing that there is a winner and loser.


I’ve always liked structured group work for the big and ‘difficult’ things to teach. Groups of four or five students can be given a range of things to collaboratively research and present findings in a range of ways. In the US a rubric system is common to aid students planning and preparing for this type of task – I have found it o provide a lot of clarity when dealing with big or controversial issues when teaching in the UK.

Teaching Controversial Issues through Collaborative Learning

Multi-Media Presentations

The topics may be controversial but I don’t believe that this necessitates the removal of creativity from students’ work and demonstration of their understanding. Many charities and non governmental organisations use film and the media to get their messages about controversial topics across, so why not allow students to do the same? Granted, this takes some setting up, appropriate ICT facilities and quite possibly a lot of storage space on the server for film clips, audio files and music.

The Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis for essay writing

When discussing the teaching of controversial topics on twitter, I was reminded of this method. It is one that I am very familiar with as it was used extensively throughout my own A-Level lessons as a student, at University and became a part and parcel of the way that I taught essay writing. The tweet below has a link to a detailed outline of the model. While the examples in the page are not controversial issues per se, it is easy to see how the model can be utilised.

 what are your tips on teaching controversial topics? Ideas please

Ilja also notes a related method in a follow up message:


Classification tasks

Classification tasks are those such as sorting exercises. Students can drag and drop into columns, place things onto graphic organisers to illustrate overlaps etc. These can then be analysed to show significance etc. Such tasks provide a good framework to then build arguments, and counter arguments that would aid in the planning of an essay constructed under the thesis / antithesis / synthesis model.

Sequencing tasks

One area that is overlooked at times when looking at controversial issues is the simple one of ‘how did we get to this situation?’ Tracing the development of an issue from its origins allows the context to be understood and for some of the smaller factors to be identified that helped to create opposing viewpoints, conflict or a sense of injustice. This is important as otherwise a student may not understand the true complexities of an issue: for example, the recent shootings of black Americans by members of the police are understood in a wider context if earlier events are also known.

Other tips from the twitter discussion:

 what are your tips on teaching controversial topics? Ideas please

No one rule, but I think it is worth getting the less familiar argument clearly stated early on. 

agreed. What about how to pitch things? Any thoughts? 

Depends if you regard both sides as valid. Do you regard it as important? eg.. What are the causes of poverty? Ideally…

Depends if you regard both sides as valid. Do you regard it as important? eg.. What are the causes of poverty? Ideally…

…I wd get them interested in and debating the controversy and then introduce plenty of evidence. Is there time for them…

…I wd get them interested in and debating the controversy and then introduce plenty of evidence. Is there time for them…

..to research own evidence? One pupil’s view of Highland Clearances completely changed when he researched a final year..

…I wd get them interested in and debating the controversy and then introduce plenty of evidence. Is there time for them…

dissertation on it. On other hand Primary 7 Crusades I used to begin wit appalling siege of Jerusalem to correct any ….

dissertation on it. On other hand Primary 7 Crusades I used to begin wit appalling siege of Jerusalem to correct any ….

…tendency to romanticise Crusades. Heroes, Richard Lionheart etc.

Other considerations when Teaching Controversial Issues

It is important to remember that not all students will be able to react in a mature manner to all controversial issues. Things that are incredibly serious to adults can result in laughter, jokes and inappropriate comments at times from immature students. This makes preparing the lesson, the introduction and the selection of teaching resources and styles very important.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that they are children. It is easy to water things down too much and present a ‘Peter and Jane’ version of a controversial issue which, frankly, does the students no good at all. However it is also quite possible to expect too much from students. I have, for example, heard of extremely graphic images being used in relation to teaching controversial topics. On the whole, these are not necessary. They can make the real issues seem less human and more akin to a horror movie.

There are plenty of real life stories and examples that can be used when teaching about issues that are controversial. These help to make students understand that they are real and that the topics touch(ed) people’s lives. This could be quotes from people involved or viewpoints from pressure groups. These work very well with issues in Religious Education as students can easily relate to different viewpoints on issues such as abortion.

Further Reading on Teaching Controversial Issues

Controversial Issues – a guide to teaching about them produced by Oxfam.

Citizenship Foundation – resource centre.

North Carolina – Educators guide.

University of Michigan – Discussion based teaching and handling controversial issues

Association of Science Teachers – teachers resources and guidance.

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