Feed on

Last month, in the first installment of this series, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topic and three frameworks with which to do so. This month we will focus on how instructors can develop a classroom environment conducive to productive engagement with controversial issues. This post will address how to create the appropriate classroom environment and how to prepare to draft ground rules for engagement with controversial topics. 


Creating an Environment

An instructor plays a significant role in determining how conducive a classroom environment is to productive engagement with controversial topics. Some of the ways to create a good environment for productive disagreement include:  

  • Establish rapport with students by finding ways to demonstrate that you care about them.
  • Use discussion beginning on the first day, so students will be comfortable speaking in class. (Or, take the time to explain why you are using discussion for this topic.)
  • Expose students (via readings or discussion questions) to a variety of perspectives on an issue to prepare them for the conversation. 


Clearing the Ground for Ground Rules

Ground rules (or guidelines) for engaging with controversial topics are an important way to create shared expectations and norms, which can be a lifeline in difficult contexts. That said, guidelines don’t work well in a vacuum. Instructors need to set the stage for them to maximize their effectiveness. To help students understand the context for ground rules, instructors should clarify the following for their students:

  • What types of learning interactions will be common in this class?
  • Why do we use these types of learning interactions? 
    • For example, in the book Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Brookfield and Preskill identify four purposes of discussion:
      1. “to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration”
      2. “to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique” 
      3. “to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly”
      4. “to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.” (pg. 6)
  • What goals of the course ought to inform your ground rules?
    • Are you equipping students to enter a particular profession or context?
  • What are the limits of ground rules?
    • Have a conversation about guidelines will not preemptively remove all of the challenges of engaging with controversial topics. 

Implementing these strategies will go a long way toward creating a classroom environment conducive to engaging with controversial issues. Next month, we’ll explore some tips for drafting ground rules for that engagement.


Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

 “Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines.

“Teaching Controversial Issues.” Center for Teaching Excellence. Duquense University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/center-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-and-learning/teaching-controversial-topics.



Comments are closed.

Copyright © 2010 | Kaneb Center for Teaching & Learning | kaneb@nd.edu | 574-631-9146