Discussing controversial topics in courses has never been easy—for teachers or students—but in the past few years, it’s become even harder. Controversy surrounds an increasing number of topics, and the intensity of feelings associated with contested issues continues to grow. Many topics now feel so fraught that it seems safer to just not talk about them, especially given current efforts to legislate the language used to discuss them.
But as tempting as it is to avoid difficult discussions, most of know we need to have them. Almost daily we see the depressing and disastrous consequences of broken civil discourse. Our students desperately need the opportunity to participate in constructive conversations that involve controversy. What keeps us away from difficult discussions are the facilitations skills needed to prevent them from devolving into the kind of counterproductive exchanges we hear all around us.
Fortunately, the necessary facilitation techniques aren’t new or unachievable; they’re simply more essential when controversy surrounds a topic. A short but pithy article in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (Goldsmith et al., 2021) offers a rundown of facilitation essentials applicable to difficult discussions pretty much across the board. It reminded me of an old but still laudable piece aptly titled “Walking on Eggs: Mastering the Dreaded Diversity Discussion” (Frederick, 1995). Here's part of what both articles recommend.
Prepare beforehand. If you tell students there will be a discussion of topic X next session, that gives them a chance to mentally prepare. It also obligates you to have the discussion. More importantly, you can talk about its purpose—the topic’s relevance to the course.
Establish discussion ground rules. Goldsmith et al. use ground rules to establish community, build buy-in, and create a safe place for the discussion. Cocreating the guidelines with students helps accomplish those aims. To add efficiency to that process, you might share a tentative list, giving students the opportunity to revise, add, or prioritize the rules. The Goldsmith et al. article presents a good working list that includes listening respectfully, letting everyone speak, and keeping the focus on ideas rather than individuals. Frederick (1995) recommends writing out the rules. They could be visually present during the discussion.
Define and border the discussion topic. Many controversial topics represent large, complex knowledge domains. Discussion can go in lots of different directions and not get anywhere. If students are assigned a preparatory reading, video, or other resource, that material can identify the parts of the topic that will be the focus of discussion. Assigned material makes preparation easier for everyone.
Get students talking. This may be the most challenging part of facilitating difficult discussions. Fearful of participation in general and now having to disagree with peers and possibly the teacher, many students arrive at these discussions strongly committed to saying nothing. The Goldsmith group may have students write brief reflections, which they share with a partner or in small groups before whole-class discussion, or they start with an open-ended prompt: “What struck me most as a read/watched/listened to this was . . .” They don’t recommend opening the discussion with a teacher-delivered summary, outline, or lecturette.
Responding to the inappropriate comment or the raised voice. Frederick describes his technique: “When it happens, take a deep breath, turn to the person who just made the remark, and slowly, very slowly repeat back the words you just heard as accurately as possible. End . . . with an invitational inflection [a hand gesture, for example] that makes it clear the person has another opportunity to speak” (p. 91). Goldsmith et al. write, “It is important to acknowledge the difference between a controversial comment and an offensive comment. Controversy can aid effective discussion.” That explains the necessity of teachers listening carefully and taking the time to think before responding. When feelings start to show and voices raise, a simple gesture in the direction of the ground rules may tone down emotions.
Keep expectations realistic. These are the most difficult discussions to facilitate. They require skills developed only through practice and critical reflection. Goldsmith et al. wisely note “that we cannot (and should not) control every last moment. And like most things in science”—dare I add life?—“it will not always turn out the way we had hoped.” Even so, the end of the discussion may be the moment learning starts.
Frederick, P. (1995). Walking on eggs: Mastering the dreaded diversity discussion. College Teaching, 43(3), 83–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.1995.9925522
Goldsmith, G. R., Gormally, B. M. G., Green, R. M., Harrison, A. W., Hoover, B. A., Quides, K. W., Thammavongsy, Z., Welles, S. R., Zhang, B., & Gray, K. M. (2021). Facilitating constructive discussions of difficult socio-scientific issues. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22(2). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.00153-21 [open access]