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Supporting Controversial Issues Discussion in the Charged Classroom

by Judith L. Pace - July 18, 2016

The presidential election offers a rich opportunity for democracy education, through which young people engage with political, social, and moral questions about how we should live together. Discussion of controversial issues is widely advocated, yet teachers need support from researchers, teacher educators, and school leaders as they grapple with tensions in the charged classroom.

Presidential elections offer a rich opportunity for democracy education, through which young people engage with political, social, and moral questions about how we should live together (Hess & McAvoy, 2014). But we are experiencing such a racially and politically charged climate due to violence that has rocked the nation over the past two years, from Ferguson to Dallas and San Bernardino to Orlando. The presidential campaign’s extreme hostility has added fuel to the fire. Already a demanding practice for teachers, discussing controversial issues is now more critical and more difficult given the sharp divide, fear, and anger among Americans.

During an earlier presidential election season, I observed a U.S. Government class in which the teacher assigned students the task of conducting research on controversial issues such as censorship, abortion, and gay rights (see Pace, 2015). Expert panels presented their findings, proposed legislation, and deliberated their proposal with the class. As an educator, I found that the panel on gay rights provoked mixed reactions in me. I was encouraged to hear dialogic exchange about a crucial topic, but the discourse carried homophobic overtones (see Beck’s 2013 study). The discussion lasted a mere fifteen minutes and did not disrupt heteronormative assumptions. However, it exposed deep prejudices, fostered critical thinking, and involved the class in exploring a vital public issue. I was struck by the calm tone that prevailed, yet it raised difficult questions about how to deal with extremely offensive insinuations made by students.


A first generation Asian American student told me it was a unique learning opportunity for him because gay marriage wasn’t something he would talk about with his family. He said that government is the class in school where issues are brought up and you are forced to talk about them, so you actually can learn what you think and feel about the subject. The student said classroom discussions formed how he thought about government and would have a definite impact on his future voting.

Scholars agree that discussion of controversial issues is an essential element of democracy education (Barton & Avery, 2016). It generates critical thinking, understanding of complex problems, and democratic skills such as the ability to exchange viewpoints across differences in identity, experience, and perspective. Deliberation of controversial issues in an “open classroom climate” (Hahn, 1998) is positively correlated with outcomes related to political efficacy, interest, tolerance, civic knowledge, and engagement (Hess & McAvoy, 2014). Dialogue across racial, economic, and cultural divides generates hope for building common ground and peace.

At the same time, researchers find that real discussion rarely occurs in classrooms, especially concerning controversy. Multiple factors inhibit it, such as teachers’ fear of losing control, retribution from administrators and community members, lack of pedagogical skills, and competing demands such as accountability (Bickmore & Parker, 2014). Demographic diversity among students also contributes to avoidance due to fear of conflict. This is a critical problem because students who are African American or Latino, newcomers, tracked in lower-level classes, and attending low-income schools have significantly less access to democratic learning opportunities than peers who are white, affluent, non-immigrant, and higher-tracked (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008).


Every year, teachers and students face difficult classroom dynamics that co-exist with exciting opportunities, such as those empirically described and analyzed in the book The Charged Classroom: Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching (Pace, 2015). Classrooms are charged spaces filled with tensions that are intensified by contemporary forces in schools and society, from accountability pressures to heightened awareness of racism to presidential campaigns. These tensions play out in different arenas, one of which is classroom discussion. Within this arena, the balance between engagement and order is precarious. Teachers are pulled between the unifying and disrupting forces always present in discourse (Bakhtin, 1981). They must navigate between the lessons they want to teach and diverse voices and concerns of students. Citizenship education scholars argue teachers should elicit the conflicting perspectives that students bring (Hess, 2009; Parker, 2010). Yet classroom discussion can move in unpredictable directions and may trigger anxiety for teacher and students when homophobia, racism, or other provocations emerge. Good facilitation requires understanding the subject matter, thorough preparation, tolerance for conflict, reflection on ethical dilemmas, and a variety of teaching skills. Teachers must be able to listen carefully and connect student questions and comments to curricular knowledge. On top of all that, educators must learn how to deal with speech that challenges civil discourse.

This current presidential campaign has both revealed and aroused sociopolitical conflict across the nation, with ripple effects on classroom life. A non-representative survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), presented in The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nation's Schools, found that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom” (Costello, 2016, p. 4). Albeit not a product of systematic research, the report states, “Teachers report an increase in anger and ‘acting out’ among students and a decreased ability to engage in civil discourse. Discussions turn into shouting matches, verbal hostility and sometimes even fights” (p. 11). Over 40% of teachers express reluctance to teach about the presidential election this year in order to maintain calmness and safety (p. 4). Other teachers are deciding to abandon customary neutrality on politics because they feel it is crucial to express democratic values that support marginalized communities. Teachers also report tension with administrators and community members who pressure them to either avoid the issues or maintain neutrality. Regardless of specific contexts and teachers’ decisions, we can expect that this intensely charged political climate will pass through the porous walls of classrooms across the nation.

This summer’s horrific news, including the Orlando Pulse massacre, terrorist attacks around the world, and a spate of police shootings of Black men along with deadly retaliation, are sure to reverberate inside the walls of classrooms and schools this fall. Young people are exposed to and affected by these events more than ever. Teachers must be supported in helping their students make sense of these issues, investigate them in developmentally appropriate ways, and discuss the questions they raise about how we should live together in a multicultural democracy.


There is plentiful research, advocacy, and resources for teaching controversial issues from many different countries around the globe, such as a professional development pack edited by Kerr & Huddleston  (Council of Europe, 2015). SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves are just two of many organizations that support these efforts. However, there is minimal research on effective teacher development to undertake this critical work. An important exception is the Deliberating in a Democracy program. We need to know much more about how teacher educators and professional developers approach this preparation, how novice and experienced teachers respond, and how contextual factors such as institutional and political cultures shape different approaches and responses. We need empirical research on how different models of preparation work, especially when the discussion surrounding social and political issues is emotionally provocative.


However, research and teacher development is not enough. Ongoing support from school leaders is crucial, particularly with helping teachers navigate competing demands generated by accountability policies and challenges from community members. Teachers need time to collaborate with colleagues who are also discussing controversial issues. They should benefit from ongoing coaching from peers or mentors. Support for teachers in grappling with the challenges of charged classrooms through pre-service preparation, professional development, on-site assistance, and research on these efforts is needed to figure out how to narrow the distance between advocacy and practice in ways that support teachers, students, and their communities.


John Dewey believed that democracy depends on communication among people in order to realize their interdependence and “[break] down barriers of race, class, and national territory” (1916/85, p. 93). Democracy rests on people’s ability to take conflict out of the realm of violence and into a forum for intelligent discussion, and to “treat those who disagree—even profoundly—as those from whom we may learn” (Dewey, 1940, p. 226). In light of the challenges we face as a multicultural society, this is the perfect time to take up this work in classrooms at all levels of schooling and to investigate under what conditions these efforts get us closer to Dewey’s century-old yet timeless vision of a democratic society.




Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays. (M. Holquist, Ed., C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.


Barton, K. C., & Avery, P. G. (2016). Research on social studies education: Diverse students, settings, and methods. In Bell, C. A., & Gitomer, D. (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.


Beck, T. A. (2013). Identity, discourse, and safety in a high school discussion of same-sex marriage. Theory & Research in Social Education, 41(1), 1-32.


Bickmore, K., & Parker, C. (2014). Constructive conflict talk in classrooms: Divergent approaches to addressing divergent perspectives. Theory & Research in Social Education, 42(3), 291-335.


Costello, M. B. (2016). The Trump effect: The impact of the presidential campaign on our nation’s schools. Montgomery, AL:  Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/splc_the_trump_effect.pdf


Council of Europe (2015). Teaching controversial issues. Council of Europe. Strasbourg, FR: Council of Europe. Retrieved from http://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/1417855/8919103/Teaching+Controversial+issues+-+professional+development+pack+for+teachers.pdf/8300d9ad-5b4f-4b71-bbab-5bef4f09a333

Dewey, J. (1916/85). In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The Middle Works of John Dewey (1899-1924), Volume 9: Democracy and Education. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.


Dewey, J. (1940). Creative democracy—the task before us. In Ratner, S. (Ed.), The philosopher of the common man. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.


Hahn, C. (1998). Becoming political: Comparative perspectives on citizenship education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York, NY: Routledge.


Hess, D. E. & McAvoy, P. (2014). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York: Routledge.


Kahne, J. & Middaugh, E. (2008). Democracy for some: The civic opportunity gap in high school. College Park, MD: CIRCLE.


Kerr, D. & Huddleston, E. (Eds.) (2015). Teaching controversial issues: Training pack for teachers. Strasbourg, FR: Council of Europe. Retrieved from  http://pjp-eu.coe.int/documents/1417855/8919103/Teaching+Controversial+issues+-+professional+development+pack+for+teachers.pdf/8300d9ad-5b4f-4b71-bbab-5bef4f09a333


Pace, J. L. (2015). The Charged Classrom: Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching. New York: Routledge.

Parker, W. C. (2010). Listening to strangers: Classroom discussion in democratic education. Teachers College Record, 112(11), 2815-32.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21471, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 7:02:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Judith Pace
    University of San Francisco
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    JUDITH L. PACE is a Professor of Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco
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