Essay - What Instructors Can Do To Safely Facilitate Controversial Discussion (Bettina Kipp)

Balancing Safety And Risk

It can be tricky to balance student comfort and safety with the educator’s imperative to present challenging ideas and to honor multiple points of view. Conflict is unavoidable, but if managed effectively it can add energy to the classroom, increase student engagement, and promote critical thinking about important problems and issues. This essay offers classroom tips for finding and maintaining the balance between safety and risk while promoting positive personal outcomes.

What Instructors Can Do to Safely Facilitate Controversial Discussion

Bettina Kipp
Assistant Professor of Counseling
Kenai Peninsula College

One of the central paradoxes in teaching can be summed up like this: The classroom must be safe, but it must also be risky. It is not always easy to create that balance between student comfort and safety and the necessary spirit of challenge that leads to the most productive discussions. Students who are uncomfortable with conflict or with having their point of view challenged may sit silent— or worse, feel offended—without the tools to open their experience for discussion. But it’s also true that avoiding controversial ideas (in the often well-meaning spirit of “we don’t go there”) inhibits student expression and creates an atmosphere unsuited for debate. Where is the magic line between the two, and how can the balance be sustained?

Everything that is important can be narrowed down to a personal outcome for someone. To value education is to value each student’s personal outcome. Of course, each individual, students and teachers alike, bears the greatest responsibility for his/her personal experience in any endeavor, but as educators, it is our desire to provide the best learning environment we can. This is quite a task in a single class, consisting of students ranging in age from 18-67, male and female, with a wide range of religious and political views. Add in the variations in students’ emotional maturity and styles of handling conflict, and promoting a positive personal outcome for all seems impossible.

Adding these tips to the many different strategies and techniques for engaging controversy may help instructors to find that magic balance.

Establish the tone right from the beginning. Set up class discussion rules on Day 1 (Codes of Conduct, page 12).

Explain the process and define roles: “Respecting the comfort level of each student is important to me. And promoting active debate, especially on controversial subjects, is important for the best learning experience in the class. My job is to manage time so the material is covered, to promote discussion, and to remind everyone of the class rules that all of you have established. Your job is to participate, and to actively communicate with the class and with me. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, please let the class know, or let me know privately; that is also OK.”

Notice students’ discomfort when it is observable. Check with students who seem to be having an uncomfortable experience after class if you can; and remind students frequently of your accessibility.

Be conscious of the example you are setting. Examine your own personal style and responses.

Ask yourself: How do I handle challenges in class? What values do I display when I am feeling defensive or confronted? Do I handle conflict in a way that demonstrates the best possible response that I want from my students? Do I achieve a nondefensive posture that shows appreciation of others’ ideas and efforts to communicate, even when I disagree or do not intend to comply?

Manage proactively. At the first moment when you realize that a controversial issue is becoming emotional for the class, stop the discussion for a few seconds to remind the class of the class rules that have been established.

As the instructor, you get to, and sometimes must, interrupt. Always interrupt politely: “This is a great discussion so far, and I am sorry to interrupt, but we need to switch gears slightly at this point so we can be sure that the other sides of the issue are covered.”

Skip to solutions. When “who-caused-the-problem” discussions begin to circle (students are taking turns repeating their opinions), switch the discussion to ways to solve it.

Be overt in your techniques. Explain when class rules are established that you may sometimes interrupt the class to switch gears for purposes of time or to remind them of the rules. Acknowledge that you, too, sometimes feel uncomfortable with debate and confrontation, but that you view the practice as a learning experience and that you want students to tell you when they are uncomfortable.

State your internal text out loud (explain to students where you are coming from): “Wow, this is obviously an important topic to folks. I appreciate that we have strong convictions, and it’s OK that conversation gets energetic. Everyone is remembering our class rules, which I also appreciate! Now let’s move from the potential sources of the problem to solutions. Without debating merit, let’s just throw some ideas up on the board.”

Offer supportive follow-up talks with specific instructions to students after a particularly heated debate: “Everyone, please remember that I have office hours today and tomorrow from 9-10:30. I invite anyone who would like to talk about the topic, or the experience you had today in the class- room, to come see me to chat privately. And remember, you can also always e-mail me your thoughts and any concerns you have; my e-mail address is on the syllabus. And thanks, everyone, for your participation in discussing these difficult subjects.”

Debrief with faculty colleagues after challenging classes. Sometimes a chat with a supportive colleague can give us valuable feedback and the perspective we need to rally our energy for the next class.

Conflict may feel uncomfortable, and many people try to avoid it for this rea- son. Despite its sometimes uncomfortable presence, conflict is both unavoid- able and potentially beneficial. Controversial discussion adds energy and motivation to the classroom; heightens awareness and increases student engagement, and gives us as instructors opportunities to encourage the development of critical thinking skills and potentially new solutions to societal issues.