Approaches to Difficult Classroom Dialogues

Whether motivated by controversial course content or by current events, many instructors will find themselves dealing with difficult classroom discussions around “hot” topics. Often these discussions touch on aspects of identity and on deeply held beliefs, causing emotions to run high. Turning such situations into opportunities to support students’ learning and well-being requires skill as well as recognition of one’s own position and motivations.

One helpful approach to these difficult dialogues involves understanding, adopting, and communicating to students particular pedagogical stances on teaching controversial issues. Our colleagues at the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning propose three paradigms for teaching controversial issues:

A Civic Humanism approach to teaching controversies prioritizes civil discourse, social responsibility, and democratic values. This approach has a long history in American higher education and consequently will be familiar to many faculty members. It posits that education should prepare students for citizenship, help them develop a sense of social responsibility, and prepare them to engage in a world characterized by diversity, complexity, and change. Such an approach to difficult and controversial topics focuses on understanding different perspectives, appreciating ambiguity and complexity, and learning to disagree respectfully. Current prominent proponents of this paradigm include university presidents such as Derek Bok and Michael Roth, as well as the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Liberation Pedagogy, following the work of scholars like Paulo Freire and bell hooks, understands teaching to be deeply intertwined with character formation, justice, and the development of the whole person in the world. Freire, hooks, and other proponents of this approach have argued that traditional pedagogical models in which the professor is sole authority and the students are passive recipients of knowledge can replicate unjust power dynamics, which can be particularly damaging to marginalized students. Instead, they urge a collaborative and dialogic pedagogical approach, one that recognizes the knowledge, perspectives, and identities that students as well as professors bring into the classroom, and that seeks to empower students by recognizing the ways their broader life experiences intersect with and influence their learning. Liberation pedagogy does not seek to approach all sides of a controversy neutrally, but instead frames disagreement around a search for justice.

Academic Detachment understands the controversy itself as an object of academic inquiry. Under this paradigm, professors and students might, in Stanley Fish’s words, “detach [a controversial topic] from the context of its real-world urgency, where there is a decision to be made, and re-insert it into a context of an academic urgency, where there is an analysis to be performed.” The focus might be on the history and nature of different sides of an issue with a goal of understanding the controversy but not of taking sides or passing judgment. Gerald Graff has argued that this approach of “teaching the controversy” focuses students on the nature of academic debate and knowledge production.

Instructors may find that a particular approach best fits their pedagogical style, their comfort with difficult classroom dialogues, and/or the nature of their subject matter (though arguably any subject could be approached from any of these stances). Many of us may also choose to adopt one stance or another, or even to overlap them, depending on context. For instance, the same professor who asks students to take an academic detachment approach to a discussion on abortion in a reproductive ethics class might choose to take a liberation pedagogy approach to an unplanned discussion about a hate-motivated incident that has upset the campus community.

Communicating the approach, as well as its goals and rationale, to students is also crucial. An instructor may assume everyone agrees that a controversial discussion should be approached as a dispassionate dialogue, but students who have a deeply personal stake in the topic and feel their identities, experiences, and emotions should be taken into account might be expecting a different approach. Such a mismatch in expectations has the potential to cause frustration and hurt on all sides. Whatever paradigm a professor uses, the discussion will be much more productive if everyone is on the same page about how and why we approach difficult topics in particular ways. It can also be helpful to look at the same issue through multiple pedagogical lenses, particularly as a way to model simultaneously honoring and analyzing the influence of emotion, identity, and personal experience on learning.

As always, we would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 434-982-2815 or request a confidential consultation online.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2014, April 18). What Is a 21st Century Liberal Education? Retrieved December 8, 2016.

Bok, D. (2006). Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fish, S. (2006). Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job. Retrieved December 8, 2016.

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary Edition). New York and London: Continuum.

Graff, G. (1992). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York and London: Routledge.

Roth, M. (2014). Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Teaching Controversial Topics. Retrieved December 8, 2016.


Discussing Critical Incidents

In our last blog, we highlighted ways you can support your students though the simple act of acknowledging that you are aware of the range of thoughts and emotions that people may be experiencing around current events. Here, we would like to share some thoughts about ways to respond if, in your class, one or several students want to discuss a recent incident involving, for example, hate or bias.

You may begin by acknowledging the students who raised the issue, maybe by thanking them and pointing to the importance of their concern. You can note that people may have different feelings and thoughts about the issue and affirm your own and the institutions commitment to the values of diversity, civility, and respect. As you consider whether you are ready to discuss the issue right away, it may be helpful to make some of your thinking transparent to your students, acknowledging, perhaps, that you are torn between wanting to make time for the conversation and wanting to honor your commitment to teaching your subject. You may also want to get a sense about the interest and willingness of other students to share their perspective on the issue. You could do so after class by sending out a Google form in which students can state their preference anonymously. (You can also use this technique proactively when an incident occurs, signaling that you are thinking about students, even when they are not sitting in class.) If you and your students want to engage in a conversation, you can schedule it for a later class period, or a time outside of class, and suggest ways for everyone to prepare. If you schedule the conversation during normal class time, you may consider offering students the option of opting out of the conversation to make room for those who may have good reasons for not wanting to participate in a difficult dialogue.

Our colleagues in Michigan break down the actual process of facilitating a difficult conversation in into nine steps including

  • identifying a clear purpose for the conversation
  • establishing ground rules
  • providing a common base for understanding
  • creating a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow
  • including everyone in the conversation
  • being an active facilitator
  • summarizing discussion and gathering student feedback
  • handling issues that involve the instructor’s identity
  • and identifying university resources.

This guide helps you to consider each of these steps in detail.

As always, we would be happy to talk with you about further strategies within the context of your particular teaching setting. Call us at 434-982-2815 or request a confidential consultation online.