Challenging topics, controversial issues, and "hot moments" can arise in class when you least expect them. While you can't always anticipate their arrival, you can prepare yourself for their eventuality. The Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics suggest the following "immediate response" strategies:
Strategy: Reflect First. If you do choose to spend time exploring the topic, you may wish to give your students an opportunity to stop and reflect before opening the discussion. Whether you ask students to sit with their thoughts or write a minute paper, the reflection before discussion strategy "provides space between a question and its possible answers, and allows everyone to gather their thoughts and express themselves privately before joining a discussion" (Landis, p. 28).
Pause and Reflect: Quick WriteA simple technique that provides space between a question and its possible answers, and allows everyone to gather their thoughts and express themselves privately before joining a discussion. Basic Technique
- Provide the group with a prompting question and allow a few minutes for everyone to respond in writing.
- Begin the discussion with the same or a similar question and invite people to share what they wrote.
- Tip: If you collect the quick writes, do not grade them for grammar, punctuation, strength of argument, or other kind of “quality” criteria. Students should feel free to express themselves without performance concerns.
-- Kay Landis, Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education
The following strategies are adapted from Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan.
Identify a clear purpose. Shape the conversation and ensure that it aligns with your course goals by clearly articulating the discussion’s objectives.
Establish ground rules. What are your class’s community norms? What do members expect from each other? Co-create and/or agree to adhere to norms that you present. If your class does not already have community guidelines for discussions, introduce some in advance of this challenging conversation. When considering what to include, consider the following necessary elements for effective discussion from Teaching Tolerance:
Trust - Building a safe space to explore new ideas and work through conflicts, controversy and painful moments that may arise when talking about issues of injustice and oppression.
Voice - Speaking the truth as we see it and asking questions about things we don’t know or understand, particularly on topics related to identity, power and justice.
Provide a common basis for understanding. Keep the conversation on track by using examples or case studies as points of reference The Guidelines suggest:
Create a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow. In addition to objectives:
Include everyone. Consider starting conversations in small groups - allowing your class to hear from students who may not speak otherwise, including those who may see their views as marginalized as well as those who want to explore ideas they are not sure about. You may also wish to employ the Reflect First activity mentioned above.
Be an active facilitator. Don’t be a passive observer. Instead, consider how you can control the conversation without being controlling. In your role as a discussion facilitator, consider thes suggestions from the Guidelines: "rewording questions posed by students, correcting misinformation, making reference to relevant reading materials or course content, asking for clarification, and reviewing main points."
Summarize discussion and gather student feedback. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable if the instructor, with the help of the class, synthesizes what has been shared or identifies the key issues explored.
Use a minute paper to get feedback and then review, summarize, and acknowledge in the next class:
“Act to Sustain Learning through Current Events.” Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University , 14 Oct. 2020, https://ctl.stanford.edu/act-sustain-learning-through-current-events.
A resource providing a range of instructional practices for supporting your students and their course learning through potentially disruptive current events, which you can adapt to your courses.
Brookﬁeld, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.
This book is written for all university and college teachers interested in experimenting with discussion methods in their classrooms. Discussion as a Way of Teaching is a book full of ideas, techniques and usable suggestions on: how to prepare students and teachers to participate in discussion; how to get discussions started; how to keep discussions going; and how to ensure that teachers' and students' voices are kept in some sort of balance.
Landis, Kay. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008.
This book tells the story of a partnership between two universities that spent several years exploring productive ways to engage difficult dialogues in classroom and academic settings. It presents a model for a faculty development intensive, strategies for engaging controversial topics in the classroom, and reflections from thirty-five faculty and staff members who field-tested the techniques. It is intended as a conversation-starter and field manual for professors and teachers who want to strengthen their teaching and engage students more effectively in important conversations.
Pringle , Labrea. “A Care Plan for Honest History and Difficult Conversations.” Learning for Justice , 2022, pp. 15–18, https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/fall-2022/a-care-plan-for-honest-history-and-difficult-conversations
Steps to take before, during, and after when bringing up a planned topic or discussion where students may have strong emotional responses.
Sensoy, Özlem, and Robin DiAngelo. "Respect differences? Challenging the common guidelines in social justice education." Democracy and Education 22, no. 2 (2014): 1. [PDF]
Teaching Tolerance, Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education, 2014.