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:
Brookﬁeld, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.
Landis, Kay. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008.
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.