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What are some principles to keep in mind when covering difficult topics in the classroom?

What are some principles to keep in mind when covering difficult topics in the classroom?

As professors we are often here to engage with the big and challenging topics, but navigating them in a way that fully supports students and facilitates productive discussions can take some thought. Below, you will find some guidelines that can be helpful to keep in mind as you develop ways to support these essential conversations.

Table of contents
Classroom community
Facilitating difficult discussions
Managing ‘hot moments’
Supporting student engagement with difficult topics

Classroom community

A great way to set yourself up for successful classroom discussions even of challenging topics is to give some attention to the ways that you establish trust, belonging and expectations among all of your students at the beginning of the class. It can be helpful to work together on a community agreement or a learning contract, and to talk then about challenges that may come up; you can also take that time to ensure that every student feels welcomed, valued and able to express themselves. As part of that discussion, you may be able to anticipate some possible challenging moments and talk through with students some go-to strategies that you can adopt, such that those have already been established, in a neutral situation, and are available to all of you when something challenging does come up. For example, you might agree that a heated discussion should trigger a ten-minute break for reflective writing, mutually agree to earnestly try to understand another person’s perspective, or establish general ground rules for speaking with respect.

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Facilitating difficult discussions

What makes for a difficult discussion? There are a great many topics that can turn out to have a charged or emotional dimension, and what those are can turn out to be quite different for different people, depending on their personal and cultural contexts. You may be able to anticipate where a challenging discussion is coming because it intersects with charged emotional and/or political territory, or simply because you’ve seen that topic elicit strong reactions in the past. In those cases, it can be possible to prepare the ground for that discussion ahead of time.

One person who has given this a lot of thought is Amanda Stead in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, because she works with a topic that is often difficult for people: death and dying, which is a topic covered in her Communication and Aging course. From her years covering these topics, she has gained a number of insights about ways to best facilitate these discussions. Some key ideas to keep in mind are as follows:

    Giving students plenty of notice of when and how difficult topics are coming, and why they are important to cover, allows them to be prepared and empowered when they come up,
    It can be difficult for students to move past their lived experience to a broader learning situation, and an effective method for Amanda has been to address the lived experience first, set it to the side, and then cover the broader scope.
    It’s important to consider whether you are able to give the discussion enough time to address it really well–and only begin the discussion if so.
    A substantial debrief, at the end of and after the session, is an important way to make sure that students are really supported all the way through the process.

You can read and hear far more about Amanda’s approach in her Faculty Teaching Profile.

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Managing ‘hot moments’

Discussing challenging or controversial topics can lead to some charged moments in the classroom. Those moments can be very pedagogically fruitful, particularly when students are taking different viewpoints on topics that are important to them, but it can be difficult to respond in the moment when emotions are running high. Below are some guidelines to keep in mind, drawn from this guide from Harvard University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

    To turn a moment to a productive discussion, it can be very helpful for you as the instructor to mentally step back from the emotional confusion, and try to look at what the situation affords in the way of opportunities to explore contrasting viewpoints. Consider: Is there a relevant meta-level issue that you could highlight? What is the sub-text to what a student is saying? Why is this coming up at all, and why at this time?
    Consider generalizing the discussion, to take the pressure off of a particular student, and encouraging the class to consider different perspectives. You can say something like: Many people think this way. Why do they hold those views? Why do others hold opposing views?
    Reframing the situation can be a good way to defuse tension. You can ask students to write reflectively about the topic as a precursor to discussion, to try to adopt a contrasting perspective to their own and explain it, or to reflect on their own reactions and behaviors.
    Consider talking about what happened with students outside of class, especially those who were most involved in the hot moment. You can take that opportunity to make sure that they continue learning, consider other viewpoints, and come to class with an open mind.
    One of the most important things is not to ignore the issue, since this can leave students with the sense of a lack of resolution, missing an opportunity to learn from mistakes, or feeling that there is a lack of safety in the classroom environment. If you are unsure how to respond in the moment, a good fallback position is to tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up at a later time, giving you time to plan strategies.

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Supporting student engagement with difficult topics

Students will sometimes benefit from support outside of the classroom after or around dealing with challenging topics. It can be beneficial to plan to meet with certain students privately to discuss an issue, offer resources, and make sure that they are fully supported.
Additionally, if students need more support, they have access to a range of mental health services through the Student Counseling Center.

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Interested in thinking more about ways to tackle difficult topics in your class? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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