21005120690_b95b2196b3What role do controversial topics have in the classroom?

In a great recent post, Steve Brown brings up issues of control, safety, training, and authenticity in ESL lesson planning. He concludes that topics that “open up a can of worms” should not be avoided to the extent that we typically avoid them.

In a follow-up post, he gets more into the ramifications for students if English classrooms around the world (continue to) consistently leave out potentially offensive topics.

To his discussion, I add a few questions and comments:

  • How do we reconcile maintaining the “safe” environment of the classroom with embracing issues that may have students shouting across the room at each other?
  • What if we lose students due to the contentious nature of our content? (Corollary: do we currently lose students due to the predictably bland nature of our curriculum?)  It’s not just a for-profit thing – in grant-funded programs, attendance is key.
  • How does the question of a controversial curriculum relate to the overall climate in (at least the USA’s) academia? Brown’s posts put me in mind of an event from 2015 in which Yale lecturer Erika Christakis felt the need to step down from her position after student backlash against an email she wrote. In this email, she questioned whether it was appropriate for the administration to intervene in managing students’ insensitive Halloween costumes.
  • What would “can of worms” training look like? Mediation skills? Self defense? Would it look different for women than for men? Would it replace part of the current battery of training, or be added on? To what extent does this training already exist?
  • In terms of culture in the USA, my perspective is that controversy was much more avoidable a couple years ago than it is today.
  • Are teachers, programs, and schools that embrace hot-button topics in the classroom more susceptible to litigation than those who steer clear of those issues? If not litigation, is other censure around the corner for leading controversial classes?

Plus one anecdote: in the conversation class I led last year, I shied away from controversial topics until about the last quarter of the semester. Mid-semester surveys showed that students and volunteers felt they were just mostly talking about themselves and finding it dull.

Then one day I warned them that the next week, we’d be discussing politics and the upcoming election. Half the class was deliberately absent for that election discussion.

The week after that, I had my full roster of students back… and we continued the election discussion. On one hand, they were a mix of annoyed and apprehensive when I unveiled the repeat topic. But on the other hand, we had incredible conversation that day and the rest of the semester. And at the end of the semester, I felt that the class had really become a group.

So from that I would add that if we’re going to embrace cans of worms in the classroom, what we need to embrace first is our students getting to know each other as people.

Please add your thoughts in the comments!


PS – Do you like how I eschewed pictures of sex, inequality, political figures, same-sex couples, drunk people, violence against people and animals and the environment, for a post about controversy? Have you ever seen a more innocuous picture of drug use than the one I chose? Smart business decision, habit, or cowardice?


Photo Credit: Martin Alonso on Flickr

You’re reading Controversy, originally posted at


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