2017年12月7日 12 7, 2017 EVENT REPORT TALK workshops

Controversial Topics in the Classroom: (How) Do We Dare Discuss Them? (Dr. Patricia Kelley, University of North Carolina, Wilmington)

Thursday, December 07  2017
15:00 - 16:30

KIBER314
Komaba Campus, The University of Tokyo



Controversial Topics in the Classroom:
(How) Do We Dare Discuss Them?

No matter what the discipline, most faculty will be faced with teaching a controversial topic -- one that some students may find threatening. Faculty may choose to teach a potentially offensive topic because it is fundamental to the course content or to help students develop skills such as critical thinking and the ability to articulate a position. How can such controversial topics be taught with integrity and sensitivity? In this workshop, we will examine various pedagogical approaches to create a student-centered classroom that will defuse hostility, create an atmosphere of tolerance, and engage students who may feel threatened by the course material. Participants will have opportunity to consider how they might apply these principles and approaches in their own teaching.

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Report by Diego Tavares Vasques (Center for Global Communication Strategies, UTokyo)

Teaching controversial topics in classroom is one of the challenges every teacher will face in his/her career, independently of the field of study. Professor Emeritus Patricia Kelley from the University of North Carolina (Wilmington, US) brought to us an opportunity to exchange experiences related to this matter and discuss the relevance of teaching such topics. Several potentially controversial topics were cited as examples, including: sexuality and gender issues, ethnic relations, death penalty, nuclear power, eating whales, international relation, different perception of what is a social issue between Japanese and international students, conformist culture vs welcoming debate. The diversity of controversial topics accounted here was surprising for most of us, serving as “food of thought” for the rest of the workshop.
 
Before thinking on how to treat such topics in class, we spent some time thinking on where controversy comes from. Students feeling emotional about it, the lack of knowledge on the field, misconceptions, background diversity and cultural constraints were pointed as the main explanations for the emergency of controversy in class room. As all these reasons are intrinsic to the group of students we are teaching, “inside-out” approaches are more indicated when thinking on counter-measures.  Making clear the outcomes of the class - like developing the ability to articulate your position and engage actively in discussion, reinforcing the validity of diverse views and demonstrating the ability to analyze, interpret, write and read - can help instructors engage students on activities involving controversial topics.
 
Depending on the level of the course the instructor is teaching, alternative approaches can also be taken. Prof. Kelley suggests that when teaching introductory courses, addressing and incorporating the controversy into classes is more effective, while when teaching intermediate and advanced courses it is safer for the instructor to either merely mention possible issues or completely ignore the controversy and focus on the contents to be delivered. When ignoring the controversy, however, one must be aware that different reactions can be expected depending on the nature of students: while more aggressive classes can open potential space for disruption, passive classes can build hostility, hindering the learning process. It is important for the instructor to know its students and observe with caution their progress during classes that involve controversial topics.
 
Some effective strategies suggested during the workshop involve: i) building trust in classroom, while getting the students to know, respect and tolerate you and each other; ii) creating a ‘student-centered’ classroom, what can prevent ‘tuning-out’; and iii) constructing a strong foundation before introducing controversy into class. Cooperative learning, looking to an issue from multiple perspectives and keeping the humor during classes are mentioned as essential in this process.

Report by Shoko Sasayama (Center for Global Communication Strategies)

Dr. Patricia Kelley started out the workshop by introducing potentially controversial topics in the US and eliciting ones in the context of Japan from the audience. Controversial topics in the US context included evolution, global warming, racial issues, and gender issues. Some of the controversial topics in our local context were similar, such as ethnic issues and issues related to gender and equality, while other topics like whaling were Japan-specific. This exercise thus highlighted the fact that controversial topics could be context-specific. Then, we engaged in a group activity where we discussed what controversial topics we teach in our own classes. In my group, topics such as apologies for the past, death penalty, gender issues, affirmative actions, and a conflict between culture and the advancement of technology came up. This group activity to share controversial topics was a great exercise in itself: It allowed us to hear about other people’s teaching ideas and get tangible examples of controversial topics that we might be able to use in our own classes.

Dr. Kelley then asked what makes these topics challenging to teach. As a group, we felt that challenges are related to the kind of atmosphere we (together with students) develop in the classroom. It makes teaching of controversial topics challenging especially when the atmosphere where students can freely articulate their opinions is lacking. Other groups also felt that students’ emotional attachment to the topic might make teaching of controversial topics difficult to deal with. In response to our concerns, Dr. Kelley suggested building trust in the classroom in order to encourage our students to share their ideas with each other. She argued that it is very important for teachers to demonstrate that we respect students’ opinions and also to get to know them well before introducing a controversial topic. As a way to show our respect to students’ ideas, she recommended the use of student-centered lessons. By eliciting ideas from students on a daily basis, students will get used to expressing their ideas, and student-centered lessons give us a variety of opportunities to show how we’d react to students’ ideas. This student-centered lesson also enables everyone in the classroom, including the teacher, to get to know each other well. In order to make teaching of controversial topics successful, she also emphasized that it is important for the teacher to demonstrate a variety of perspectives. For example, to teach about evolution, Dr. Kelley shared with her students that she is a palaeontologist and believes in evolution and at the same time she is an active church member. This strategy, she argued, allowed her students to feel that any opinion is worth sharing and will be valued when expressed.

Dr. Kelley then asked us what we think is most important when dealing with controversial topics in the classroom. The audience expressed that in working with controversial topics, it might be important to emphasize that we are not trying to find an answer to the question but the main goal is to have a constructive conversation about it. In response, Dr. Kelley shared one tangible teaching activity, a role-play. In this activity, she had her students experience and defend different viewpoints in the context of a meeting organized by the Board of Education. She assigned a role to each student and had them act out as if they were actually participating in this meeting as stakeholders with different opinions and agenda. This role-play activity allowed her students to detach themselves from the topic, which in turn encouraged them to be more objective and distracted them, in a positive way, from focusing too much on “winning the case.”

All in all, this workshop was very thought-provoking and allowed us to gain and share various teaching ideas with our colleagues. It certainly gave us some food for thoughts and tangible ideas for our teaching.

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