Teaching Controversy in the Classroom: How the controversial can heighten learning

Three silhouettes of heads, one with a question mark on it, the second with with a gear, the third with a lightbulb on it

To the delight of many science nerds, Fox and the National Geographic networks have revamped the beloved scientific series Cosmos and is now airing a new 13 episode series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. With astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm, the series takes an evocative look at the evolution of the atmosphere, Earth, and humankind. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the show has spawned some controversy among those who subscribe to alternative theories of creation and the earth’s formation.  

While the details of the debate are fascinating (and rightfully deserve a blog post of their own), I find the controversy spurred by the debate – and any debate for that matter – equally fascinating and beneficial. Interestingly enough, controversy such as the above may be a great tool in enhancing learning in sexuality. 

"Controversial Issues"

Whether it’s creationism vs. evolution, corporal punishment, or comprehensive sex education in schools, highly contentious subjects routinely spark controversy. Sexuality educators know this all too well, since controversy frequently accompanies the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education. Topics like teaching about abortion, giving teens accurate information about birth control, encouraging pleasure among older adults, and teaching children proper anatomical terminology have fueled many controversies—leaving many to wash their hands of these topics. Some feel that engaging in such controversial topics is so polarizing that it is better to avoid them or just succumb to the will of the loudest voices (often those diametrically opposed to sex education). Yet, I think it is important to not only address the above topics, but to recognize and utilize the associated controversy. I posit that controversy, when used effectively, can be a powerful tool in helping spur creative thinking among our students or participants.

More of an Art… than a Science

Using controversy in the classroom is certainly an art more than it is a science. It takes a level of finesse to take a contentious topic and use it towards your instructional benefit. This is particularly true when talking about sexuality related topics since they tend to be hot button issues. For this reason, an effective instructor must create a game plan for introducing certain topics.

The first step is to establish a classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing their opinions, thoughts and beliefs. This can be accomplished by creating ground rules or group assumptions. Many have documented the benefits of establishing group norms; Silberman (1998) for example states, “establishing firm ground rules lets everyone understand how training program[s] will operate and where it will go” (1998).  When using controversy as a teaching technique, it is imperative that all participants understand the rules so everyone feels comfortable sharing and potentially challenging ideas.  In For Your Consideration, a teaching and learning newsletter from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s- Center for Faculty Excellence, the author describes steps for successfully implementing controversy as a teaching strategy.  Similar to Silberman, the author stresses the importance of establishing group norms. The list below outlines some of the suggested guidelines when discussing controversial topics:

Sample Guidelines for Classroom Discussion

• Always listen carefully, with an open mind, to the contributions of others.

• Ask for clarification when you don’t un­derstand a point someone has made.

• If you challenge others’ ideas, do so with factual evidence and appropriate logic.

• Always critique ideas or positions, not people.

• If others challenge your ideas, be willing to change your mind if they demonstrate errors in your logic or use of the facts.

• Point out the relevance of issues that you raise when their relevance might not be obvious to others in the class.

• If others have made a point with which you agree, only repeat it when you have something important to add.

• Be efficient in your discourse; make your points and then yield to others — take turns speaking.

• Above all, avoid ridicule and try to respect the beliefs of others, even if they differ from yours (p 2).

The article also discusses methods for incorporating controversy into the classroom.  The author describes four distinct strategies:

  1. Strict Neutrality – where the instructor acts as a judge and ensures that all opinions are heard.
  2. Structured Controversy – where the locus of control moves from the teacher to students.  Students control conversation.
  3. Devil’s advocate – where the instructor shifts sides to highlight both sides of the argument.
  4.  Making opinions present – the instructor presents their individual opinion(s) but treats student’s counter-arguments with respect.

According to the author, any of these four strategies can help foster critical thinking among students. This is accomplished by encouraging participants to think about their own opinion while simultaneously challenging other opinions (“Teaching controversial issues,” 2004).

A Sex Ed Example

This methodology could easily be applied to sexuality education. For example, an instructor could select one of the aforementioned strategies and apply it to a highly controversial topic.  First the instructor would choose a topic (ex. teen birth control access) and a strategy (ex. devil’s advocate). The instructor would than break participants into groups and allow them to express their opinions on the given subject. Once opinions have been expressed, the instructor will offer counter opinions to further stimulate controversy within the learning environment. Participants will have another opportunity to challenge the opinions and offer their insight.  Doing such an exercise could help students in several ways. One,  it can help them recognize the gamut of opinions that exist around a particular topic. Two, it can help them formulate or challenge their opinions and values on a given topic. Lastly, it can give them practical skills to discuss difficult topics in a controlled and respectful way.

Many sexuality curriculums have tackled controversial issues using interesting techniques that engage students.  In her curriculum, Krueger (1998) describes methods for teaching about abortion that helps facilitate student learning. Krueger ‘s curriculum is broken into 12 steps, with each step serving a unique purpose for aiding in learning.  The curriculum suggests that participants are broken into distinct groups. Each group addresses specific issues related to abortion such as laws, consent, rights, and life. Once in the groups, the participants will create a defense on their particular position and have the opportunity to rebut counter arguments.  At the end of the exercise, the groups reconvene and discuss the activity and what they learned (Krueger, 1998).  The aim of this particular exercise is not to learn about abortion per say, but to learn about individual values and beliefs, and to spark critical thinking around a highly debated topic. By using a controversial topic, participants can learn the valuable skill of civil disagreement.

Controversial topics can be a great way for the sexuality educator to teach critical thinking and value cultivation. While it can be challenging, using a controversial topic in the classroom can be a great learning tool. Given the unique nature of what we do, it is critical that sexuality educators find and utilize as many creative techniques for delivering our messages.


Krueger, M. (1998). Abortion: Teaching all sides without taking sides. In Filling the Gaps: Hard to Teach Topics in Sexuality Education.

UNC Center for Faculty Excellence.  (2004, September). Teaching controversial issues.  For Your Consideration.

Silberman , M. (1998). Active training . (2nd ed., pp. iv-320). San Francisco : Jssey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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