Facilitating Politically Sensitive Discussions

Spring 2020

By Rachel Banke

As I first began teaching American history courses, politically charged discussions stood as my biggest fear. I distinctly remember seeking guidance and panicking all the more when my mentors could offer only lame, vague reassurances. For my first year of teaching, I steadfastly avoided any topic that could be construed as having a contemporary political significance. While I still cannot quite explain what changed for me since that first year of teaching, I would like to share some of the knowledge and techniques that have helped me relish the days in the classroom when I can engage in discussions that link my course material to contemporary political events.

Over two decades ago, the writer, teacher, and activist bell hooks challenged teachers to give up the power we hold in the classroom, giving our students intellectual freedom to challenge constructs of race, class, and sexuality. hooks’ feminist, liberation pedagogy is grounded in the core contention that “no education is politically neutral,” particularly in the classroom, where “it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom."1 According to hooks, even declining to engage in an issue represents a choice with political ramifications. Even those questions that might seem purely academic at first glance have political implications, especially given the power dynamics present in the classroom.2 As our political environment has changed in recent years, hooks’ observations seem increasingly evident in our day-to-day existence in the classroom and in the world. If we accept that every decision has political consequences, should we not then lean into political discussions in the classroom, allowing students to engage with those issues in a productive struggle?

Although we might fear that engaging in politically sensitive issues will derail our classes, the pedagogical literature outlines many benefits of incorporating these kinds of issues. Our political beliefs are founded on the values and expectations we draw from our parents, life experiences, education, and other forms of political socialization. They are, in other words, assumptions that can be discovered, questioned, and checked through the process of critical thinking.3 We can therefore use political disputes in our classrooms as a tool to model, structure, and practice the daunting task of teaching critical thinking. Moreover, while the emotionality of political topics might at first seem like a drawback, students’ emotional investment in the material benefits their learning in several ways. Harnessing students’ emotions in the classroom can help improve their attention, maximize their working memory (which can help support more complex critical thinking tasks), strengthen the consolidation of memories, and engender both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.4

To be productive, difficult discussions require a respectful, accessible, and curious classroom environment. To establish these expectations from the start, I prefer to lead students in a “meta-discussion” at the beginning of the semester to collectively establish ground rules. We agree to expectations such as “make others welcome to share opinions,” “be open to new ideas,” “not everything has a right or wrong answer,” and “everyone participates—take responsibility for knowing when to speak up more or listen more.” While I post each section’s ground rules on their course site, I have never had to explicitly draw on them to contain a disintegrating discussion. Simply using the activity to frame the course helps garner buy-in and communicates the importance of inclusive and collaborative inquiry. Research suggests that even a brief intervention to communicate classroom norms can change student attitudes and create a more diverse and welcoming environment.5 Even when you are not discussing touchy issues, model good discussion behaviors so that they are second nature when a discussion does become more difficult. Remind students to practice drawing on evidence from the text, avoid overgeneralizing, and allow everyone the chance to speak.

One of my favorite ways to structure an in-class discussion on a controversial topic is through an anonymized debate format. I have used it to hold class debates on issues such as the Second Amendment, the role of Christianity in the Founding Era, and the NFL national anthem protests. In other disciplines, this structure could be applied to a debate on the ethics of a certain technology, public health recommendation, or economic policy. The activity begins with a controversial question, which students are asked to answer anonymously on a notecard. I collect the notecards, shuffle them up, and then redistribute them. Each student then represents the point of view on the notecard during the debate. I prefer to ask a question that allows for a sliding scale of opinions from one extreme to the other, so that I can ask students to stand up and physically line themselves up across the room according to the position stated on their card. I begin by asking a few representatives from the far extremes and center of the classroom. As we go, I ask why someone might hold that particular opinion; this question forces students to think critically to consider evidence that might run counter to their own experiences or opinions. I take these opportunities to unpack the academic content of the question and disentangle it from the values, political judgments, and popular misunderstandings about the question.

This anonymized debate activity has worked well for me in a variety of classroom situations, including at institutions with strong partisan leanings. I love this activity for multiple reasons: It allows the class to recognize different viewpoints that exist within their midst. The exercise tends to upend the normal patterns in a classroom of who talks and who prefers to listen because it offers a fantastic opportunity for a shy student to speak up without needing to “own” the opinion. Particularly when you know a classroom has a strong partisan lean, the process can help slow down the thought processes normally at play.

Various other structured discussion formats can achieve a similar effect of democratizing voices and postponing simple conclusions. Asking students to write a response to a question first gives them time to think and frame their answers more carefully. If conversation in the classroom becomes too charged, you can de-escalate it by pausing and asking students to write out their thoughts.6 Discussions can be structured to make students more thoughtful about the role they are playing in the conversation. Many instructors use fishbowl-style discussions to get students to reign in the most talkative students and encourage listening. In this discussion format, students sitting inside the “fishbowl” participate in a discussion while students sitting in an outer ring listen attentively. Instructors can elect either to flip the two groups or to adopt a tap-in system for observers to swap into the discussion.

We might also consider setting up discussions that explicitly require students to reflect on the qualities of a constructive conversation. Ask the first half of the class to discuss a topic with as little interference from you as possible. After a set period of time (perhaps 5 or 10 minutes), the second half of the class is asked to critique the discussion that just occurred. They might focus either on the interpersonal aspects (e.g., who dominated the discussion) or the academic ones (e.g., a fault in logic, a key question that was raised but went unanswered). This strategy requires students to be mindful of their own roles in a conversation and consider what makes for a productive academic discussion.

What if something does go wrong in a politically charged discussion? Responding on the spot to a hurtful comment or a microaggression can be difficult. Many of us who are coming from a place of good intentions still fear that we might make the wrong move. But fear not. A study of college students’ perceptions of microaggressions and their management in the classroom suggests that we should not be intimidated by the problem. Students rated all potential responses to microaggressions, including direct confrontation, class discussion, private confrontation, and the provision of counterexamples, as more effective than no response. Note that you do not necessarily need to muster all the right words in the moment; on average, students rated a private confrontation as the most effective response.7 So long as we respond thoughtfully to hurtful incidents in the classroom, we should feel confident in our ability to negotiate these critical conversations. 


  • 1 bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 37, 29.
  • 2 Ibid., pp. 139-143.
  • 3 Stephen Brookfield defines critical thinking as “a process of hunting assumptions—discovering what assumptions we and others hold, and then checking to see how much sense those assumptions make.” Stephen D. Brookfield, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p. 24.
  • 4 Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom With the Science of Emotion (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2016), chapter 2.
  • 5 Jill E. Bennett and Denise Sekaquaptewa, “Setting an Egalitarian Social Norm in the Classroom: Improving Attitudes Towards Diversity Among Male Engineering Students,” Social Psychology of Education 17 (June 2014), pp. 343-355.
  • 6 For a writing exercise in response to a tense situation in class discussion, consider using Stephen Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire,” available at http://www.stephenbrookfield.com/ciq.
  • 7 Guy A. Boysen, “Teacher and Student Perceptions of Microaggressions in College Classrooms,” College Teaching 60, no. 3 (2012), pp. 122-129.
Rachel Banke

Rachel Banke (rbanke@imsa.edu) recently joined the history and social science faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Aurora, Illinois, and currently serves as the department’s co-Curriculum and Assessment Leader.