Publish at April 21 2015 Updated March 16 2023

Should controversial topics be discussed in class?

The debate does not always bring the expected appeasement

While being able to debate in class is a founding principle of the school, it is nevertheless necessary to take some precautions.

In fact, recurring miscellaneous events show us that reactions can sometimes be very strong and that instead of encouraging expression, tensions are created.

Can we debate everything?

In a more than troubled time, when attacks, natural disasters and other tragedies follow one another, the temptation is great to pose debate in class. On the one hand to free speech and emotions, on the other hand to train argumentation.

That said, it is important to be aware of this.

For all that, we must not lose sight of the fact that an emotion is something deeply felt and which is not always satisfied with the echo of others. When the attack on Charlie Hebdo revealed all the horror of an act directly addressed to freedom of expression, many teachers found themselves faced with the question of debate. Should they launch a debate without caution and run the risk of getting out of hand, as we have seen on other occasions? Should they be offered a partially open discussion space controlled by the teacher? Could we leave young people facing such a news item without allowing them to express themselves?

Each chose what seemed most appropriate given the exceptional nature of the event, relying in part on recommendations from the National Education for example. However, it does highlight that there are a few principles of precautions to be taken at such times.

A method for avoiding major pitfalls

First, it's all about the wording: some teachers have been suspended for more than a little controversial wording. Even if the intention is good, one should not get lost in the wording: debate is above all about discussing around a wording that gains from being as neutral as possible so as not to distort the exchange or turn into a forum.

Then consider the age of the learners: a debate in middle school will not look like a debate in elementary, high school, or university. It is entirely possible to have students debate as early as kindergarten; it is a good exercise in clarifying and articulating one's thinking. Doing it on a polemical topic is obviously not recommended, you need to have information and master it a minimum to debate.

This is the last point to keep in mind to properly set up a debate in class: it is only possible if the knowledge related to the subject is there. One cannot question a topic that is totally unknown or whose limits one cannot grasp at least minimally. Instead of a debate, the teacher can also propose first the knowledge allowing to understand what it is about, before opening a time of more free speech. This avoids falling into sterile discussions or ones based on sometimes age-old stereotypes.

How to debate in a classroom

For a classroom debate to be constructive and successful, then, it requires the combination of several elements. First, debating is listening to the other person, to understand their point of view, before reacting. It means being able to control oneself, to respect the other and to create a climate conducive to exchange. This can be learned with practice. If this is not the case, there is a real risk that things will get out of hand, with verbal (or even physical) violence looming. This openness is one of the missions of the school, which largely justifies the use of debate in the classroom since antiquity.

Then it is to use each other's knowledge to fully consider a topic. Therefore, it is important to debate on known elements, preferably on a regular basis to set the rules, not just during traumatic events.

In addition, debating is also about agreeing to disagree with the other person, while respecting them. It is also to be careful with one's expression, because it is one thing to have a thought, it does not mean that it justifies attacking or hurting the other by an awkward formulation that would cut off any exchange. It then becomes possible to consider all subjects, including the most polemical, in complete safety.

Finally, it is an asset for certain fields, such as those related to business. Debate is good training for rebounding and building arguments in real time. It allows the learner's analytical mind to be more solicited, as he or she must understand the points of view of those around him or her in order to find the argument that will hit the mark. He structures his thoughts more quickly and gains in efficiency and fluency in speaking.

The best use of debate in the classroom will therefore be determined by the teacher, who alone is able to identify the abilities and needs of his or her learners. Without benevolence and knowledge about the issue being debated, they will not be able to have the attitude of openness and questioning conducive to the exchanges advocated by the school.

The best use of debate in the classroom will therefore be determined by the teacher, who is the only one able to identify the abilities and needs of his or her learners.

Like any self-respecting tool, it must be used for the right purpose and is not an end in itself.

Illustration: Monkey Business Images - Shutterstock


Freedom of Conscience, Freedom of Expression: Teaching Tools for Reflecting and Debating with Students - Eduscol

Organizing a Classroom Debate - School Together

Why "debate in the classroom"? - Pedagogical Notebooks

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