Teaching in a Politically Charged Classroom

Women in Higher Education
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Today’s higher ed students live in a politically supercharged landscape, wrought with strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum. For instructors looking to actively build crucial soft skills like critical thinking, professionalism and conflict resolution, remaining neutral in this environment can be especially difficult. Moreover, misrepresentation of one’s political leanings in the classroom runs the risk of being an abuse of power.

Now, instructors are left with the challenge of navigating their political beliefs—and the beliefs of their students—while still promoting rational and neutral discussion. With this in mind, we’ve included five tips to help you engage and challenge your students without letting the fervor of politics derail your class.

1. Prepare Discussions Ahead of Time

When it comes time to discuss controversial topics, the views of your students can be as unique as they are. Like most aspects of your instruction, the key to success lies in preparation. Specifically, preparing for the various views and stances your students may hold about a specific political topic.

Generally, political views are influenced by family, friends, religion, location, etc. When preparing to discuss political topics with your students, consider the sources behind their potential viewpoints. By being aware of these root causes, you will be more apt to traverse conversations delicately—while including core reasoning for your students.

2. Lead with the Lesson First and Politics Second

As you’ve no doubt experienced, it can be all too easy for a classroom discussion to veer off-topic—especially when politics are discussed. To prevent this, tie the focus of political discussion around the lesson. By contextualizing why you’re having the conversation and what outcomes you expect from it, you’ll be better equipped to redirect students and ensure the discussion stays civil and on topic.

This can be especially useful in situations where negative viewpoints are being discussed. For example, lessons that tie past political leaders or climates with current ones.

3. Establish Ground Rules

At the onset of any controversial class discussion, it helps to lay out ground rules for students to adhere to. On top of keeping students accountable for respectful discourse, these guidelines can be used as a framework to keep everyone focused on the goal of the conversation as it pertains to your lesson. Because politics can be highly personal, an effective strategy to ensure students adhere to the ground rules is to give them the opportunity to help create them.

Consider asking your students what guidelines they’d like to see in the discussion. Possible ideas include:

  • Listening without interrupting
  • Critiquing ideas without putting down individuals or groups
  • Providing reasoning behind one’s opinion
  • Allowing everyone time to speak
  • Avoiding incendiary comments like name-calling, derogatory language, etc.

4. Actively Moderate the Discussion

Politics by nature are difficult to discuss—especially when an entire college classroom is participating in the conversation. To ensure the dialogue helps further your students’ critical thinking and foundational knowledge of your specific lesson, it’s crucial to actively moderate the discussion. To keep the conversation flowing in a respectful manner, consider the following tips:

  • Frequently harken back to the conversation’s purpose and the lesson it’s supposed to serve
  • Prompt responses from students by asking them to play devil’s advocate to their own position
  • Reaffirm that there is no single “solution” or “right” answer/view to have
  • Acknowledge the difficulty behind discussing sensitive topics
  • Ask students to expand upon the points/positions of their peers

5. Synthesize and Reflect on the Discussion

To ensure students walk away from your class with useful and positive takeaways, it helps to summarize what was discussed—from the frequently shared views to the controversial ones. Then, have students reflect on what they discussed. Specifically, have students dissect the why behind key discussion points; why some felt one way and others felt another, why it was difficult to play devil’s advocate, why some rules were harder to follow than others.

While political discussion is difficult, it is also a great opportunity to promote critical thinking—a crucial skill for academic and career success. Moreover, research shows political discussion in the classroom leads to increased literacy, tolerance and student confidence. By reflecting on the class discussion, you can more effectively reiterate the importance of being able to participate in such discussions.


Want More Student Engagement Tips and Tricks?

Be sure to check out our Teaching Methods section in Today’s Learner.

Also, take advantage of our recent ebook, The Student Engagement Handbook. It’s packed with peer-generated ideas to inspire students and keep their attention.