Teaching Controversial Issues: How to talk about gun control in the classroom

By Maxine Cleminson

Partisanship in public discourse is an increasing feature of politics in America, particularly over the last decade.  During the 1980s and 1990s, affiliation with one of the two American political parties was more cross-cutting across social voting blocs with supporters of liberal and conservative viewpoints in both broad church parties. This is no longer the case.  And America is not alone in this. A striking example of this is from my home country, the United Kingdom, which has experienced divisive partisanship over recent years in association with Brexit.

At the heart of this is the increasing prominence of identity politics; gender, race, religion, sexual identity, age, and location (urban vs. rural) strongly correlate with political affiliation and party politics.  This has had the effect that discussing certain issues has become a futile gridlock with neither partisan group able to move on their position without damage to their ego. Instead, vitriolic insults to one’s political opposites such as ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Deplorable’ abound.  Therefore, it is no surprise that teachers frequently shy away from discussing polarizing issues such as abortion, vaccinations, immigration, and climate change, that attract strongly partisan viewpoints. Unfortunately, students are curious and often engage in these sort of discussions so they can crop up in the classroom anyway, particularly in relation to current events.

So what should a teacher do?

In this blog I shall outline some of the issues being faced by teachers in the US in regard to the gun control debate, and offer some practical pedagogical guidance on how they can deal with it in the classroom.

Why teach a controversial subject like gun control?

It is unsurprising that many teachers feel uncomfortable discussing controversial topics like gun politics in the classroom, as there is a real risk of jeopardizing their job if it is handled incorrectly.  In a highly partisan political atmosphere it can seem futile at best to attempt to engage students in discussing and deliberating over a topic like gun control when society at large cannot seem to see the value in, or make any headway with, such dialogue.  However, ignoring problems rarely makes them go away.  It could be argued that teachers should feel an increased obligation to address partisan topics such as gun control when there is extreme polarization of opinion. Otherwise, what message does that send to the student? With an increasing focus on helping students develop 21st-century skills and becoming competent global citizens, should we not take this opportunity to engage them in critical thinking about real-life issues affecting the world?

Developing skills for democracy

There is broad consensus that teaching controversial issues in the classroom is a useful means of achieving the social aim of developing deliberative democratic skills amongst students. Many speech and debate clubs and civics classes utilize controversial topics to teach students valuable research and debate skills. A powerful and authentic issue is necessary to represent the real-world democratic conflicts for which students need to be prepared to engage in as politically active adults.  The topic of gun control is a perfect example of an authentic issue that can be used for this purpose. Furthermore, gun politics is an issue that has a specific emotional relevance to many students as they are made very aware of their own vulnerability by their participation in lockdown and active shooter drills and when they see news of tragic school shootings in the media. Therefore, the superficial aim of engaging students in discussing a controversial subject such as gun control may be to increase understanding of an issue about which they are emotionally invested in, but it also presents an opportunity to engage them in discussions that increase their facility in democratic debate and their appreciation of the value of political discourse. In fact, some studies have shown discussion-based pedagogies are so effective in engaging students that they have a ‘trickle-up’ effect, whereby students continue their political conversations outside of school.

Develop critical thinking skills

Another aim of teaching controversial issues is to help students develop the ability to think and act rationally, evaluate information and assess bias, justify opinions with evidence, and to consider alternative viewpoints. In the case of gun politics in America, the differing opinions are not simply based on tangible facts that can be proven, or not, with evidence. Instead the conflict hinges on moral interpretations of what is right and wrong.  As a consequence, the topic of gun politics, if handled with care, could be a vehicle for having a open discussion where no-one has to win or lose.  As a highly partisan issue, gun politics is strongly linked to identity and self conception, so by promoting a rational, faultless discourse, there is less risk of damage to students’ ego and identity.

Develop civic virtues such as civility and respect

A final justification for discussing gun politics in the classroom is that it is a useful means to develop students’ civic virtues.  With a highly partisan and contentious topic such as this, it is vital that students are able to observe respectful civil discourse being modeled, as well as having the opportunity to participate actively.  Learning to deal with differences with civility is a key aim of teaching a controversial issue, and a polarizing issue such as gun control is one where differences of opinion will be strongly held.  Respect and understanding for others’ different opinions can be fostered by such discussions, so it is appropriate for the topic of gun control to be included in classroom discourse. 

A pedagogy for gun control debate in the classroom

Context is important. In some schools in America, particularly those in rural areas, the question of whether access to guns should be limited would seem a ludicrous proposal. This can be illustrated by the widespread creation of ‘Second Amendment Sanctuaries’ in rural areas where county-level law enforcement officials are refusing to enforce gun control measures put in place at the state and federal levels.  However, because of the highly partisan nature of this controversial issue at a national level, it is essential to treat discussions about gun politics in the classroom as controversial regardless of the context.  Therefore, even if the issue of gun control may not be locally contentious, the fact that it is for the wider community means that teachers should address the topic as controversial and teach it sensitively.

Plan the format of the discussion

As gun politics is a highly emotive subject, there is also a need to plan what form the discussion itself will take. While all discussions include multiple viewpoints and the opportunity for listening and responding, the intention or goal of the discussion is also important to consider.  With a strongly partisan issue like gun politics, there is little value in engaging students in a debate that seeks to resolve a dispute in a win or lose scenario.  Rather, teachers should aim to engage students initially in a discussion with the intent that all participants gain greater understanding of the various perspectives on the topic without criticism.  If the psychological and physical conditions of the classroom are conducive, it may be possible to engage older students in discussions where they constructively but critically engage with each other’s viewpoints, but this will involve careful consideration of the group of students and the ground rules set out for the discussion. It is also advisable that students should be given an opportunity to prepare in advance, but in the case of incidental teaching moments when the topic comes up organically in conversation, it is not always practical.  Discussions should also involve all members of the classroom engaging directly with each other, not just relying on teacher-led talk.

Address bias

Gun politics is a partisan issue with sides that strongly correlate with demographic groups. Consequently, beliefs about the issue are tied deeply to identity and egos.  Having discussions about gun control is very difficult because the polarized nature of the debate reduces trust and makes participants highly suspicious of the ‘other side’.  There is a tendency for gun control advocates to dismiss the concerns of second amendment supporters (and vice versa), only accepting evidence that supports their position.  This form of motivated reasoning is a big impediment to constructive discussions.

It can be useful to ask students to step back and consider the wider ideological debate, for example, by examining the relationship between the state and the individual.  By doing so, it would pull the discussion away from specific focus on guns, where cognitive bias is a barrier to effective communication.  An alternative way to frame the discussion is to focus on the emotional responses of students to the topic of gun politics, and to critically discuss the role of emotions and how they are utilised in politics to create divisions in society or to bring people together.  Framing the discussion in this way may help students on both sides of the partisan divide find common ground.

Simply by engaging the students in a discussion about gun politics it could be that their bias would be reduced as they will have to critically evaluate viewpoints on both sides of the issue rather than getting all their information from an echo chamber media source that confirms their bias.  Moreover, by specifically seeking to explore perspectives on gun control in the discussion rather than ‘win’ a debate, it provides a non-judgmental atmosphere in which students can feel less threatened about sharing their beliefs and where they can begin to build trust.  Engaging in trust-building activities prior to the discussion may also help students eventually engage in the discussions openly and constructively.  

Consider the role of the teacher

By the very nature of controversial issues, teachers should not position themselves as an authority of the subject. In any discussion of a controversial issue, the teacher must steer clear of claiming the ‘right answer’.  However, this does not mean that the teacher role is negligible. Quite the opposite. The teacher is vital as a role model for how to think critically and engage in discussions with civility. By scaffolding appropriate forms of speech and interaction with others, teachers can enable discussions about gun control to be conducted constructively.  

In the case of controversial issues, probably the most important thing to consider is the extent to which the teacher reveals their own viewpoint.  It is highly unlikely that a teacher would be ambivalent about the issue of gun politics, and while they are entitled to their strongly held opinions outside of school, they are rightly limited in what they can voice in the classroom. There is evidence that as the community becomes increasingly partisan, especially over issues like gun control, there is increasing distrust in schools and concerns about teachers getting on their ‘soapbox’, proselytizing their own viewpoints, or promoting an agenda. 

It would be highly inappropriate for any teacher to try to push a student towards either side of the gun control debate, or on any controversial issue. However, there is little evidence that students adopt teachers’ views when they are aware of them.  Some teachers feel neutrality is impossible and that being explicit about their viewpoint and their reasoning models critical thinking.  Also, some feel that modeling values rather than positions is more important.   Others feel that remaining neutral in some situations invites students who may normally feel unsafe to share their views to participate and that to voice an opinion abuses the position of power the teacher has in the classroom. Nonetheless, teachers leading discussions with students on the topic of gun control have to make the decision on whether to reveal their own viewpoint based on their individual context. 

While there is no consensus on best-practice, remaining neutral or impartial are the safest and most appropriate positions teachers should adopt when engaging students in a discussion about gun politics. A very good reason for trying to be non-partisan and to maintain neutrality in regard to the specific topic of gun politics is that in recent years there have been situations that have caused massive and rapid shifts in public opinion. For example, after both the Sandy Hook and Parkland school mass murders there were rapid public opinion shifts to both extremes. Gun control advocates clamored for tighter controls, whereas the pro-gun lobbyists called for teachers to be armed in the classroom.

While practicing neutrality is preferable when addressing the topic of gun politics, it may be useful for teachers to share a little about their personal context in relation to guns; whether they grew up in a community where gun use was normalized or not, for example. An ideal compromise might be to engage other teachers to work collaboratively to present a range of viewpoints to try to limit the negative impact of this inevitable partisanship.  Thus, it may be worth considering enlisting the support of teaching colleagues with differing opinions to assist with the discussion.

Safeguarding students while allowing freedom of speech

In American wider society, discourse over gun politics frequently comes to an impasse that quickly dissolves into hate speech and insults. It is imperative that this is avoided in the classroom setting and that the students’ rights and dignity are preserved. Managing the social interactions between students, especially when teaching controversial issues, involves a balancing act between allowing free and open discussion and ensuring a fair and inclusive environment where students feel safe.  If further incentives were needed, studies have shown that when it is accomplished effectively, there is a direct correlation between having a classroom where open discussion is encouraged and producing students who have strong critical thinking skills. However, achieving this is a challenge that often requires the teacher to be emotionally engaged and imaginative as well.  In teaching about gun politics, sensitivity and openness to other perspectives must be modeled by the teacher to create an unwritten civility regime that promotes respect for other viewpoints, rather than enforced civility through restrictive measures.  Promoting open, civil debate with the example set by the teacher does not guarantee that students will not say offensive things to other participants about their beliefs on gun control. However, by engaging students in a exploring perspectives in a non-judgmental way, hopefully they can feel safer and less inclined to attack each others’ viewpoints and associated identities.

Successful discourse in highly-partisan situations is possible, but requires a pluralist and inclusive approach and the modeling of civic virtues such as tolerance and respect. 

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