Teaching in an era of passion, polarisation, and cancel culture…

What to do when a topic gets highly charged in class discussion…

It isn’t easy, working with groups of teens…And the unpredictability of chairing class discussion can be a really stressful part of the job. Whether we are talking about non-specialist areas of school life like form time or PSHCE, or kids getting revved up over a curricular topic…it can feel like a minefield.

Discussion, debate, dialogue, is a key element to the learning process in the community of our classrooms. But civility, psychological safety, and inclusivity can fly out of the window when a strongly felt, strongly-worded view gets forcefully expressed. When – as can often be the case – that viewpoint is held in a fixed way, and is closed to or denigrating of other ways of looking at the issue, battle lines get drawn and class members can be activated to fight against, or de-activated and withdrawn.

I often do training work around how to have difficult and delicate conversations with pupils one-on-one. But the times we live in are calling out for a focus on how to referee polarised and passionate debates in class. The need for teachers to have the skills, sense of safety, and support, to operate around the energy and even aggression of those arguing to win.

…Once-safe topics like football, the World Cup, can spark explosive debate…So what can we do to help keep things safe, calm, inclusive, and enable diverse view-points to be explored with tolerance and respect?

It is difficult when these situations emerge in class. It can blind-side us – triggering the powerful threat circuitry that is designed to promote our survival – but not our peace of mind!. Sometimes, topics we thought relatively innocuous can have an unforeseeable emotional loading. And we, as teachers, can be left feeling quite shaken as a result – because we often take on responsibility for the behaviour of our pupils. Second guessing ourselves, and ruminative worry can linger:

  • Did we say the right thing?
  • Was there something we should have / could have done better?
  • Where did all that anger / aggression / self-righteousnesss come from? How did things get so entrenched?
  • What was the impact on more exposed / vulnerable pupils in the dynamics that unfolded
  • Should we have foreseen this?
  • Will there be complaints / damaging narratives emerging as a result…

One aspect of a training session I recently led, highlighted how important it is that this aspect of the job is able to be discussed in a supportive way, with groups of colleagues so that some perspective-taking, normalising, venting, and sharing of good practice, can take place.

Civil discourse has not been well-modelled in public life – whether that is from senior politicians in the highest offices of state. Equally teens marinading in curated social media algorithms can come to class with minds pre-loaded with one-sided, vociferous opinion online from influencers and those monetising extreme views, provocation, and disruption.

The types of issue that can bring about such division, and acrimony, are so varied and not always predictable. Whether it is discussing overseas aid funding, genetics, or gender issues, let alone religion, war, or politics…

Some reframes:

Thinking about our role, and purpose is also something strengthening and protective, when it comes to this potentially fraught aspect of school life.

What is it that we want for them?

  • The ability to speak and explore ideas, raise questions, and express themselves with increasing skill.  
  • To have a secure base to learn and grow.
  • The ability to take on board new information.
  • That they have the correct facts and information -and in a world of ‘fake news’ are able to be discerning about their sources and the claims made.
  • The ability to acknowledge and take other perspectives into account.
  • Being able to self regulate – feel feelings and communicate needs.
  • Being able to access mind-mindedness and empathy skills.
  • To develop the ability to honour differences.
  • To think critically and be discerning about objective and moral truths in order to shape their values.
  • To feel safe and included.

There are few other places, than in class discussion in school, that they are able to access this rich learning experience. The moral imperative for enabling civil discourse and navigating differences of strongly held opinion has never been so high – given that the extensive amount of time most adolescents spend on social media leads to funnelled – and sometimes biased narratives based on commercially-driven algorithms. These cement attitudes, and often ‘other’ and diminish those with differing views.

Being able to widen the narrative, and frame debate, and provide the discipline of civility, whilst learning and operating in community as learners in real life is a rich and increasingly valuable experience. This is why it is important for teachers to be and feel supported along the way.

What, then is our role?

  • To facilitate exploration and learning in a respectful, tolerant, and compassionate environment.
  • To model respect, tolerance, openness, listening skills, civility and compassion (the things we want to see in the kids)
  • To provide safe structures for participation. This includes embracing difference and controversy as opportunities for learning.
  • To moderate tone, slow pace, ensure civility and safety.
  • To promote cognitive flexibility and emotional agility – by setting up these values as an objective and praising these traits when they are displayed.
  • Our role is NOT to bring about world peace, neat conclusions or solutions. Neither is our role to divulge our opinions or biases.

How can we do this?

  • Being able to pause the discussion at the onset of clashing views or signs of dysregulation in order to – with the group – design the alliance…the rules of engagement for civil discourse.
  • Articulate the values of arguing and debating to learn, rather than arguing to win.
  • Leaning in to curiosity as a way to de-escalate tension, and spark reflective thinking -especially with pupils presenting as very vociferous and one-sided in their thinking.
    • Acknowledging the passionate engagement and interest
    • Asking where their information comes from, what has shaped their opinion
    • Reflective questions – what do they see is the impact of the topic
    • What values are at stake for them – what is it about this that matters so much?
    • Here, we enable those who are seeking to dominate to feel heard, be given some focused attention that steers them towards a more evaluative stance and unpacks their thinking more clearly so that they might move away from accusatory or persecutory statements
  • Taking an Assessment for Learning approach – what have they heard, what do they know, what do they think, what do they feel? What differing opinions are they aware of? Where are their sources? What is the quality of the sources they are drawing on? How can they be discerning about that? Starting with and staying with them, and their ability to analyse and see through different lenses – eg a SWOT analysis of different viewpoints – especially if extreme – is a way of getting them to explore and discover limitations and implications without YOU having to take a stand. In other words THEY are doing the thinking, you are not rescuing flawed thinking you are steering towards critical thinking and MORE thinking.
  • Steering towards widening the narrative so that other views can also be articulated and explored. So we might start with a student initiating with their strong belief. Then we might ask – what other points of view are the class aware of when it comes to the topic in question. This enables a degree of safety for alternative points of view to be aired without necessarily feeling that to contribute is to become adversarial. We might also ask for what awareness pupils might have about an opposite point of view.
  • Monitoring and facilitating psychological safety benchmarks in the room – is the debate polarised. Have most of the class gone quiet. Are some pupils looking withdrawn, disengaged…? Intervening
  • Chairing the session inclusively, maintaining the focus on the agreed topic. Being ready to pause and restructure activities so there is reflection time, and lower-stakes, smaller group discussion to build and widen engagement.
  • Checking in with pupils where the tone of their engagement or disengagement caused concern – so that you can help them look at any problematic dynamics more clearly, and you can circle back to core values.

Sometimes events outside of school and news items can activate extreme reactions. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests reverberated strongly in many school communities and the debate came a great deal closer to home – with angry accusations of institutional racism, meant that school leaders and teachers alike became the focus of vociferous questioning.

Similarly, in the wake of the Everyone’s Invited movement coming to prominence in the UK – with many schools being accused of being institutionally sexist and colluding with or turning a blind eye to sexual harassment. Some school leaders were personally targeted as being accountable for the online testimonies, and social media campaigns involving alumni, current pupils, and parents ensured that the issue of safeguarding, as well as the quality and approach to educating young people about sex, sexuality, and healthy relationships came to the fore.

In many ways these campaigns, fought with such passion, are emblematic of the adolescent drive to make things new…to push at the boundaries, and cause an established, sometimes maybe even a complacent status-quo, to be shaken up. It’s how we adapt, and evolve as a society. And often it is a force for good.

However, whilst anger against injustice can be righteous, and morally activating, when it is pursued without compassion, involves public humiliation via social media as a first port of call, and with an insistence on guilt, blame, and shame, then change is accompanied by damage, and a sense of safety around learning from points of difference and controversy is compromised.

As the Buddha taught, acting from a point of anger is like throwing hot coals at your adversary without gloves. Being able to recognise anger, difference, injustice, prejudice, and act with humanity, compassion, connect in debate, rather than control the narrative are important and much needed skills in the modern age.

The filters we can look at improving a more gracious approach to dealing with conflict and controversy move through from the ancient Buddhist tenets, through to Socrates and Bernard Meltzer. And these are helpful reflective structures to focus debate:

Is what is being said TRUE? Is it KIND? IS it NECESSARY, and is it HELPFUL? If the answer to these is yes, proceed.

As with all difficult conversations, chairing a group one requires good self-regulation. SO that we can model the aspirations we have for our students, and what we want to see from them. Bias happens at speed – system 1 thinking. Facilitate really listening to each other – not from a position of debate or offence/defence…But real listening. An open receptiveness to understanding perspectives.

Helping all of our pupils feel that they have an impact on others and use their power and points of privilege in positive ways will have an impact in itself…But not necessarily a tangible, measurable one. Good relationships are based on good interactions – as Clinical Psychologist and author Rick Hanson writes. Taking this down to basics – day by day…what are the smallest things we CAN do for each other in the world – being polite, considerate, respectful, appreciative.


I hope this has been a helpful starting point for thinking about how we are going to move forward in 2023 and work towards healing our communities in the midst of uncertain and turbulent times.

Wishing you all a happy new year of teaching.

With love and gratitude


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