60 Controversial Discussion Topics with Teaching Ideas

Fostering discussion in the classroom is an age-old question for every teacher. For TEFL/ESL teachers the key is to bring real-world concerns into the classroom through debate. They get to talk about subjects which matter and you get to steer them with better vocab and expressions.
The key to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is to use a variety of strategies to maintain the momentum of the discussion, and where possible, lead them to where they can maximize their own learning

How to teach controversial subjects in the ESL classroom

  • Do they know the topic? Before proposing a debate/discussion topic it is probably best to make sure the students know something about the topic beforehand. Are you able to providing supporting material to get them thinking about the topic? Using Youtube, newspaper cutouts, and audio broadcasts (think Soundcloud) to inform them. But even so, if you are teaching adult or more mature students, they might be able to inform each other. You could be surprised by what they already know, given their own life experiences. Encourage them to volunteer information and have them share what they may have already read.
  • Let both sides be heard. Everyone has their own biases and during a classroom discussion try not to let your own opinions manifest themselves. Your role as the moderator requires you to be impartial while moving the discussion along. Bringing in all views and opinions keeps the talk fast-moving and engages all the students. Allow for time for each point to be explored and give time for students to think of a counter-point. As the debate rages on don’t forget to seed new vocabulary and phrases as a when they need it.
  • Encourage discussion. Once each side of the debate has been made known you can use comprehension check questions to ensure the students have understood the core of the debate. If your debate topics are about cloning you can ask the following questions; Are designer babies needed? The answer would be ‘no’. Could they be made? The answer would be ‘yes’. Before the ‘main debate’ you can have students gather into groups and create a list of points to support their side of the topic. Once completed they should be able to take part in a class debate as they have a working understanding of the issues. If you feel they are not confident enough to do this then they can remain in groups and as a class simply review the points. You can use word maps and debating phrases while you do this. Lastly, don’t forget to step in if two students dominate the discussion or seem to bully others. Don’t be afraid to take control when needed.
  • Let your opinion be known. Once the students have had their turn you can try to give your ‘final thought’, this can be a combination of the most appropriate answer to the topic or simply what your personal view is. You would be surprised by how revealing your own viewpoint can simply polarise the students or make them jump aboard your train of thought. By letting the students show their opinions first reduces the pressure to conform to their teacher’s point of view. This strategy eliminates this common student dilemma. Stress the importance of standing within your own truth and have them feel comfortable expressing their own ideas. Giving the freedom and support to be themselves can help them acquire a newfound confidence.
  • Make a case. Sometimes thinking abstractly about an idea that has no real bearing on your life is daunting – especially in a time-sensitive environment, like a class. To help things move along you can use case studies. A good case study is unambiguous and has a clear line of logic. Case studies bring the topic to life and allow for a more realistic representation of choices that people have made. It is also a great way to have students share their thoughts through the lens of their own lives. How would women and men, Westerners and Easterners, and city folk and country folk view the topic?
  • Oxford Style debating. Now that you have heard all possible thoughts on the subject you can now return to the original question presented to the group. Now, taking a leaf out of the Oxford Style of debating you can have students think about how their opinion has changed over the course of the class. By comparing their ‘before’ and ‘after’ viewpoint they can become more aware of how discussion can sway or persuade them.

Discussions that work, using debates to get your ESL students talking in the classroom.

We are all emotional creatures trying to find a way through life. Sometimes that a hard ask. We are all trying to overcome our own challenges, so the art of debate and discussion can really help your class develop sensitivity and empathy towards topics they may not have contact with.

Need more ideas? Try 5 Sensitive Debate Topics and Why They Are a Taboo

Example controversial topics:

  1. Using animals for medical research should be continued
  2. Gay marriage is wrong [su_highlight](free starter debate available: How People React to Gay Adoptions)[/su_highlight]
  3. Women will never be equal to men in the workplace
  4. You can’t have a happy family life and a successful career at the same time
  5. Marriage is an outdated institution
  6. Citizens should be allowed to carry guns[su_highlight] (free starter debate available: Gun violence)[/su_highlight]
  7. The death penalty is acceptable in some extreme cases
  8. Foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to vote
  9. Sex education should be taught to children under 12 years of age
  10. Women are not paid the same as men [su_highlight] (30 Debates On Women and Gender Equality) [/su_highlight]
  11. Bribery is acceptable
  12. Music which glorifies violence towards women should be banned
  13. Condoms should be distributed in schools for free (junior schools)
  14. Nuclear weapons are a necessary weapon
  15. Teachers should be allowed to carry guns
  16. Sporting personalities earn too much money
  17. Beauty contests should be banned
  18. Cosmetic surgery should be outlawed
  19. Social deprivation causes crime
  20. Military service should be obligatory
  21. War is never an option for solving international disputes
  22. Torture can be acceptable in some cases
  23. Curfews keep teens out of trouble
  24. We are becoming too dependent on computers
  25. Smoking should be banned worldwide
  26. Single-sex schools are evil [su_highlight](free starter debate available: Single-sex schools is good for education)[/su_highlight]
  27. Homework is harmful
  28. The United Nations is a failed organisation [su_highlight] (premium lesson plan available: The United Nations)[/su_highlight]
  29. Intelligence tests should be given before couples can have children
  30. A woman’s place is in the home
  31. The internet must be censored to protect society
  32. Genetically modified foods or GMOs have no ill effects on our health [su_highlight](premium lesson plan available: Genetically modified foods)[/su_highlight]
  33. A man should have a wife for the family and a mistress for pleasure
  34. Soft drugs should be legalised.
  35. Those who can – do, those who can’t – teach
  36. You will be happier if you stay unmarried
  37. Software piracy is not really a crime
  38. We do not really need religion
  39. Veganism is the key to solving Climate Change
  40. The police force is institutionally racist
  41. Democracy must be imposed on nations
  42. The war in Iraq was justified
  43. Chinese style government is superior to western democracies.
  44. Your race affects your intelligence
  45. The world is over populated and steps must be taken to reduce births
  46. Euthanasia should be legal[su_highlight] (free starter debate available: assisted suicide should be legal)[/su_highlight]
  47. Cloning is a valuable scientific cause
  48. Obesity is a disease
  49. Video games contribute to youth violence
  50. Drinking age should be lowered
  51. China will be a world superpower
  52. Drugs should be accepted in sports
  53. Cloning has a lot of benefits
  54. Climate change does not exist
  55. Carbohydrates are more damaging than fats
  56. Terrorism can be justified [su_highlight](premium lesson plan available: Terrorism)[/su_highlight]
  57. Prostitution should be legalised [su_highlight](premium lesson plan available: prostitution should be legalised)[/su_highlight]
  58. Prenuptial agreements make families stronger
  59. Corporal punishment should be allowed in schools.
  60. Prisoners should be allowed to vote

Did you teach any of these topics? How was it for you? Share your lesson ideas and experiences below.

Further reading

Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates

The Immigration Debate: A Historical Guide to Controversial Issues in America (Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America)

The Euthanasia/Assisted-Suicide Debate (Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America)

The Healthcare Debate (Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America)

Three Approaches To Abortion: A Thoughtful and Compassionate Guide to the Most Controversial Issue Today


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