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 that 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
Jump to the topic list: 60 Controversial Discussion Topics with Teaching Ideas
6 tips to teach controversial subjects in the ESL classroom
1. 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 provide 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.
2. 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 when they need it.
3. 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.
4. 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 having them feel comfortable expressing their own ideas. Giving them the freedom and support to be themselves can help them acquire newfound confidence.
5. 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?
6. 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’ viewpoints they can become more aware of how discussion can sway or persuade them.
60 Controversial Discussion Topics with Teaching Ideas
- Using animals for medical research should be continued.
- Gay marriage is wrong (free starter debate available:How People React to Gay Adoptions)
- Women will never be equal to men in the workplace .
- You can’t have a happy family life and a successful career at the same time .
- Marriage is an outdated institution .
- Citizens should be allowed to carry guns (free starter debate available: Gun violence).
- The death penalty is acceptable in some extreme cases.
- Non-citizens should should be allowed to vote in the country of residence (this includes short term tourists).
- Sex education should be taught to children under 12 years of age .
- Women are not paid the same as men (30 Debates On Women and Gender Equality).
- Bribery and corruption is acceptable [for either governments or for companies].
- Music which glorifies violence towards women should be banned.
- Condoms should be distributed in schools for free (junior schools).
- Nuclear weapons are a necessary weapon.
- Teachers should be allowed to carry guns.
- Sporting personalities earn too much money.
- Beauty contests should be banned.
- Cosmetic surgery should be outlawed.
- Social deprivation causes crime.
- Military service should be obligatory.
- War is never an option for solving international disputes.
- Torture can be acceptable in some cases.
- Curfews keep teens out of trouble.
- We are becoming too dependent on computers.
- Smoking should be banned worldwide.
- Single-sex schools are bad for childhood development (free starter debate available: Single-sex schools is good for education).
- Homework is harmful.
- The United Nations is a failed organisation (premium lesson plan available: The United Nations).
- Intelligence tests should be given before couples can have children.
- A woman’s place is in the home.
- The internet must be censored to protect society.
- Genetically modified foods or GMOs have no ill effects on our health (premium lesson plan available: Genetically modified foods).
- A man should have a wife for the family and a mistress for pleasure.
- Soft drugs should be legalised.
- Electric cars do not help the environement. (free Starter Debate Are Electric Cars Environmentally Friendly?).
- You will be happier if you stay unmarried.
- Software piracy is not really a crime.
- We do not really need religion.
- Veganism is the key to solving climage change.
- The police force is institutionally racist (Amazon book recommendation: Are British Police Institutionally Racist?: Memoirs of an Accused Conman).
- Democracy must be imposed on nations.
- The war in Iraq was justified.
- Chinese style government is superior to western democracies.
- Your race affects your intelligence.
- The world is over populated and steps must be taken to reduce births.
- Euthanasia should be legal (free starter debate available: assisted suicide should be legal).
- Cloning is a valuable scientific cause
- Obesity is a disease and not a lifestyle choice
- Video games contribute to youth violence
- Drinking age should be lowered
- China will be a world superpower [this implies western countries have given their lunch for China to eat]
- Drugs should be accepted in sports
- Self-driving cars are not going to make our lives easier.
- Climate change does not exist.
- Carbohydrates are more damaging than fats.
- Terrorism can be justified. (premium lesson plan available: Terrorism)
- Prostitution should be legalised. (premium lesson plan available: prostitution should be legalised)
- Prenuptial agreements make families stronger.
- Corporal punishment should be allowed in schools.
- 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.
Need more ideas? Try 5 Sensitive Debate Topics and Why They Are a Taboo
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Three Approaches To Abortion: A Thoughtful and Compassionate Guide to the Most Controversial Issue Today
Words That Win: How to win the debates that matter
The Noisy Classroom: Developing Debate and Critical Oracy in Schools
The Slave Trade Debate: Contemporary Writings For and Against