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A Formula for Teaching Controversial Topics

In a piece for The Atlantic, Lisa Rau Cannon, who teaches current events at an after-school academy in Los Angeles, offers a formula for discussing controversial issues while remaining sensitive to biases. She writes:

Familiarity + Context + Devil's Advocacy = Meaningful Discussion

For example, in a recent discussion about gun control, Cannon began by asking if the middle school students knew what an AK-47 was. "[T]hey flung their arms up so quickly that I thought someone might dislocate a shoulder," she writes—it turns out they were familiar with the semi-automatic rifle from the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Cannon then put the issue in context by bringing up the LAX airport shooting, which they knew about because it took place locally. Next, she widened the context by including the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the Navy Yard shooting.

Finally, she eased into the gun debate by posing different sides. She explained that those in favor of increased gun-control believe that limiting the purchase of semi-automatic weapons could have given victims more time to escape while the shooter reloaded. "My formula reminds me to interject a devil's advocate idea, such as the argument that laws wouldn't stop killers who get their guns illegally, anyway," she writes. "Perhaps I'd introduce the concept of focusing on mental health, rather than guns." 

The formula came out of Cannon's frustration with one-sided teaching and her fear of "inadvertently spin[ning] students' perceptions" herself. "One thing that gets my blood boiling," Cannon writes, "is when a student says, 'My teacher says [insert garden variety opinion stated as fact].' One of my students was unable to explain why she believed that stem cell research was the same thing as abortion, but that it must be true because her homeroom teacher said so."

Still, Cannon is adamant that discussing these kinds of issues in the classroom is crucial: "Adolescents often have fragmented notions about real-world, R-rated themes: violence, death, sex, scandal. Sheltering students from these distressing subjects only keeps their frame of reference limited to the grapevine."

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