Diving into the Trenches

Rules of Thumb for Teaching Controversial Issues

Stepping into the classroom to teach what some consider to be a controversial subject can be a harrowing experience the first time. The senior education research associate at the Paleontological Research Institution offers a set of tips that may make the experience less nerve-wracking and more effective.

Don Duggan-Haas (dad55@cornell.edu), director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, has served as chair of the Geological Society of America's Geoscience Education Division and has played an active role in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards.

The Paleontological Research Institution has a long history of nurturing understandings of controversial issues. Our Museum of the Earth is built around the interplay of the history of life and the history of Earth. That is a perspective of Darwinian evolution on a planet billions of years old. We have long worked to teach and help others teach about evolution (Allmon, 2009), climate change (Allmon, et al, 2010), and, for the last several years, about hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and the broader energy system (Duggan-Haas, et al, 2013). Importantly, the work related to fracking is done without advocating for or against the practice, both in deference to the promises made to our funders and because it makes good pedagogical sense. Drawing from this work and the related body of research, we have crafted rules of thumb for teaching about controversial issues.

1 - Be nice (but there are limits).

Treating those who disagree as either idiots or evil people is unlikely to convince them that you're correct.

a. Know your audience. "Nice" has different meanings with different audiences.

b. For the most part, people aren't lying. They largely believe what they say.

c. Advocacy may deepen convictions more than understanding. Evangelism turns on people who agree with you and turns off many who don't. Being certain and being right aren't the same thing, and they aren't all that closely related. Put more faith in people and institutions that are pretty sure than those that are certain.

d. Don't let the bastards get you down. Working on nurturing public understanding of controversial issues will make people angry, and angry people say and do nasty things. Have a support system you can turn to.

2 - Complexify the seemingly simple.

As educators (and like journalists and politicians), we are driven to simplify the seemingly complex. It's often important, but we do it too often. The world is complex.

a. Move from debate to discussion. There are often ways to reframe away from false dichotomies.

b. Controversial issues are always interdisciplinary. Pay attention to the tools and strategies of the most centrally related disciplines.

c. Don't forget the importance of the simple. While acknowledging the issue's complexity is important, there are often simple ideas illuminated within that complexity.

3 - Evidence matters, but evidence alone is not enough.

All of us hold beliefs for which ample conflicting evidence exists.

a. Learn about cognitive biases (including your own) and how to communicate more effectively in light of them.

b. State evidence clearly and directly, identifying a small number of key points. Too many different points cloud the issue.

c. Mathematics matters. Scale plays a central role in many controversial issues, and understanding really large or really small numbers brings special challenges. "Social math" (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2008) uses familiar examples to show volume, mass, or relative number.

d. Call out logical fallacies, and hold people accountable for (mis)using them. There's a taxonomy of problematic argument types. Get to know it and put it to use.

4 - Persistence matters.

Beliefs related to controversial issues are often closely tied to world views, and such beliefs do not change quickly or easily.

a. People do change their minds on things that matter.

b. Piling on evidence can bring beliefs to a tipping point. Of course, not always.

c. Reflect on big changes in your own beliefs. Chances are, it took either a long time or an immersion in the issue.

d. Social media may be a better venue for this than classrooms because connections last more than a semester or a year.

5 - Use the local environment as a starting point to engage in critical inquiry of the forces working to share that place.

Climate, energy, and evolution, like most topics in Earth science coursework, play out in a meaningful way just outside the classroom door. Starting close to home will make the issue more relevant to the learner.

For a full transcript of the presentation upon which this is based, presented in October 2014 at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, see: http://bit.ly/controversy2014.

PRI's Marcellus Shale outreach efforts have been supported by a joint research and extension program funded by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Hatch Funds) and Cornell Cooperative Extension (Smith-Lever Funds) received from the National Institutes for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture, and by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF GEO- 1016359 and 1035078). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Science Foundation.


Allmon, Warren D. Evolution and Creationism: A Very Short Guide. Special Publication No. 35, 128 pp. Ithaca, NY: Paleontological Research Institution, 2009.

Allmon, W. D., T. Smrecak, and R. M. Ross. Climate Change—Past, Present, and Future: A Very Short Guide. Special Publication No. 38, 200 pp. Ithaca, NY: Paleontological Research Institution, 2010.

Duggan-Haas, R. M. Ross, & W. D. Allmon. The Science beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale. New York Special Publication No. 43, 252 pp. Ithaca, NY: Paleontological Research Institution, 2013.

National Center for Injury Prevention & Control. Adding Power to Our Voices: A Framing Guide for Communicating About Injury: 40. Atlanta, GA: 2008. Downloaded from http://www.cdc.gov/injury/publications/framing.html.