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Teaching Controversial Issues and Critical Thinking: Evidence of Importance and Outcomes



  1. 93% of higher education faculty believe critical thinking is an essential learning outcome.

    A 2005 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities demonstrated the need for efforts to promote critical thinking by highlighting the disparity between the 93% of higher education faculty that perceive critical thinking to be an essential learning outcome and the 6% of undergraduate seniors that actually demonstrated critical thinking proficiency.

    Source: Ian J. Quitadamo and Martha J. Kurts, "Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology,” CBE Life Sciences Education, Feb. 2007.


  2. Critical thinking is considered the second most important life skill after interpersonal skill.

    In a 1994 survey of over 11,000 college graduates, the "ability to think critically” ranked as the second most important skill out of 16 in their daily life (#1 was interpersonal skills).

    Source: Cooperative Institutional Research Program, "1994 Nine Year Follow-Up Survey (of 1985 Freshmen),” Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 1995.


  3. Studying and debating controversial topics in school helps increase student attention, motivation, achievement, creativity, and self-esteem.

    A 2009 meta-analysis of studies on teaching controversial issues found that teaching the pros and cons of controversial issues in a structured conflict format can help "focus student attention," increase motivation, "produce higher levels of cognitive reasoning," "produce higher levels of achievement and retention," as well as increase "levels of creativity and divergent thinking" and "students' self-esteem."

    Source: David W. Johnson, Minnesota University, and Roger T. Johnson, Minnesota University, "Energizing Learning: The Instructional Power of Conflict," Educational Researcher, Jan. 2009


  4. California teachers said critical thinking skills were the best way to assess whether students are prepared to succeed in college and the workplace.

    The survey of 1,000 teachers found critical thinking #1 among the other measures of college and career readiness, with 78% of educators ranking developing critical thinking skills in the top three indicators of college success.

    Source: Louis Freedberg, "Teachers Say Critical Thinking Key to College and Career Readiness," edsource.org, Sep. 29, 2015


  5. Controversial issue assignments increase critical thinking skills and appreciation of cultural diversity.

    A 2003 evaluation of students given a controversial issue assignment found that:

    98.25% "agreed, strongly agreed, or very strongly agreed" that "they were more sensitive to the concerns of people from diverse populations" after completion of a controversial issue assignment. 9

    6.4% "agreed, strongly agreed, or very strongly agreed" that "their knowledge about a population other than their own" had increased.

    94.7% "agreed, strongly agreed, or very strongly agreed" that the assignment "sharpened their critical thinking skills."

    Source: Sue Steiner, Stephanie Bruzuzy, Karen Gerdes, and Donna Hurdle, "Using Structured Controversy to Teach Diversity Content and Cultural Competence," Journal of Teaching and Social Work, 2003


  6. Employers value demonstrated critical thinking over job candidates' undergraduate majors.

    An Apr. 10, 2013 survey completed for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 93% of employers agreed that a "candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate field of study." 82% of employers believed that colleges and universities should place more emphasis on critical thinking and analytical reasoning.

    Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities, "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success," www.aacu.org, Apr. 10, 2013


  7. Teaching controversial topics helps students develop non-violent strategies for dealing with conflict.

    A 2008 case study of social studies teachers concluded that: "Teaching controversial issues allows students to question and to express their fears in the safety of the classroom, and provides opportunities to develop their social skills such as learning how to listen to one another, to deal with difficult topics, and to handle their anger and frustrations without resorting to violence. Importantly, it is not about teaching students to avoid conflict, because conflict and controversy are part of human relationships, but rather where schools provide neutral grounds for rational discourse and objective study.”

    Source: P. Reitano, C. Kivunja, and K. Porter, "Teaching Controversial Issues In Schools to Prepare Children for a Sustainable Global Village," Australian Association for Research Education website, 2008


  8. Learning and discussing controversial issues in school helps students become more informed and more active citizens.

    A 2007 survey of 5,400 secondary students found that: "Students who regularly take part in classroom discussion are more likely to:

    • Vote in later life
    • Support basic democratic values
    • Take part in political discussions
    • Follow political news in the media
    • Be interested in the political process
    • Have confidence in their ability to influence public policy”

    Source: Keith Barton and Alan McCully, "Teaching Controversial Issues...Where Controversial Issues Really Matter," Teaching History, June 2007.



  9. Students who debate controversial issues in school are more likely to be engaged and active citizens.

    In a 2002 survey of 1,166 youth aged 15-25, the following differences were found between youth who debated issues in class and those who did not:



    Source: Molly Andolina, et al. "Habits from Home, Lessons from School: Influences on Youth Civic Engagement,” PS: Political Science and Politics, Apr. 2003.



  10. Learning about controversial topics in school increases students’ political participation.

    Studies by Lee Ehman in 1966 and 1977 reveal that focusing course content on controversial topics positively affects students' attitudes toward citizen duty, political participation, and political efficacy as well as their political trust, social integration, and political interest.

    Source: Lee Ehman, "Social Studies Instructional Factors Causing Change in High School Students' Sociopolitical Attitudes over a Two-Year Period,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Apr. 1977.


  11. Discussing current events and debating controversial issues are associated with higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest national standardized test in the United States.

    An Apr. 2013 fact sheet from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) reported that 12th grade students who took part in frequent discussions of current events and debates about current issues "including controversies" scored higher on the NAEP Civics test than students who did not frequently engage in those activities. Eighth graders also scored higher when regularly participating in current events discussion.

    Regular discussion of current events was correlated with a 16 point gain on the NAEP Civics test for male 12th graders and a 13 point gain for females. Male eighth graders taking part in current events discussion gained a 10 point advantage, while female eighth graders gained five points. Frequent debates were correlated with a six point gain for male 12th graders and an eight point gain for female 12th graders.

    Source: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, "Do Discussion, Debate, and Simulations Boost NAEP Civics Performance?," Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement website, Apr. 2013


---Related Links---

- Teachers' Corner - main page for ProCon.org educator resources

- Free Lesson Planning with ProCon.org - lesson plan ideas, educational standards, and Common Core information

- Teaching Critical Thinking - critical thinking videos and seminar, plus a curated collection of books and studies about the importance of critical thinking

- Critical Thinking Quotes - illustrated quotes about critical thinking from famous minds

- How Educators Use ProCon.org - see how thousands of educators incorporate ProCon.org into their curricula, and take the survey so we can add your insights to the list