Last updated on: 2/13/2019 | Author:

How to Discuss Controversial Issues in Class: Reflective Structured Dialogue Lesson Plan Idea

Use and reflective structured dialogue to explore controversial topics that may make participants feel defensive initially in a constructive discussion format that promotes listening, speaking respectfully, and appreciating other viewpoints.

Grades: 6-12

The Activity
Begin by choosing a topic the students are likely to have personal experience with. Students should be given the ground rules, the format of the conversation, the topic, and the expectation that this will be a dialogue rather than a debate.

To have an open conversation about a controversial topic that will disrupt the conventional argumentative mindset, challenge each student’s personal beliefs, strengthen listening skills, and foster empathy for those with whom we disagree.

Ground Rules:
1. Students should reflect on their answers and questions before they speak.
2. Students should take pre-arranged turns to speak.
3. Time limits for speaking should be set and respected.

Format of Conversation:
1. Students should speak to be understood, not to persuade.
2. Students should listen to understand, not to find fault.
3. Students should ask what others value and care about, rather than assume what others value and care about.
4. Students should pause to consider their own reactions, rather than being reactionary.
5. Students should ask questions with genuine curiosity, rather than to prove another person wrong.

1. The instructor should introduce the topic, the format of conversation, the goal, and the ground rules.
2. Each student tells a personal story that informs their position on the topic.
3. Each student talks about the values that underlie the experience from step 2.
4. Each student talks about how they may be pulled in opposing directions on the issue.
5. Students ask each other “curious questions” that are meant for the questioner to learn from others, rather than to argue with others.
6. Students should reflect on what they learned about their classmates and their own ideas about the topic.

1. Students could be asked to prepare their personal stories (step 2) as homework or in class the day before as a written assignment to share out loud during the discussion. 
2. Similarly, the reflection (step 6) could be assigned as a homework or next day writing assignment.


This lesson plan is based on the Reflective Structured Dialogue developed by Essential Partners (formerly Public Conversations Project) as described in the following articles:

Jill DeTemple and John Sarrouf, “Disruption, Dialogue, and Swerve: Reflective Structured Dialogue in Religious Studies Classrooms,” Teaching Theology and Religion, July 18, 2017

Beckie McMurtrie and Dan Berrett, “Running Class Discussions on Divisive Topics Is Tricky. Here’s One Promising Approach,”, July 19, 2018

——————————– Topics: Any micro site. See full list of debate topics.

Subjects: English, Civics, Social Studies, History, Composition, US Government, Public Policy, Debate, Communications