Docent Educator Logo

Staying Cool with Hot Issues: Engaging Young People in Tough Conversations

To avoid controversy in education is to avoid active, meaningful learning; it reduces education to propaganda or indoctrination. The process of coming to terms with tough issues allows youth to drop assumptions and look beneath the surface of things. Practice in making choices and forming reasoned opinions allows youth to develop and refine critical thinking skills. Psychologist Howard Gardner, in his book The Unschooled Mind, calls on educators to use opportunities for “multiple stances” that develop the habit of looking at things from many different perspectives thereby increasing tolerance.

Reaching and relating to young people can be challenging even in the best of situations. Research shows, however, that motivation and attention are increased when people (adults and youths) are involved in controversial issue discussions. Where young people see a connection to their lives and futures, interest is high

Docent Strategies for Talking About Hot Issues

  1. Explore your own emotions, biases, and beliefs related to the controversial issue and determine your comfort level. Reserve the right not to tour exhibitions that address issues about which you cannot be objective. Young people are sensitive and react to adult ambivalence and discomfort.
  1. Research and discuss the controversy to better define the issue. Role play the various “sides” of an issue and identify the types of reasoning used for each viewpoint. This process allows for practice in facilitating discussions while providing an objective intellectual balance.
  1. Understand what neutrality means in the context of controversial issue discussions. It is not an absence of personal opinion but a withholding until students can explore the issues for themselves. It also models the reflective, thoughtful approach to dealing with sensitive issues. If your personal view is expressed, give it with sound reasons and as only one reasoned opinion among other possible viewpoints. Students also need to see that opinions can be changed, so indicate if you ever had a different opinion that was later changed due to more information or experience.
  1. Determine the focus and direction your discussion will take. Be sure you explain that focus to students. This will help keep the group on track

Discussion Activities To Use With Groups

Common Ground Questions
Set the stage for discussion with questions such as:

How do you feel when you try to explain something to someone who doesn’t believe you?

Is it OK to change your mind about something? What does it take to change your mind? What are some things you used to believe but have found out are not true, or that you just don’t believe anymore?

If something makes us sad or afraid or confused, is it OK to talk about it? Why or why not? Why might people be unwilling to talk about such topics?

Reasoning Role Cards
Develop role cards with a different viewpoint and supporting reasons written on each one. Ask students to take the viewpoint described on the card and contribute to the discussion based on that role whether they agree with it or not. At closure, ask students for their own real opinions on the issue. Is it different or similar to their role card and why? Did anyone change or modify their opinion as a result of the discussion?

Token System
Encourage equal participation. Draw out reticent students and gently curb those who tend to dominate. One technique is to establish a Token System. Each student receives the same number of tokens which they “spend” on contributions to the discussion. Remember also to respect the rights of students who do not wish to take part in the discussion.

Thinking Rule
If one student is attacked by the others for his/her opinion, invoke the Thinking Rule. For 5 minutes everyone will think of reasons to support that person’s opinion. This is a step or two in the other person’s moccasins and defuses the tension.

Closure Process
Closure is essential. It is not enough to raise the issue. Students need positive support as they continue through the reasoning process. Review the main points of the issue, note how the discussion progressed, and identify areas of agreement and disagreement. The message here is that we can agree to disagree. If the discussion opened up some dark, potentially frightening or confusing aspects of life take time to point out the other side of the coin, the positive learning and growing that can come out of adversity.

Docent Notebook: Sample Discussion Outline

  1. In this discussion, we will learn from what we all say so it is important to listen and not interrupt when others are speaking. Raise your hand to be recognized when you want to contribute to the discussion.
  1. Everyone who has something to say will have a chance to speak. You do not have to offer your opinions if you do not want to.
  1. When you contribute to the discussion, be sure you add something new that advances the discussion. Do not repeat what someone else has said.
  1. Ideas, not people, will be discussed.


  1. In this discussion we are looking not so much for answers to questions as for good reasons for your opinions.

Marianna Adams is the Curator of Education. Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Previously, she was the Head of Education at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, EL, and has taught Art, English Literature, and Social Studies in elementary through high school.

Cynthia Lee Moreno is the Associate Director at the Lexington Children ‘s Museum in Lexington, KY. Previously she served as Assistant Curator of Education at the Tampa Museum of Art in Tampa, EL. She is a Facilitator for school and community group workshops on conflict resolution and prejudice reduction.

The authors have made presentations on this subject for the American Association of Museums Conference and National Art Education Conference.

Adams, Marianna and Moreno, Cynthia Lee. “Staying Cool with Hot Issues: Engaging Young People in Tough Conversations,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 4-5.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *