Navigating Difficult Discussion Topics

Recommendations from the Parlay Team for navigating difficult discussion topics.
Written by Anna Lisa
Updated 10 months ago

At Parlay, we believe that student-driven discussions provide a rich learning opportunity. Educators should give students the opportunity to freely share their perspectives, feelings, questions, and beliefs. With that said, there are some discussion topics (often current events) that are challenging for teachers to navigate. In these situations, it is especially important for teachers to create a learning environment where compassion, mutual respect, and our common humanity take centre stage.

Below we have included 7 strategies for teachers to consider when navigating challenging discussion topics with their students on Parlay.

1. Preface the discussion.

If you are exploring a difficult topic with your students, consider creating language in your Written RoundTable prompt (or sharing it verbally before a Verbal RoundTable). Here are some examples that we have used in the past:

“As you reflect on these (events/ideas/issues), write your response, and comment on your classmates’ posts, please keep in mind that this is a very challenging issue, and that all of us are affected by it in different ways. Because of this, we must take extra care and be considerate of how this event (and those like it) may have affected others in our learning community. Remember, this is a safe space for everyone to reflect on and explore these ideas together. We’re a team, and mutual respect for our classmates is our top priority.”

“Our classroom, physical AND virtual, is a brave space. Your comments and your reactions may absolutely challenge your classmates, but they should never threaten or abuse your classmate’s genuine attempt at engaging in our community. Your engagement should be thoughtful and free of hate. Ground your responses in evidence when possible.”

2. Use secret identities (Written RoundTable).

The Written RoundTable has an anonymity option. If you choose to enable this, students will automatically be assigned a secret identity for the discussion. Students will not know who is who, but you as the teacher will always be able to see.

Students love this feature, and it is especially helpful for difficult conversations where some students might be afraid to share their personal experience or an unpopular perspective under their own name.

3. Share the Student Discussion Guide (Verbal RoundTable).

Setting the right expectations around expected behaviour and discussion goals for a Verbal RoundTable is very important. The Parlay team has created the student guide to participating in Verbal RoundTables. We recommend reviewing this with your students before a Verbal RoundTable about a challenging topic. You can download it below.

Student Guide for Verbal RoundTables

4. Give students the opportunity to recuse themselves.

Sometimes it might be a valid option for teachers to give students the option to abstain from difficult discussions. Here’s how to do that in both Written and Verbal RoundTables:

Written RoundTable - You can include language in the discussion prompt which gives students the option to not submit a response. Alternatively, you can go to the menu in the top right corner of the RoundTable and turn off “Required Submission”. This will enable any student who wishes to abstain from submitting a response to join the conversation, read through their peers’ responses, and make comments if they desire.

Verbal RoundTable - You can communicate that any students who don’t feel comfortable participating in the conversation can decide not to “tap in” to join the Verbal RoundTable. If they have ideas / perspectives that they would like to make known to the teacher only, they can write these down in their notepad. The teacher can see these during / after the RoundTable.

5. Use unbiased questions and resources.

When writing discussion questions for RoundTable topics, teachers should do their best to ask open ended questions. Often, we ask students to reflect on their own personal experience, share their own opinion, formulate a coherent argument, or explore a wide range of possibilities. Try to avoid yes/no questions, elliptical questions, leading questions, and slanted questions as much as possible. When creating a RoundTable topic for the Parlay community, try your best to gather resources that explore a broad range of perspectives from reputable sources. Below we have included our framework for creating discussion topics. These topics and more are covered.

Framework for Crafting Discussion Topics

6. Have the conversation with your colleagues first.

Time permitting, it can be a good idea to have the discussion with a small group of colleagues (e.g. other teachers in your department), to explore how the discussion might unfold and share any concerns with the discussion prompt or resources.

7. Reflect as a group and highlight constructive dialogue.

At the end of a RoundTable on Parlay, it is always a good idea to debrief and reflect on the conversation with the students. As a teacher in the Written RoundTable, you can star model submissions to highlight examples of constructive dialogue in the discussion. The “Summary” page in the top right often provides a good kick-off point for a group reflection.

In addition, we recommend asking some reflection questions like these below:

  • Was this a balanced discussion? Did everyone have the chance to speak?

  • Did the discussion ever become heated or contentious? How did we manage it? How can we manage it better in the future?

  • Who felt as though their perspective / understanding about the issue changed or grew during this discussion? In what way?

  • Is there anything we can take away from this discussion that will help us in future discussions about difficult topics?

Lastly, if the discussion goes beyond the boundaries of what is appropriate, as a teacher you can always hide student submissions/comments in the Written RoundTable, or delete them entirely.

Have a suggestion to add to this list? Let us know in the chat bubble below!

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