Reflection: Discourse and Questioning Describing Populations - Section 3: Discussion


As a teacher, it can be a bit of a balancing act when discussing questions that can be culturally sensitive.  Obviously we don't want students just spewing stereotypes, but you don't want them too afraid to even engage the topic out of fear of being labeled as racist.  The topic of human population can be especially controversial because it is intensely personal and students' opinions on the topic are often shaped by strongly held beliefs of their family, their religion, or their culture.

Whichever way a discussion goes, it's important for the teacher to play the role of a referee.  By this I mean that we can't be guiding the class to see the side of the argument we agree with to "win".  Rather, as teachers we need to make sure the argument progresses according to some basic rules and not be too judgmental of the opinions students present.

What I usually do in a discussion that has a potentially controversial element such as the example in this lesson which asks if the human reproductive age range is different in different cultures in America is preface the discussion with a comment such as, "Let's all remember that we're critiquing ideas, not people here, so let's try to keep it civil and not attack any person for the idea they contribute.  Let's critique their idea by presenting a counter argument that is better supported by evidence" 

In that way, if other students fail to challenge an idea on its merits and just attack the individual, you can step in and ask the student that mentioned something controversial to back it up with some evidence: anecdotal, written, or otherwise.  If that support winds up being attacked by other students, then I would press them to offer their evidence.  It can also be helpful to guide the discussion and occasionally play devil's advocate if it seems like the class is unwilling to dive much deeper into the topic.  By presenting an extreme case, I can sometimes nudge students in the direction of more substantially supporting their own position and further evaluating their own opinions in a more critical, evidence-dependent light. 

This really is the idea of having so many discussion lessons: it's hard to understand even yourself in a vacuum.  By teaching students to be active listeners that consider an opinion from someone else's perspective, then they are actually refining their own understanding of themselves.  Hopefully with enough practice, this kind of discussion can provide an alternative to arguments that are won by the side that has either the loudest, or most numerous supporters.     

  On the virtues of being politically incorrect in the classroom
  Discourse and Questioning: On the virtues of being politically incorrect in the classroom
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Describing Populations

Unit 4: Populations
Lesson 2 of 10

Objective: Students will be able to describe characteristics that ecologists use to describe populations and make predictions on how said populations may change in the future.

Big Idea: All populations are not equal. Various factors determine how they are structured and how they can be affected by environmental changes.

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