Controversy in the Psychology Classroom: Using Hot Topics to Foster Critical Thinking

Using controversial topics as a tool for enhancing critical thinking.

Controversy in the Psychology ClassroomReviewed by Barney Beins, PhD, Ithaca College

Editors: Dana S. Dunn, Regan A. R. Gurung, Karen Z. Naufel & Janie H Wilson
Publisher: APA
Copyright year: 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4338-1238-5
Number of Pages: 272
Price: $29.95


Psychology and controversy are a good mix for at least two reasons. First, our discipline deals with many sensitive and controversial subjects when it focuses on human thought and behavior. Second, psychology provides us with the critical thinking tools that permit us to discuss controversies from an empirical perspective.

A recent addition to the collection of critical thinking books is the edited book Controversy in the Psychology Classroom. Its varied authors present a tripartite approach to dealing with controversial issues. The chapters fall into one of three categories. The first group orients itself around frameworks that guide teachers who deal with the issues about which discussions can generate more heat than light.

The classroom is not necessarily neutral ground from which students can discuss multiple perspectives. Students bring their habits of thought and their perspectives with them as they cross the threshold of the classroom. As such, teachers need to develop skill in helping students foster habits of scientific thought in their treatment of issues of personal interest. It is not easy to get students (or anybody else) to avoid snap judgments and approach topics from an empirical and logical basis. Likewise, it may be difficult for some people to engage in a dispassionate discussion about which they have passionate beliefs.

Three brief chapters outline some fundamental ways to engineer a classroom in which it is possible for students to disagree without being disagreeable. Part of the message is that the teacher plays an important role in the creation of an environment in which both student and teacher make positive contributions.

Developing appropriate frameworks to guide the teaching of controversial topics would be irrelevant if there were no controversies. In psychology, we do not have to look far to find issues on which people disagree vigorously. Controversy in the Psychology Classroom offers four controversies that can spark discussion. They include the areas of evolutionary psychology, the practice of spanking, sexual orientation and students of faith and the role of animal research.

These diverse topics generate different degrees of controversy and emotional involvement. This set of chapters is basically a discussion about sensitive topics about which significant numbers of laypeople are likely to have negative attitudes (e.g., whether homosexual behavior is “natural”). The authors present cogent arguments about those perspectives. The controversies with which they deal are not likely to disappear any time soon, but each of the chapters identifies the empirical basis for the author’s conclusion. A student might ultimately decide to reject the arguments, but in doing so, the student will be deciding to base his or her judgment on nonscientific grounds. In a discussion of controversy, it is important to understand the basis for a conclusion, not only to have a conclusion.

The unifying theme of the final seven chapters involves how students deal with issues that are more personally involving. That is, how can students learn to adopt another’s perspective when considering concepts close to their own hearts? For instance, how do people deal with differences in perspectives on religion and spirituality? There are scientific instruments (i.e., self-report scales) to measure religiosity and related concepts, but there are also personal reactions associated with religiosity and spirituality (or lack thereof). The treatment of religion and spirituality illustrates how to study religions scientifically but also how to deal with them on a personal and phenomenal level.

In addition to the discussion of religion, there are chapters on matters of teaching about race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender and other topics frequently associated with controversy. These chapters provide ways to help students become aware they have a perspective (i.e., what is “normal” for them) that others may not share.

The audience for this book is the teacher rather than the student, although students could benefit from reading chapters on the four topical areas of evolutionary psychology, spanking, sexual orientation and faith and animal research. There are numerous helpful suggestions for teachers whose course material involves a notable divergence of views.

As the concluding chapter notes, major reasons to teach controversial topics include the fact that they are interesting in and of themselves, that they can relate to multiple psychological constructs and that they can help students adopt an empirical approach to their thinking. At the same time, there are risks involved. The topics broached in the book are controversial, which means that from the first word in a discussion, vivid differences will emerge; these differences may be impossible to resolve and may lead to student dissatisfaction when others do not accept their judgments as being “correct.”

This volume presents topics and strategies that can lead to positive outcomes, significant learning and perhaps some personal growth in students.