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Teaching About Controversial Issues: The Continuum Method

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

This method invites the participants to stand in a continuum of opinions about a controversial issue. Issues that are clearly controversial and characterized by polar positions should be used in this method.

The issues should have legitimate opposing viewpoints, such as whether the death penalty is constitutional when applied to juveniles or whether stricter gun control is a good way to stop crime.


Teaching about controversial issues forces students to consider polar positions of a controversial issue; to examine alternative positions and their consequences on society and on individuals; to practice the skill of defending a position; and to practice listening to other opinions.

  1. The activity begins with the instructor describing the controversial issue in enough detail so that the polar positions are clearly understood. These should be posted at the ends of the wall or on the blackboard.
  2. Participants should write down their position and to list the two most compelling arguments that support their positions.
  3. While the participants are writing their statements, the instructor should draw a continuum line across the chalkboard and place the polar positions on the issue at either end of the continuum. Ask a limited number of participants to stand where they believe their position falls on the continuum.
  4. These participants should be asked to explain or clarify, but not to defend or give reasons for their positions. They should be encouraged to move their position along the continuum as they listen to others clarify their positions. Once this process ends, the remaining participants may be asked whether the participants were lined up correctly according to their understanding of the statements. This step may require further clarification of positions.
  5. Participants should then be asked to state their reasoning for positioning themselves as they have. The instructor may wish to post these reasons. Participants can respond to questions concerning their reasons.
  6. In order to assure that participants listen to and consider opposing points of view, all participants should state an opposing argument that made them think twice, “got under their skin,” or persuaded them to change their mind.
  7. Finally, participants should consider the consequences of alternative policy choices. This step involves identifying the existing law or policy on the issue being considered if it exists. The class can then discuss what impact the polar positions presented on the continuum have on society as a whole and on individuals.
handling controversial issues

The discussion of controversial issues not only excites participants, but also teaches decision-making, social participation, and conflict management skills.

Teachers are sometimes reluctant to introduce controversy, fearing that participants will be unable to discuss emotionally charged subjects or ambiguous issues rationally. Nevertheless, teaching about controversial issues helps raise participant interest in the lesson and engages participants in learning and practicing meaningful skills through reasoned debate.

The following suggestions can help make controversy constructive and educational:

  • Encourage participants to examine and present conflicting views even if they do not agree with these views. Be sure all sides of an issue are equally explored. It is incumbent upon the teacher to raise any opposing views participants may have missed.
  • Help participants identify specific points of agreement and disagreement, places where compromise might be possible, and places where compromise is unlikely to occur.
  • Keep the participants focused on ideas or positions, rather than people.
  • Emphasize that the outcome or the decision that your participants reach is not as important as their ability to support a decision and express it in a civil manner. Stress that on many controversial topics, reasonable people might well differ.
  • Conclude or debrief the activities or discussions, summarizing all of the arguments presented and exploring consequences of any alternatives suggested.
  • Before using a teaching strategy in which class discussion and sharing of opinions are critical components, you may wish to establish some ground rules. For example
    • Everyone will get a chance to talk. Only one person will talk at a time.
    • Wait your turn. Do not interrupt.
    • Do not argue with people. Argue with reasons or ideas.
    • You may change your view or opinion. Be prepared to give your reason for changing.
    • Listen to reasons and ideas presented by your classmates. You will be called on to tell which one of your classmates’ ideas you found most persuasive.


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