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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

5 Reasons Why Education Leaders Avoid Controversial Topics

There is a way to navigate the minefield
By Peter DeWitt — February 20, 2024 4 min read
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“The Hallmark of an open mind is separating your ideas from your identity. If you define yourself by your opinions, questioning them is a threat to your integrity. If you see yourself as a curious person or a lifelong learner, changing your mind is a moment of growth.” — Adam Grant.

It’s not a secret that banning books and conversations has been a minefield in the world of education. In a world overflowing with diverse opinions and beliefs, why do we often find ourselves tiptoeing around controversial topics? Strangely enough, I was recently working in a state where banning conversations seems to be a reality, and yet on the last day of our time together, educators within the room wanted to talk about race, social-emotional learning, and some other topics that have been deemed controversial in that state. The tiptoeing we find ourselves doing is often a result of a complex dance of political views, emotional factors, and cultural nuances. The group that I recently worked with inspired me to think about the intersection between what we think we can talk about and often what we want to talk about.

Banning doesn’t work. Finding common ground does.

Although, I am sure there are more than the ones outlined below, I wanted to focus on five reasons that people are often nervous about engaging in controversial topics. They are:

The Fear of Social Backlash

One of the reasons people avoid discussing controversial topics is the fear of social backlash. I get it. I once wrote this blog focusing on why I don’t enter into X (formerly known as Twitter) debates. The fear of backlash is particularly evident in environments where there’s a strong emphasis on maintaining harmony and consensus. In school leadership these days, voicing an opinion that goes against the grain can be daunting— and may be a career killer. Leaders might fear the loss of respect or support from their colleagues or school community, leading to a preference for safer, less contentious subjects.

In coaching sessions and workshops, I am often asked how to engage in topics like social-emotional learning when it seems to be such a hot button issue. One suggestion is to make it about student engagement and less about the words “social-emotional learning.” The other, and much more reasonable suggestion is to ask the person with the issue with those words to give us their understanding of what they believe social-emotional learning means.

The Comfort of Echo Chambers

In an age where digital platforms where people can share ideas and learn from one another, many find comfort in their own echo chambers. I certainly have been guilty of this when it comes to social media. These are spaces where one’s beliefs are echoed back without challenge. Venturing out of these zones into the territory of controversial topics can be jarring and uncomfortable. For full disclosure, though, I do enjoy these conversations when I can see the face of those I am talking to. A Seat at the Table has been a great venue where I have learned a lot. Controversial conversations challenge our cognitive and implicit biases and force us to confront the possibility that our viewpoints might not be correct.

The Complexity of Issues

Controversial topics are often complex, with layers of nuance that can be difficult to navigate. Believe it or not, I am not just talking about race, gender, politics, and social-emotional learning. In schools, topics like de-implementation—the process of identifying and abandoning practices that are not evidence-based—can be particularly thorny. In the case of de-implementation, I often find that people want to abandon strategies and initiatives they believe are forced on them, but they rarely ever want to engage in discussions about strategies and initiatives they control.

The Risk of Miscommunication

In conversations about sensitive subjects, there’s always the risk of miscommunication, and more likely than not, miscommunication takes place, and then recommunicating takes place over and over again. The potential for misunderstanding can turn a well-intentioned discussion into a heated argument. This risk is exacerbated in online interactions where we can’t see the people we are communicating with in real time and often receive messages based on how we are feeling and not necessarily on what they meant.

Emotional Exhaustion

For full disclosure, engaging in discussions about controversial topics can be tiring. I find that they often touch on our deeply held beliefs and values, sometimes leading to emotional responses. In reality, they should lead to rational discourse where we learn from one another. For many, especially those in positions of leadership, this emotional toll can be a reason to stay away from the topics altogether. The energy required to navigate these discussions thoughtfully and empathetically is significant.

In the End

Understanding why people avoid controversial topics is crucial, especially in fields like educational leadership where challenging conversations are often necessary for growth and progress. Recognizing the fears and complexities involved allows for a more empathetic approach to these discussions. It’s about creating safe spaces where differing opinions can be expressed respectfully and where challenging the status quo isn’t seen as a threat but as an opportunity for learning and development.

In the end, the aim shouldn’t be to force every controversial topic into the open but to create a psychologically safe space where these discussions can happen in a constructive and meaningful way. As we navigate conversations that make us uncomfortable, we need to remember that the most profound learning often happens at the edges of our comfort zones.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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