Navigating Contentious Topics with Learner-Generated Podcasts


In our polarized political climate, fuelled by dissension, misinformation, and echo chambers, there is no shortage of contentious issues. By “contentious,” we use Zimmerman and Robertson’s (2017) definition: an issue is contentious if it is (1) debatable and inconclusive among experts and (2) deeply important to members of the general public. Educators have the unique privilege and responsibility to ensure students are equipped to engage with these contentious topics. Many of these topics—cultural appropriation, prison reform, and systemic gender, race, and class biases—are culturally relevant and deeply meaningful to our students’ civic and professional lives.

Nevertheless, we regularly hear students voicing conjectures as self-evident truths, dismissing the findings of experts or knowledgeable persons with “that’s just their opinion” statements, cherry-picking evidence that confirms their biases, and rejecting their peers’ perspectives aggressively. In short, we have found that many students are ill-equipped with the social skills needed to productively engage in classroom discourse with civility, which led to unproductive discussions. By social skills, we mean specific interpersonal behaviors, such as careful listening, appreciation of diverse perspectives, suspension of judgment, civil disagreement, clarity of expression, and probing inquiry. Much of this inability to engage in a civil and productive discussion, we believe, stems from the fact that students’ habits of mind, specifically their open-mindedness, integrity, and humility, are underdeveloped.

We decided to encourage and facilitate civil and productive classroom discourse by using learner-generated podcasting—a platform which we believe can foster habits of mind like open-mindedness, integrity, and humility through the explicit teaching and learning of social skills. In our podcasting assignment, students recorded a group discussion about a contentious issue. They had to defend their points of view and contend with perspectives that challenged their positions. In order to support students as they navigate the diverse opinions of their peers, we provided them with sentence stems that model what the aforementioned social skills might sound like. For example, to perform civil disagreement, we provided stems such as: “Yui, I respect and understand why you say that, but I can’t agree with your reasoning because ____.” As the course progressed, we encouraged students to “own” these social skills by reflecting on and identifying the expressions and language that they would naturally use in conversation. For example, one student stated that they would express civil disagreement by saying, “I hear you and I think that’s a fair point, but ____.”

Much like the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, we realized that it’s hard to determine which one comes first: the social skills or the habits of mind. In any case, we found that the more we explicitly encouraged students to actively perform social skills, the more they began to inhabit and embody open-mindedness, integrity, and humility in their discussions and research projects. Although social skills can be practiced through other activities, such as in-class debates and discussions, the aurality and technology involved in podcasting allow the learner to reflect on and ultimately master their social skills.

In Jones’ (2010) paper on podcasting as a teaching tool, she argues that podcasting is theatrical because it requires students to role-play for a listening audience. Podcasting forces students to become more aware of a real-world audience than writing a traditional academic paper. We take Jones’ claim a step further to argue that the aural performance in podcasting allows students to actively demonstrate, metacognitively reflect on, and improve their social skills. This mastery happens because podcasting requires speakers to record, listen to their voices, and re-record to fine-tune their social skills in a semi-private environment. In this low-risk space, recording and editing are controlled by the speakers who can thoughtfully rehearse what they want to say and carefully construct how they want to sound to their listening audience. Unlike other verbal communications, such as debates, presentations, and classroom discussions, which tend to privilege more vocal, extroverted students, podcasting is inherently iterative. It affords students the time and space to assess, reflect on, and improve their social skills as they ask themselves:

  • What is the best way to communicate with my audience?
  • Am I open to reasoning with multiple perspectives?
  • How might my ideas impact my audience?
  • How can I invite my listeners into a meaningful and productive conversation?

It’s this process of checking and evaluating their social skills that allows students to strengthen their habits of mind. And podcasting makes it possible.

At this point, we have not yet measured the students’ growth in open-mindedness, integrity, and humility over time. Nevertheless, our anecdotal evidence suggests that once students completed the podcasting assignment, they approached subsequent assignments with an awareness of and willingness to make more reasoned conclusions based on the careful investigation of diverse perspectives and evidence.

Teachers might find the thought of assigning learner-generated podcasts daunting; however, as podcasts have become more mainstream, podcasting technology has also become more user-friendly with fewer barriers. Opinion, an app for iOS devices, makes podcasting easy, accessible, and intuitive. More tech-savvy learners may want to use Audacity, an open-source editing and recording software that is compatible with Windows and macOS X. GarageBand, a digital audio workstation for macOS and iOS, is also an alternative worth considering.

After two years of experimenting with learner-generated podcasts, we have learned that podcasting radically transforms the way students learn, practice, and demonstrate the social skills and habits of mind necessary to engage in civil and productive discussions. As a consequence, students produce intellectually rigorous work that is persuasive, logical, and credible. We encourage teachers to explore this pedagogical tool that we believe will enable students to develop the social skills and habits of mind necessary to navigate contention in their civic and professional lives.

Sarika Narinesingh and Anne Song both teach in the Department of English and Communication at George Brown College, Toronto. They are invited presenters at the 2019 Teaching Professor Conference, where they are leading a session on podcasting. This year’s conference is June 7–9 in New Orleans.


Jones, L. A. (2010). Podcasting and performativity: Multimodal invention in an advanced writing class. Composition Studies, 38(2), 75-91. Retrieved from

Zimmerman, J. & Robertson, E. (2017). The case for contention: Teaching controversial issues in American schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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