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Dilemma Discussions in Lesson Plans: Why to Have Them and How to Lead Them

By Monica Fuglei Leading Classroom Dilemma Discussions

One great way to engage students with content material is by having them participate in dilemma discussions, also called value discussions, in a variety of scenarios inspired by their content learning. These conversations help students to more fully understand their material and expand their emotional intelligence by exercising empathy and social connections.

Class discussion of dilemmas and values has many benefits

By exploring values and dilemmas as an academic exercise, students are able to enter alternate group identities and see the world from within those groups. This helps enhance critical thinking and communication skills. Dilemma discussions also encourage students to make good choices and to be aware of the effects of their actions on the rest of their community.

Dilemma discussions can be held in English class about characters in books students are reading. Conversely, using real-world scenarios regarding scientific innovation, political policies or health epidemics make dilemma discussions appropriate in the science, social studies or health classroom.

Ingredients and rules of a dilemma discussion

There are several requirements to have a dilemma discussion. These include giving students:

  • A hypothetical scenario focused on a value or moral issue
  • A central character or group that serves as the focus of the dilemma
  • A “should” question regarding a character’s actions; for example, “Should the main character tell her father what happened, or keep it a secret?”
  • Instructions to consider and suggest an action for the character, then justify that choice

Keeping students focus on “should” instead of “would” centers the conversation around dilemmas rather than the psychological aspects of their decision-making. The best dilemma discussions aren’t between a single student and the teacher, but discussions among students with the teacher acting as a moderator or mediator.

Students should be challenged to engage reasonably, articulate their points fairly, and treat each other with respect even when they disagree. These discussions should always follow a specific pattern: preparation and training in your expectations for the dilemma discussion, background in the topic, characters, and dilemma, small group discussions, larger group discussions, conclusions or wrap-ups, and an assignment inspired by the discussion.

Literature-inspired dilemma discussions

Dilemma discussions are particularly suited to literature classes. Considering the choices of central characters and discussing not just what the decision was, but why the character made those decisions, helps students to see how and why characters make certain choices. 

For young students, a picture book that contains a dilemma can be a particularly easy way to introduce a values-based discussion. Older students can read a story on their own. To begin the conversation, ask students to identify the central character and the character’s moral conundrum, then guide the conversation toward what that character should do.

For example, students could read the “Paper Bag Princess” and discuss the princess’s reaction to Ronald at the end of the text. There are several potential questions to consider, including the princess’s word choice, her decision not to marry the prince, or her choice to trick the dragon instead of fighting it. Once students regroup, encourage them to change their central character focus from the princess to Ronald — or even the dragon — and identify their dilemmas and what those characters should have done.

Using dilemma discussions as a writing prompt

Dilemma discussions can help older students improve their persuasive writing skills by pushing them to consider a variety of perspectives on issues. Assign students to read the Opinion/Editorial page of the Sunday newspaper or present them with a specific editorial to discuss as a class. Editorials relating to education are particularly good for engaging students in reflection on the learning process as a whole. Recent editorials on technology and education provide particularly fertile ground for these conversations.

Have students read the editorial and then identify the central character and the moral dilemma. If you’ve chosen education and technology, there are several parties that face different moral dilemmas. Split students into small groups and assign them a central character: teachers, students, administrators, or parents. Have them identify these groups’ key “should” issues and explore the topic.

Once they’ve done so in a small group, they can rejoin the larger group. Facilitate a discussion of the topic from all sides, then assign students a reflective assignment that allows them to hone their ideas into a central thesis for their persuasion essay. In addition, exercises like the believing and doubting game can help students brainstorm writing assignments in ways that acknowledge and engage the values of different audiences.

Science-related dilemma discussions

Using a newspaper or local publication, choose a scientific issue from the headlines. Have students brainstorm the central character or characters and their dilemmas. Engage them in a conversation on “shoulds.”

For example, the state of Nebraska is now engaged in debate over the Keystone Pipeline; the Nebraska Supreme Court is reviewing the case. Give students a brief introduction to the details of the case itself and have them imagine themselves as the Nebraska Supreme Court, the pipeline builders, or Nebraska citizens. Details should be inspired by classroom content lessons if possible.

Certainly, these lesson plan ideas aren’t specific. This is because it’s very important for dilemma or value discussions to dovetail into classroom content.  These should be followed by an assignment that asks students to critically consider the discussion itself or apply their chosen “should” in a piece of reflective writing. These assignments enhance the power of dilemma discussions and help students fully embrace their importance.


Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.



Leading Values and Moral Dilemma Discussions, The National School Climate Center

Cultivating Caring Learning Communities, The National School Climate Center 

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