Yesterday in my Social Studies Elective we were discussing teaching controversial issues within the classroom and it became clear that it was quite common for such issues to be shied away from, one of the reasons being the potential backlash from parents. It got me thinking about my experiencing with controversial issues during my time in primary and secondary school. One experience which stuck out was a modern studies class I had in first or second year of high school, we went in one day and without any prior discussion my teacher put on a clip from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was horrified, I couldn’t believe it, despite being 3 years old at the time of the incident and seeing it on the news, I had no recollection and had managed to not come across it till then. Despite being shocked I was so intrigued by it, I remember going home and telling everyone, I was so fascinating by what I had seen that I spent that night on the computer researching, watching documentary after documentary on it. This soon became my favourite class, I wasn’t the biggest modern studies person, I didn’t even take it at standard grade level and yet I looked forward to these classes due to the fact we would explore controversial issues in every lesson, my teacher wasn’t afraid to explore them and I for one, enjoyed discussing them and learning more about them, I was so engaged as a result. This experience has shaped the teacher I have become as I believe quite strongly in teaching controversial issues within the classroom, more often than not pupils will be engaged and you as the teacher can provide a safe place for them to discover and discuss such issues. This being said there is always going to be a certain degree of risk involved but isn’t risk-taking important in teaching?
So, why teach controversial issues?
It could be argued that the reason for social studies is to teach young people the kind of substantive knowledge that promotes a deeper understanding of their world. So you could say that the best way to do this is to provide consistent opportunities for students to tackle controversial issues. Still don’t believe me? Well you don’t have to, esteemed social studies educators such as Edwin Fenton, Lawrence Metcalf, Hilda Taba, Anna Ochoa, Shirley Engle and more all advocate teaching through inquiry which promotes enduring questions, positive confusion, reflective thought and an understanding of differences in values, priorities and definitions of mortality. Teaching controversial issues does this, nothing in my whole 6 years at high school got me thinking more than that lesson on 9/11, yes I was confused, it is hard to comprehend how another human being could do something like that but that got me thinking – what would make someone do that? This lesson promoted reflective thought, I had experienced something (watching the clip), I had thought (a lot) about what had happened and I learnt from that experience (that everyone sees the world differently and things can happen that drive people to do bad things). Reflective thought is part of the critical thinking process, are these not the sort of higher order thinking skills we want our young people to be developing? As controversial issues prompt young people to think about why people do things that we perceive to be horrific (like I did), this provides a perfect opportunity to nurture a growth in tolerance for other points of view. This sort of cultural awareness and appreciation of diversity is essential if young people are to become responsible citizens. If there was more of a tolerance for others within our society then there might be less conflict. Doesn’t that sound great?
But won’t the children will be scared?
Most of the time, no. As a teacher, you should know your children well enough and research the topic you intend to discuss well to ensure this doesn’t happen. Controversial issues can be seen everywhere in the media and with the rise of the internet, it is likely a lot of children will encounter these issues outside of the classroom off their own accord. Therefore, it is even more important they have a place where they can discuss what they have seen and share their thoughts, learning the facts rather than being alerted by fake news. You could argue they aren’t controversial issues they are relevant issues, issues that affect our society and learning about these are relevant to young people’s understanding of the world.
But what if the parents don’t like it?
Most parents understand that controversial topics will come up at school, just like they will come up at home, you can’t avoid them. If you are going to be exploring such an issue, send home a note or email letting parents know, a lot of the time they just want a chance to share their views with their children and letting them know in advance means you already know if there will be upset and you can deal with this. Controversial issues are extremely valuable learning experiences and as such it requires some thought and advance preparation but the impact it will have on your students will be worth it. 8 years on and I still remember that lesson like it was yesterday, the experience has stayed with me and enabled me to make sense of the world we live in. It introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed and shouldn’t a child’s education expand their horizons?
Controversial issues can be uncomfortable and it can be easier to avoid the conflict and risk involved with teaching them but it is necessary. As teachers we have the power to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which to explore controversial issues and we need to use it.