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Teaching controversial issues:
A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues

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For the past decade, one of the most popular workshops offered by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has been “Teaching controversial issues—without becoming part of the controversy.” The popularity of the workshop reflects a growing awareness of the need to teach social issues. Yet the motivation for teaching about environmental sustainability, limits to growth, animal rights or euthanasia is tempered by an understandable wariness of controversy. So while our workshop on teaching controversial issues is well subscribed, we know that the pedagogical danger zone social issues present is one many teachers avoid.

Teachers may be discouraged from tackling controversial topics by lack of familiarity with the topic. They are uncomfortable if they do not feel “expert” or at least well-versed. Furthermore, teachers may be concerned that complicated issues would take too long to cover and regular curriculum would be neglected.

With increasing standardization and calls for “accountability,” teachers are not inclined to venture down the so-called side roads of learning, where social issues can so often lead.

We live in a time of general decline in the protocols of civil discourse. Television talk shows bristle with outrageous behaviour, which teachers are understandably reluctant to see reproduced in their classrooms. We may be disinclined to take on “hot” topics for fear of classroom chaos that might ensue.

Also, we sense that we are living in particularly cantankerous times when our actions as teachers are under close and often uninformed scrutiny. If we teach about an issue, we can easily find ourselves accused of bias or ulterior political motives. In other words, in teaching about a controversy, we become the controversy. Teachers in the Victoria, BC suburb of Esquimalt and the location of the Pacific fleet of the Canadian navy experienced this during the first Gulf War in 1990 when they attempted to have their students consider multiple perspectives on that war. They quickly found themselves at the centre of a controversy when several parents and students with ties to the Navy expressed the view that there were no “perspectives.” There was only the right side and the wrong side and they didn’t see any merit in spending any time talking about the wrong side.

But in spite of these impediments to addressing controversial issues the fact remains that contemporary teaching presents certain challenges, not the least of which is relevance. The value of a formal education is increasingly measured according to the degree that it is future oriented and to what extent it helps students think critically and act upon social issues and problems.

Further, there is a growing belief that a good contemporary education is an education that concentrates on helping students understand connections and interdependence. A good education is focused on developing an awareness of the planetary condition, and prepares students to act as effective, responsible citizens in a complex world. In that context, the relationship between education and public issues is apparent. Such an education, often described as a “global education,” turns to contemporary issues for its content. We could well ask, what are our chances of becoming global educators if we remain averse to taking on controversial public issues as part of our teaching practice?

What is needed is an approach to teaching issues that overcomes the obstacles—specifically, a concern for the influence of a teacher’s own biases, a fear of becoming a lightning rod for controversy oneself simply because a controversial issue is discussed in a class, and a lack of confidence because of unfamiliarity with an issue.

The approach to teaching an issue put forward here tries to answer at least part of those concerns. It does not deal directly with the role of issues in prescribed curricula. The possibilities for teaching issues as permitted or encouraged by curricula vary from province to province. However, it would not be extreme to suggest that any teacher who wants to can find a way to integrate consideration of issues into regular course work. Every social studies program in the country, for example, encourages consideration of current events.

The teaching approach to controversial issues as described here is a process that should help students make sense of a complex and confusing world. It is a method of analyzing an issue, considering the merits of an argument, and forming an opinion on the basis of critical analysis.

Asan essentially inductive process, it is student-centred, and the teacher’s role is primarily that of monitor or resource person. The teacher’s bias should be less of a concern. Public concern over teaching a controversial issue is addressed because the strategy is itself a demonstration of fair consideration. As an inquiry method, it provides a framework for classroom activity that discourages one-sided argument or ill-informed opinion.

The teaching strategy for controversial public issues is based on four steps or elements. Each provides students a set of questions that gives them a number of ways of looking at an issue as well as a sound basis for making a judgment.

To demonstrate how the strategy and related questions might work as applied to a controversial issue, we offer elements of a set of possible lessons on Canada’s role in Afghanistan. The central question would be is this a situation where Canada should have an army engaged in combat?

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Last updated: February 15, 2007 | (Revision History)
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