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Teaching controversial issues:
A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues
Home > Step 1: What is the issue about?
Step 1: What is the issue about?
Identify the key question over which there is a controversy. Virtually every controversy turns around three types of questions: those relating to values—What should be? What is best?; those relating to information—What is the truth? What is the case?; and those relating to concepts—What does this mean? How should this be defined? In short, What is this controversy about: values, information, or concepts?
By responding to these questions, students begin analyzing an issue by identifying the nature of the controversy. In doing this, students can fairly quickly get to the heart of the issue. This element of the strategy helps students get past some frustration that can be experienced in trying to understand an issue. It also gives them a chance to analyze an issue dispassionately before any consideration of the merits of a case.
Applied to the Canada in Afghanistan question the inquiry starts by determining the extent to which this is a “values” issue. Is the controversy in this question centred on what Canada should do in a moral sense? What is the right action for Canada in this case?
The next question has to do with the information regarding the issue. Is this an issue around which there is controversy because it is difficult to know what or whom to believe? What are the contending voices and what are they saying? At this stage of the discussion we are not considering the merits of the information, only what it is and how it represents the issue. Applied to the Afghanistan question there are military information sources, NGOs working in the country, government and opposition sources of information. All of these can give students a sense of how varied views can be on the appropriateness of Canada’s combat role, and the question of “who to believe” is shown to be rather complex.
In the Afghanistan question there could also be controversy that involves disagreement over the concepts involved. What is peacekeeping and peace making? What do we mean by reconstruction? What is the concept of security as it is applied in a place like Afghanistan? Any one of these terms or concepts can be a source of contention in a situation as complicated as Afghanistan. Students can develop a deeper appreciation for the nuances in an issue by realizing that there can be fundamental disagreements over meaning.