Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom
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Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Paula Cowan, Henry Maitles, Paula Cowan, Henry Maitles

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eBook - ePub

Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Paula Cowan, Henry Maitles, Paula Cowan, Henry Maitles

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A thorough exploration of the issues in teaching controversial issues in classroom, drawing on international case studies sharing teachers' and pupils' experiences.

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Preface and Framework
Paula Cowan and Henry Maitles
Chapter Outline
When is the right age to teach controversial issues?
Interdisciplinary teaching
Difficulties in discussing controversial issues
The central aim of this book is to try to answer what we believe are three key questions in today’s school communities: What values should schools aim to help develop in young people? Why should controversial issues play a role in this? How can teachers and educators contribute? As these are such challenging questions and as there is currently little agreement about them, this book raises as many issues as it does answers, for teachers, educators and parents alike. It highlights the debate around specific controversial issues and suggests ways in which schools, teachers and educators can begin to meaningfully address them.
Events in the world – from mass movements that strive for democracy and human rights to everyday issues relating to racism, immigration and social injustice – impinge on our lives. In this era of media saturation and social networking, this has a particular – some may claim ‘spectacular’ – impact on the lives of young people. Whether it be children’s rights in Europe, the ending of communist one-party rule in central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s, or mass movements outside Europe – such as the movement for democracy in China that included the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the overthrow of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa in 1990 or the 2011 mass demonstrations that demanded an end to dictatorship in the Middle East – these are defining moments. In particular, in the confrontations with the army, in essence there are two models of citizen here – the 20-year-olds in the tank and the 20-year-olds in front of the tank.
When is the right age to teach
controversial issues
It has been claimed (e.g., by Scruton et al., 1985) that controversial political and/or social issues are not suitable for young people under 16. Sir Cyril Norwood, headmaster of Harrow, claimed in 1943, a time when ex-Harrovians dominated the cabinet, that ‘Nothing but harm can result from attempts to interest pupils prematurely in matters which imply the experiences of an adult’ (Norwood, 1943, 8). Frazer (1999) maintained that this kind of attitude is alive and well and is nurtured by a worry by both the right and the left in politics that teachers will be biased in their teaching of controversial issues.
This view has been widely challenged (Advisory Group, 1998; Cheung and Leung, 1998; Cohen, 1981; Cowan and Maitles, 2002, 2007, 2010; LTS, 2002; Maitles and Deuchar, 2004; Ross, 1987), and in many countries it has been argued that elements of political and citizenship understanding should be introduced early in the primary school (from 5 years of age onwards). Yet in common with other contentious or difficult issues, the argument is often raised by teachers, parents and indeed some politicians, that students in school (particularly lower secondary and primary students, perhaps up to age 16) are too young to discuss complex, controversial issues which, it is argued, need a greater maturity. Yet young children, seeing these issues presented in the media and on the internet, are, as this book shows, keen to discuss and understand them. Indeed, as Holden (1998) points out, it is entirely possible that these types of issues can be better discussed by younger students in primary schools, as they have both the space in the curriculum and the disposition to discuss them. The main point may not be the ascertainment of the right age to teach and/or learn these types of issues but the methodology that is used. Supple (1991) claims that students may be especially receptive to antiracist initiatives at a young age, as their views are not yet fully formed.
In particular, around the topic of the Holocaust, there is much debate about ‘curricular creep’ – a fear of raising disturbing issues with ever younger pupils in the primary school. In responding to pedagogical issues such as Piaget’s theories of children’s intellectual and moral development, which suggest that young students are unable to abstract and satisfactorily understand these kinds of topic, Short (in Short and Reed, 2004) cites a number of Piaget’s critics who have influenced teachers to raise their expectations of children’s abilities. A contrasting viewpoint is conveyed by Totten (1999), on the grounds that the Holocaust is inappropriate and too complex for this age group to study, and by Kochan (1989), who objects to its teaching to the ‘immature and unsophisticated’, claiming that such teaching can have deleterious consequences for students. In this book, we present evidence that challenges such theoretical claims and supports the teaching of this and other controversial issues to primary students.
Interdisciplinary teaching
Practical reasons for teaching controversial issues to younger, indeed primary, students include the primary school offering more opportunities to adopt a cross-curricular, interdisciplinary approach than the secondary. This method is advocated by Supple (1993) in her study of teaching the Holocaust in secondary schools, which she argued required the coordination of Holocaust teaching between subject departments to be effective. It seems obvious that learning will be much deeper if students study the Holocaust as, for example, part of a history unit, through English literature (The Diary of Anne Frank, or a novel in the Holocaust context such as Number the Stars), through religious and moral education (Judaism or social justice) and citizenship education (human rights). Although primary teachers may allow their students to reflect on what they have learnt in a history lesson through, for example, the expressive arts, this integrative teaching strategy, is not common practice in secondary schools. Here teaching can be often disjointed and fragmented. Indeed the curriculum in Scotland is aiming for more interdisciplinary teaching across primary and secondary sectors (Scottish Executive, 2004). In 2010 the General Teaching Council (Scotland) commended one secondary school teacher for innovative practice in this area (Cowan, 2010). In her school, the Holocaust provided a context for learning activities in art, drama, maths, German, technology, history and English. While this type of teaching may soon be the norm in Scotland, there is no indication that this approach is gathering momentum elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, the primary school offers more continuity than the secondary. Primary teachers have the flexibility to seize the moment and respond to students’ responses instantly or, if necessary, follow up their lesson the next day. Secondary students may not see the relevant teacher for a few days or more. Finally, it is possible that teaching controversial issues in the primary school can clarify points of information and provide opportunity for classroom or group discussion and that a primary grounding in this area may well contribute to students’ understanding of more complex issues in later studies.
The British Government and the devolved governments across the United Kingdom have strongly endorsed the need for developing students’ awareness of contemporary, controversial issues and for enabling the skills of decision making, reasoned argument and bringing critical approaches to evidence. By so doing, it is argued, students may emerge not only with a fuller understanding of democracy, but also with an ability to live democratically in adult life. Hahn (1998) found that where there was the opportunity to explore controversial public policy issues in an atmosphere where several sides of an argument can be aired and where points of view are encouraged even where they differ from the teacher’s and other students’, there is a greater likelihood of the development of the kinds of skills needed for democratic life. Hahn concludes that groups where this is encouraged showed comparatively higher levels of political efficacy, interest, trust and confidence than their peers without such experiences. Further, these students were more likely to develop attitudes that have the potential to foster positive attitudes towards civic participation. Thus, the full realization of developing informed student skills and attitudes towards the controversies involved in democratic life will require short-term and long-term strategies on behalf of all members of a school community.
This kind of political discussion, it might be argued, is best kept outside the classroom, perhaps in student forums. But even where there are functioning and well-organized pupil councils, there must be space in the classroom to discuss socially or politically sensitive issues, whether they be local issues relating to bullying, racism, homophobia and animal welfare, or such international events as the 2003 Iraq War, terrorism or globalization.
Difficulties in discussing controversial issues
We should be clear that this is not an easy strategy. There are many constraints on schools which mitigate against the discussion of controversial issues. First, there are teacher worries about their skills to handle open-ended discussions, which they might not be able to control or direct. The IEA study of political consciousness in 28 European countries (Torney-Purta et al., 2001) found that in many countries secondary teachers are afraid to tackle controversial issues because, almost by definition, the discussion becomes multidisciplinary and they are uncomfortable in that zone; secondly, there are structural constraints in schools, from the lack of tradition in discussion to the physical layout of classrooms, which might not be conducive to group work or active learning approaches; thirdly, there are external constraints, ranging from the assessment-driven agenda in schools and worries about what parents might think about controversial discussion, to the influence of the mass media and politicians and what might be perceived as influencing students in some way or other. Nowhere is this more problematic in Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of England (e.g., Liverpool) than over an issue such as sectarianism and/or the peace process in Northern Ireland. Yet it is vital that this kind of issue is not avoided. Smith (2003) points out that it raises an absolutely crucial issue: can a concept of citizenship ‘based on equal rights and a shared sense of belonging . . . moderate, transcend or displace identity politics and concepts of nationality’. And as if this is not problematic enough, there is the point of limitations to compromise and consensus. Learning in this area suggests to students that there is not always a compromise available, no matter what efforts are made, and it is this inability that leads to the kind of violent scenes we see on our TV screens and, sometimes, on our streets. This itself is a valuable lesson and can be extrapolated to other conflicts (such as Afghanistan) across the world. The role of the teacher in this becomes crucial. As Agostinone-Wilson (2005), Ashton and Watson (1998) and Stradling (1984) suggest, the teacher needs to be confident enough and have the honesty and confidence to suggest to students that they are not just independent observers but do have a point of view, which also can and should be challenged. While this is an area of some discussion in Britain, Wrigley (2003) points out that in Germany, teachers are encouraged to allow discussion around controversial issues, present a wide range of views and be open about their own standpoint while allowing for all views to be challenged. In the very slim curriculum guidelines in Denmark, teachers are encouraged not to overplan so that, in discussion with their students, issues deemed relevant for discussion can be included. However, in analysing how high school students understood the place of classroom discussion, Hahn (1998) found that students in the Netherlands did not try to persuade each other, even when discussing highly controversial issues that they felt strongly about, whereas in German and US state schools and English private schools there was strong argument and persuasion. Interestingly, she found that there was virtually no discussion on political issues in the state sector in England even in social science classes, where she gathered that the primary purpose was to prepare for external examinations. Indeed, it is crucial, according to Ashton and Watson (1998), that teachers understand their proactive role where necessary; otherwise backward ideas can dominat...


  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. 1. Preface and Framework
  4. Part 1 The Context
  5. Part 2 War and Peace
  6. Part 3 Genocide
  7. Part 4 Racism and Discrimination
  8. Conclusion and Policy Implications
  9. Index
  10. eCopyright