Teaching controversial issues
The reasons teachers may avoid controversial issues as classroom topics are as complex as teaching itself. The issues are complicated. Teachers may become discouraged, not so much by complexity, but 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 (the) regular curriculum would be neglected. With increasing standardization and calls for “accountability”, teachers are not inclined to venture down the side roads of learning, where social issues can 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. Also, we sense that we are living in particularly cantankerous times when our actions as teachers are under close and often uniformed scrutiny. If we teach about an issue, we can find ourselves accused of bias or ulterior political motives. In other words, in teaching about a controversy, we become the controversy” (Clarke, 2005, p. 1).
Early commentaries on learning and teaching of controversial issues identified a range of approaches to teaching controversial issues that teachers adopted, these include providing a balanced picture, secondly teacher neutrality and, thirdly, the teacher taking a committed stance. Others have further developed these in to four positions – exclusive neutrality, exclusive partiality, neutral impartiality and committed impartiality. It is recommended that the most effective stance was one of committed impartiality. However, within the context of the issues outlined above, adopting the position of committed impartiality may not always be appropriate as the lessons proposed may give the opportunity for extremist views to be expressed and if this eventuality arises it will be more appropriate to challenge such views. Effectively tackling controversial issues will help learners challenge misinformed views and perceptions – their own and others‟. To do this classroom practices need to include:
- developing questioning techniques to open up safe debate;
- building confidence to promote honesty about a plurality of views;
- ensuring freedom of expression and freedom from threat;
- debating fundamental moral and human rights principles;
- promoting open respectful dialogue;
- and affirming multiple identities.