What are controversial issues?
The definition of controversial issues differs slightly from place to place. One definition for controversial issues is that they are significant academic, social, political, and ideological matters involving opposing viewpoints and/or multiple perspectives. A controversial issue is also defined as one which results in dispute and disagreement due to a difference of opinion.
According to another definition, issues typically become controversial when the parties involved have competing values and interests; when they strongly disagree about statements, assertions, or actions; when the subject touches on some particular sensitivity (e.g. political or religious); or when they arouse an emotional reaction. These topics may relate to events in the past, to a current situation or to some future desired outcome.
In European educational practices controversial issues are defined as “issues that evoke strong emotions and are related to our values and ideals and can divide a community and society”. They generate strong emotions, conflicting explanations and solutions based on alternative beliefs and values, competing interests that lead to the division of society.
Types of controversial issues
Controversial issues range from local to global and vary from place to place. For example, religious and sexual orientation issues are relatively uncontroversial in some countries and very controversial in other countries. Some controversial issues have a long and enduring history, like divisions and conflicts among different groups within countries, while others, such as cyberbullying and the threat of youth radicalisation, have emerged only recently. In that sense, what is controversial in one school or even one class may not be a concern in another.
Potentially controversial issues in a school curriculum:
- History-related issues, including different narratives and perspectives; and sensitive topics such as past conflicts, the origins of nationalism, fascism, antisemitism and Islamophobia
- Questions related to contemporary issues eg. social, political, economic, religious, moral, philosophical, etc. (covered in several classes, such as history, religious education, health education, civic and social education, literature, science and more).
Some school subjects are more likely to cause controversy than others:
- Literature – social issues, such as racism and equality, and changes in attitudes towards issues over time.
- Language – insight into other countries and cultures, cultural ties.
- History and history-related issues, as before.
- Science – evolution, climate changes, animal experiments, stem-cell research, genetically modified food.
- Religious education – religious diversity and use of religious symbols such as the crucifix and the hijab may be concerned.
- Health and sex education – sexual orientation, abortion,drug use.
- Mathematics – different number and measurement systems, use and misuse of statistics, such as those related to crime and immigration rates.
- Civic and social education – political systems, political parties, policies, and ideologies.
- Physical education – cultural attitudes towards sports, gender patterns in sports and doping.
- Art – cultural attitudes towards art, art as propaganda and protest, use of art to raise awareness.
- Information and communication technology – radicalisation of young people through social media, pornography, Internet privacy, democracy, and online campaigns.
- Geography – including local issues, pollution control, planning and segregation, and global issues, such as fair trade, migration, climate change and ethical tourism
- Music- cultural attitudes towards music, music as a means for propaganda or protest, racist and sexist lyrics in music.
While not every issue is suitable for discussion for every age group and keeping in mind that there are no ‘‘quick fixes’’, controversial issues should not be avoided in schools and classrooms. Moreover, these issues, cannot be confined to classrooms: they spill out into other areas of the school, corridors, cafeterias, playgrounds and staff rooms. Furthermore, students are exposed to controversial issues more than ever through mass media, and, therefore, they need to have a safe space to discuss and demystify them. Discussing current controversial issues can be a good way of helping young people learn how to engage in democratic dialogue.
How can teachers use controversy constructively?
Teaching should be seen as rational but creative endeavour rather than an exercise of mechanically applied formulated techniques. Part of the rational act of engaging students in discussing controversial issues is judging what approaches to take in a classroom and at what moment during a lesson. Teachers have to manage moments of tension among their students daily as it is an unavoidable part of a school environment. For this reason, they need to appropriately select and use conflict resolution techniques effectively in order to handle “taboo” topics that were not dealt with in the past.
An effective response to controversial issues that emerge during class can gradually lead to the development of an inspiring school culture of acceptance, understanding and inclusion. Handling controversy democratically can lead to a deeper understanding and learning process, facilitating the students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development, and rendering students capable of coping with controversy peacefully, both at school and in other social environments. In order to achieve the desired dynamics in discussions and analytical thinking, it is important that teachers are well-informed and trained in the various techniques and strategies for handling controversy. This sometimes means combining approaches, depending on the students’ profile, cultural and social context, and other related factors, so as to make them more effective.
Some possible approaches teachers may take in addressing controversial issues in class include the following:
- Neutral (the teacher does not express personal views, only facilitates the discussion).
- Balanced (the teacher presents a wide range of alternative views).
- The Devil’s advocate (the teacher intentionally takes the opposite position from the majority opinion).
- Declared commitment (the teacher openly expresses his / her position).
- Ally(the teacher supports “marginalized”, “ignored” social groups).
- Official line (the teacher echoes the dominant views or takes the side of public authorities).
Teaching controversial topics besides being an opportunity for students to have an opinion and debate about important political, social, ethical, and moral issues, may also improve their self-esteem, as they become more confident in expressing views or formulating ideas.
Teaching and learning about controversial issues may support inquiry and analytical thinking, and improve students’ awareness of current debates, helping them to better understand real life situations. It also helps students in evaluating media messages that they are exposed to outside school, which are sometimes confusing.
Strategies for handling controversies in schools
When handling controversial issues teachers, students as well as school managers and leaders need to have a strategic approach and some necessary skills.
When preparing to address controversial issues, teachers need to plan class discussions by considering whether they should:
- Identify a clear purpose.
- Establish ground rules.
- Provide a common basis for understanding.
- Create a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow.
- Include everyone.
- Be an active facilitator.
- Summarise discussion and gather student feedback.
- Address issues related to the teacher’s identity.
- Utilize school resources, involve experts, use available materials, equipment, and school facilities, take advantage of funding and training opportunities, etc.
In determining their strategy in terms of managing controversial issues, teachers may use different techniques and approaches, depending on the situation, while always keeping in mind the following important points:
- Self-reflection and awareness of the teacher about own beliefs and values.
- Understanding the composition of the group of students in the classroom, school, neighbourhood.
- Training for the use of different teaching techniques and their selection from case to case as well as critical thinking on the part of the teacher.
- Information on the nature of controversial school issues and their consequences.
- Creating a climate of trust and security in the classroom and school.
- Training in the use of peaceful and democratic methods of communication in the classroom and at the school.
- Training for recognising and responding to biased behaviour through democratic means.
- Training for democratic dialogue and decision-making in the classroom and in their school group.
- Ensuring a school that is open to society: the contribution of specialists, representatives of social groups, etc.
In their planning for addressing controversial issues, teachers may:
- Prepare for inclusive teaching by finding out ahead of the class and in as much details as possible, the students’ cultural and educational backgrounds; anticipate material that is likely to cause controversy and actively plan to manage it; include assessment tasks for students to reflect on their own skills for managing controversy or show that they can critically analyse and argue about an issue.
- Create a positive classroom climate of trust by ‘‘getting to know you’’ activities, focusing on similarities rather than differences in order to enhance students’ ability to communicate and enhance participation; promote self-disclosure on matters relevant to the topic but remind students of the importance of confidentiality; help students to evaluate the costs and benefits of self-disclosure; promote tolerance and respectful behaviour; respond neutrally to statements which teachers find controversial by listening, paraphrasing, asking for evidence, analysing underlying assumptions and asking for other points of view.
- Challenge the ideas expressed by someone without offending or discouraging that person andemphasising the conditional nature of knowledge – explaining how knowledge is developed; encourage students to explore what they don’t know and set new learning goals.
- Ensure inclusive discussions by establishing classroom norms with students at the beginning of the year by using discussion strategies which encourage students to listen carefully to each other, for example the next speaker needs to paraphrase the views of the previous speaker; require students to reflect upon the quality of evidence underlying claims expressed in theory, research, experience, media, family folklore; ask students to interview a person with a different perspective and report their views verbally or in writing; respectfully use student diversity in the classroom when it is helpful to understand different cultural perspectives of the student body.
- Encourage critical thinking through the use of debates, for example students may take one position one week and the opposing position the next week and write briefly about their current position, using evidence; or have students defend a position they disagree with in a debate; use critical observation activities allowing students to distinguish between observation and interpretation; use media items to encourage critical thinking, differences in reporting by different sources, analysis of sources of information and misinformation; invite credible guest lecturers to discuss different perspectives and opposing views; avoid assessment tasks which accept only one answer as true, such as true or false questions and multiple choice questions.
- Manage emotions by anticipating strong emotions such as anger; anticipate student cynicism or demoralisation if they start feeling powerless in terms of making changes; manage your own emotions as a teacher and share experiences with other staff.
- Anticipate and overcome resistance by planning to return to some issues on several occasions; offer interpretations of resistance gradually; manage students’ emotions, as well as your own and afterwards ask students to analyse their resistance; instead of personalising resistance focus on strategies to challenge ideas.
- Use experiential activities to reduce the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, for example role plays, simulations and field work.
In addition, teachers may also have the option to set family as an item to the agenda of a school staff meeting in order to develop a strategy tailored to the school and its wider community, and they can also consult national/regional policy to ensure that guidelines are followed. In their communications with families, teachers can also mention that their approach is designed to encourage students to read and to consider sources that have multiple perspectives, and to practice critical thinking and follow democratic methods. By being positive and proactive, teachers can help build a bridge to important partners in their students’ lives. It is helpful to gather and to take into consideration student feedback about the value of discussions, when communicating with administrators and parents.
A whole-school approach to handling controversies needs to be active, responsive, and proactive, and school leaders and leadership teams might take a range of actions when developing a strategy for handling controversy that include:
- Reviewing guidance and policies.
- Reviewing current policy and practice.
- Policy development.
- Action planning.
- Monitoring and evaluation.
Challenges and handling of controversies
Teachers may hesitate to bring up controversial issues in a classroom for a variety of reasons which may relate to the students, the teacher, the system, the parents, or the school administration.
When addressing controversial issues in schools, some challenges that may need to be taken into account are the following:
- Protecting students’ emotions and sensitivities (for instance, when extreme views are expressed).
- Ensuring a peaceful climate in the classroom and fostering constructive dialogue.
- Lack of knowledge about an issue.
- Lack of time especially when the material to be covered is too extensive.
- Lack of experience and confidence in teaching controversial issues.
- The majority opinion on the issue may conflict with the teacher’s views, values, and beliefs.
The teachers’ attitudes can also make teaching controversial issues challenging because of barriers like the following:
- Denial – when the teacher does not acknowledge an issue as being controversial and does no adjust his/her teaching style accordingly but teaches it in the usual way, looking for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers.
- Privilege – when the teacher assumes own views as ‘right’ and tries to influence the pupils so that they end up adopting them.
- Avoidance – when the teacher avoids a topic, feeling unable or unwilling to teach it.
- Academic views – when the teacher has an academic viewpoint on the issue, which does not reflect the real situation.
What is also becoming increasingly challenging for teachers is to facilitate discussions, create a supportive learning environment and keep the students engaged in virtual or hybrid classroom settings.
Overall principles and key issues in handling of controversies in schools effectively
What needs to be in place for effective handling controversies is to have a clear understanding of how controversial issues are being addressed in the school which means assessing the skills and attitudes of teaching staff, their levels of self-confidence and their ability to deal with conflicting opinions.
Some teacher attitudes which can enable successful handling controversial issues include:
- Acceptance: the teacher acknowledges an issue as being controversial, is aware of its complexity and opposing viewpoints.
- Remaining open-minded: the teacher acknowledges own views as just one perspective on the matter, recognises that other views are valid, and researches the issue further, formulating views based on multiple perspectives and a wide range of evidence.
- Pragmatism: the teacher understands the academic perspectives on an issue but relates them to a real-world context, in a way that pupils can easily understand.
- Being prepared: the teacher develops experience of teaching controversial issues, from training and researching issues and teaching methodologies to developing confidence and competency and is better prepared to successfully teach controversial issues.
Dealing with controversy needs to be acknowledged as a whole-school issue. Controversies arising in the classroom are related to what happens in the school as a whole as well as the community outside the school and need to be understood in this wider context.
Some important ways for understanding and effectively handling controversies in schools are:
- Controversy should not be seen as a problem, but as a natural part of life in a democracy.
- Controversial issues should not be avoided but should be openly discussed according to the principles of democratic education.
- Discussions on controversial issues are an essential part of democratic education.
- Controversial questions can arise anywhere in the school at any time.
- All school staff should be willing and able to contribute to the handling of controversial issues.
- All members of the school community (students, teachers, parents, and other school staff, in addition to teachers) should participate in addressing controversial issues.
- Training for their management is directly related to training for active citizenship.
- Everyone has the potential to influence in one way or another how school controversies are resolved.
Some conditions also need to be met for effective handling of controversies:
- Consent in terms of managing controversy at school.
- Existence of a democratic atmosphere at school.
- Formal programme that enables and encourages teachers to take initiatives to implement more democratic teaching methods.
- Emphasis on the free expression of all members of the school community in a democratic way.
- Guiding and supporting members of the school community.
- Consent and active participation of parents.
- Education and training.
- Assessment and “risk management”.
How important each one of the above is may differ from school to school, depends on the situation on the ground but also on how the school administration perceives the task of managing controversial issues. Staff development and training will always be important.
What remains crucial, is to encourage teachers to create safe spaces where students have the opportunity to explore and discuss controversial issues within the framework of education for democratic citizenship, human rights, and inclusive education.
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