Addressing controversial issues
Teaching controversial issues raises challenges for both teachers and school directors.
However, being able to discuss sensitive and controversial issues in a respectful way is a vital skill in a democratic culture.
Schools must be places where students feel safe to engage in debates with people who have different opinions. Through the careful management of discussions on controversial issues, schools can promote freedom of expression, as well as inclusion, tolerance, and human rights and prevent, or counter, the use of hate speech by students.
To achieve this, a school action plan on managing controversial issues – which provides staff training – should be adopted as a priority.
Facts & Figures
71% of teachers and school leaders surveyed agreed that it is very important that all students in their school express their views openly, even when their views might be controversial.
In response to the question, ‘How valuable is the study of the Holocaust for primary children?’ 88% of teachers viewed Holocaust teaching to be either ‘worthwhile’ or ‘very valuable’ to the primary pupil, although only 48% had actually taught it.
What are controversial issues?
Controversial issues are issues which arouse strong feelings and divide communities.
Issues like these can arise anywhere at any time. They vary from the local to the global – from minarets to climate change. They also vary from place to place, e.g., gay marriage is relatively uncontentious in some countries, but highly controversial in others. Some are long-standing controversies, e.g., the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the ‘Kurdish issue’ in Turkey; while others are more recent, e.g., refugees, violent extremism and transgender issues.
What all these issues have in common is that they are complex, not easily settled by appeal to evidence alone and highly emotive – so much so that people often have difficulty discussing them rationally.
Why is it important to address controversial issues at school?
While it might be tempting for schools to try to shy away from issues like these, this is neither beneficial nor practical.
Discussing controversial issues helps students with different backgrounds and lifestyles to learn to live and work together peacefully and respectfully. It encourages them to listen to each other and talk through their differences sensitively. It also challenges them to think critically about their own beliefs and values and gives them confidence and skills to express these publicly.
Talking through difficult issues together develops a number of important democratic competences, e.g., openness to other cultures and beliefs, analytical and critical thinking skills, flexibility and adaptability, and tolerance of ambiguity - all of which lie at the heart of the Council of Europe Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture.
Handled well, it breaks down barriers and helps to defuse social tension between opposing groups, both in school and the wider community.
Exploring controversial issues has educational as well as personal and social benefits. Issues like these help to define some of the major social, political, economic and moral fault-lines in contemporary life and underpin academic learning in many school subjects.
The strongest argument for addressing controversial issues explicitly, however, is that, in practice, they simply cannot be avoided. If teachers do not raise these issues, their students will.
Through training in the teaching of controversial issues, I have found the courage to discuss openly with my students issues I thought I would never be able to do, e.g., about sexual abuse and the porn industry.” Teacher, Iceland
What are the challenges?
The biggest challenge is creating a school ethos in which students genuinely feel they can speak openly about their concerns without fear of vilification or ridicule.
Creating such an ethos requires a whole-school approach. It includes among other things:
- teachers having the confidence and skills to handle discussion of difficult issues in the classroom, e.g., knowing how to deal with their own prejudices and biases, protect vulnerable individuals and marginalised groups, present issues even-handedly, cope with a lack of expert knowledge, and handle spontaneous or unexpected questions and remarks constructively;
- school leaders encouraging their staff to take on issues which are controversial and maintaining a consistency of approach across the school, e.g., by providing leadership, professional development, opportunities for team teaching, guidance and support, and risk management;
- parents and local communities feeling assured that the school is on their side, e.g., being confident the school will not misrepresent or try to undermine their views or culture.
How can schools get active?
A good way for schools to begin is by:
- identifying where controversial issues already feature in the school curriculum and discussing how these are currently handled, e.g., evolution, climate change or animal testing in Science;
- considering new opportunities for introducing controversial issues into other school subjects and how they might be incorporated into teaching, e.g., the use and abuse of social statistics in Maths;
- developing ground rules for classroom discussion which guarantee everyone a voice to express their opinion and encourage respect for whoever wishes to speak;
- creating a small support group to help teachers develop techniques for managing discussion of difficult issues, e.g., how to ‘de-personalise’ an issue by using a story or historical parallel, or helping students to consider alternative perspectives by putting them in other people’s shoes;
- liaising with students and parents to ensure specific issues are handled fairly and with appropriate methods;
- introducing more opportunities for discussion in school life and decision-making generally, e.g., in parents’ meetings, staff meetings and pupil parliaments.