Home Essential support Why controversial issues still have to be taught in American classrooms

Why controversial issues still have to be taught in American classrooms

Credit: Jane Meredith Adams / EdSource

A student holds a welcome sign at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland.

In Texas, teachers who once taught controversial issues in history and politics are now afraid to do it. Political attacks on school board members across the country have also threaten those in California. State laws prohibiting critical race theory in schools are censor educators and the curriculum.

Does this mean that the time is over when teachers can engage students in open discussion on controversial issues, which we know are the cornerstone of democratic education?

We believe the answer is no. We are convinced that this can and must still happen here despite intense political polarization and a growing number of state laws restricting the autonomy of teachers.

We have worked with educators in deeply divided countries, including Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Africa, who are committed to teaching multiple perspectives on controversial issues of national identity and l legacy of conflict, so we know it can be done. We also know that teachers can face controversy in the classroom whether they intend to or not. Undoubtedly, this pursuit is more difficult and more dangerous than ever in the United States.

It means it needs to be done smarter.

Studies show that some successful teachers use an approach to teaching controversial issues referred to as “contained risk taking”. This approach encourages inquiry and discussion of open questions related to public policy and contested history from various angles: Should university be free for all? What is a fair refugee policy? – while the teacher proceeds with caution in creating a supportive environment, selecting and framing problems appropriately, and choosing resources and pedagogies wisely.

We believe that school leaders, like teachers, should act as contained risk takers. They should support teachers who want to do this work. At the same time, they must ensure that teachers are prepared to teach controversial issues skillfully and responsibly.

Professional development is the key
There is no comprehensive professional development kit that educators can get hold of. But there are plenty of teaching and learning resources for teachers, organizations, and experts that can help teachers be knowledgeable and reflective about how they create a supportive classroom atmosphere, select and frame issues, and structure learning. ‘survey and class discussion. The Los Angeles County Office of Education modeled how to provide professional development in civic education to hundreds of teachers.

A supportive classroom atmosphere depends on a community of learners in which students get to know each other, build trust and feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Teachers should help students develop an appreciation for disagreement, the ability to disagree with others respectfully, and strategies for dealing with emotional reactions constructively.

Today’s teachers must be careful to express their own opinions. Previous research shows that teachers can be transparent about their own political views in the classroom while fostering critical examination of competing perspectives and encouraging students to formulate their own positions. But in this intensely politicized climate, teachers should give serious thought to the purposes behind disclosing their own opinions and the potential risks before doing so.

Teachers should carefully select open-ended questions appropriate to their curriculum and their students and present them as questions to encourage inquiry and discussion from diverse perspectives. The chain of problems should progress from the coldest to the hottest. For example, teachers might start with “Should the voting age be lowered to 16?” “And move on to” must vaccinations and masks be compulsory? “Empirically settled controversies, such as whether the Holocaust took place or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, should NOT be viewed as open-ended controversial issues, even if groups of people believe otherwise. .

Teachers need to learn to 1) apply frameworks such as human rights to help students assess different perspectives and 2) find high quality resources that inform students, represent diverse (and often marginalized) voices, and encourage student engagement.

Teachers should also be familiar with different discussion approaches and align their approach to the types of issues being explored. For example, emotionally charged issues, which can deeply affect some students, need to be treated differently from those that are not. Determining the load level requires understanding the students in a given class.

Communication with parents and the community is essential
School leaders should support teachers by communicating with stakeholders about the value of teaching controversial issues proactively as well as when problems arise. They must know their community very well.

Teaching controversial issues is a cornerstone of democratic education and, unlike public opinion, is the antithesis of indoctrination. It is a powerful vehicle for developing civic reasoning and discourse in all subjects as well as independent thinking.

Of course, no matter how much teachers think about developing and delivering lessons on controversial issues, some parents, community members, or other stakeholders may react negatively. In these cases, it is important for school leaders to support their teachers, assuming they have made appropriate educational choices. Defending teachers from external threats is, unfortunately, an essential aspect of supporting the civic development of students in this era of political polarization.

Is there any risk in standing up to parents and other stakeholders? Certainly. However, for the sake of our democracy, we believe this is a risk worth taking.


Judith L. Pace is a teacher education professor at the University of San Francisco and author of Tricky Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Topics. Wayne Journell is a professor of social science education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Teaching politics in secondary education: tackling contentious issues.

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