Teaching a Controversial Issue
 
This section is adapted with permission from Slater, Frances. 1993. Learning through geography. Pathways in Geography, No. 7, p. 114 (after Stradler et al. 1984) and p. 148 (after McConnell et al. 1979). Indiana, PA: National Council for Geographic Education.
Four Teaching Approaches to Controversial Issues: 

Instructors may take different positions in teaching a controversial issue. Four basic positions are discussed below with their potential strengths and weaknesses. Consider the issue you will discuss in your class and choose the approach that seems most appropriate in the particular situation that you are in, and to reach the particular learning goals that you have set. 


Procedural Neutrality: In which the teacher adopts the role of an impartial chairperson of a discussion group. 
Potential Strengths
Potential Weaknesses
  • Minimizes undue influence of teacher's own bias
  • Gives everyone a chance to take part in free discussion
  • Presents a good opportunity for students to exercise communication skills
  • Works well if you have a lot of background materials
  • Scope for open ended discussion, i.e., the class may move on to consider issues and questions the teacher hasn't thought of
  • Students find it artificial
  • Can damage the rapport between teacher and class if it doesn't work
  • Depends on students being familiar with the method elsewhere in the school or it will take a long time to acclimatize them
  • May only reinforce students' existing attitudes and prejudices
  • Very difficult with the less able
  • Neutral chair may not suit your personality

Stated Commitment: In which the teacher always makes known his/her views during discussion. 
Potential Strengths
Potential Weaknesses
  • Students will try to guess what the teacher thinks anyway. Stating your own position makes everything above board
  • If students know where the teacher stands on the issue, they can discount his or her prejudices and biases
  • It's better to state your preferences after discussion rather than before
  • It can be an excellent way of maintaining credibility with students since they do not expect us to be neutral teachers
  • It can stifle classroom discussion, inhibiting students from arguing a line against that of the teacher
  • It may encourage some students to argue strongly for something they don't believe in simply because it's different from the teacher
  • Students often find it difficult to distinguish facts from values. It's even more difficult if the purveyor of facts and values is the same person
  • It should only be used if students' dissenting opinions are treated with respect

Balanced Approach: In which the teacher presents students with a wide range of alternative views. 
Potential Strengths
Potential Weaknesses
  • Essential: one of the main functions of a humanities or social studies teacher is to show that issues are hardly ever black and white
  • Necessary when the class is polarized on an issue
  • Most useful when dealing with issues about which there is a great deal of conflicting information
  • Is a balanced range of opinions really possible?
  • As a strategy it has limited use. It avoids the main point by conveying the impression that "truth" is a grey area that exists between two alternate sets of opinions
  • Balance means different things to different people. The media's view of balance is not shared by many. Teaching is rarely value free
  • This approach can lead to teacher directed lessons. As in media interviews, you are always interrupting to maintain the so called balance.

Devil's Advocate Strategy: In which the teacher consciously takes up the opposite position to the one expressed by students or in teaching materials. 
Potential Strengths
Potential Weaknesses
  • Great fun, and can be very effective in stimulating the students to contribute to discussion
  • Essential when faced by a group who all seem to share the same opinion
  • Most classes seem to have a majority line. Then this strategy and parody, exaggeration, and role reversal are very useful
  • Often useable as a device to liven things up when the discussion is beginning to dry up.
  • You may run into all sorts of problems with this approach: students identifying you with the views you put forward as devil's advocate; parents worried about the instructor's alleged views, etc.
  • It may reinforce students' prejudices
  • Only to be used when discussion dries up and there are still 25 minutes left.
 

Procedure for Studying a Controversial Issue: 

The following steps with leading questions may guide you through teaching a controversial issue. You might view these steps as a procedural outline whereas the previous section stated positions you might take in walking through a controversial issue. 


Becoming Aware of and Clarifying the Issue
  • What is going on here?
  • What is the major issue, problem, or question?

Analyzing and Expressing One's Feelings
  • Why did I choose this problem to work on?
  • Have I made any assumptions about it?
  • What are my attitudes? My bias?
  • How do other people react to the problem?

Inquiring, Carrying out Research and Reading the Best Possible Factual Judgment
  • What do I need to know? How do I find out about it?
  • What knowledge or methods are useful to me?
  • What have I found out about the problem?
  • What are the implications of these facts?

Clarifying Values and Reading a Value Judgment
  • What values and beliefs do I hold that are relevant to the problem?
  • What are the consequences of these in relation to the problem?
  • When there is conflict between values, which values have priority?
  • Why?

Synthesizing Fact and Value Judgment and Making a Decision
  • Do I have enough information to decide?
  • If not, what do I do?
  • What solution do I now propose?
  • What courses of action are open to people wishing to bring about the solution?
  • Should I become personally involved?
  • If so, how, to what extent and why?
  • What are some of the possible consequences of my involvement or non involvement? For society? For myself?

Doing and Evaluating
  • What did I actually do?
  • What were the consequences of this?
  • Knowing what I know now, how would I act if the situation arose again?
  • Why? 
 

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