How should we handle controversy in the classroom?

From vaccination to trans rights, teachers are faced with big topics to explore – so where should they begin?

Glenn Y Bezalel

Controversial topics: How should teachers handle controversy in school classrooms?

From Black Lives Matter to #metoo, young people are more engaged than ever about the controversial topics of the day. And with the rise of social media, they are more informed, too. 

However, the democratisation of knowledge is a double-edged sword: while young people have easier access to news sources, it’s not always clear to them which websites or blogs are trustworthy.

Inevitably, students are challenging teachers on a whole host of controversial issues. Yet many teachers find that they themselves aren’t clued up on the topic under scrutiny.

They also find it difficult to know what stance to take when confronted with controversial and complex stories, like JK Rowling speaking out about transgender issues or the efficacy of lockdowns and vaccinations in the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Controversy in the school classroom

Defining controversy is itself controversial. Still, it is vital that we do so in order to help teachers frame the topic under discussion and so decide whether to take a directive or non-directive approach.

For example, if a subject is deemed controversial, such as whether to support Boris or Sir Keir, then the teacher might take a non-directive approach, or she would be seen as being biased or even attempting to brainwash her students. 

It is only for non-controversial topics that teachers should take a directive approach and explicitly teach that there are right and wrong answers to the question at hand, perhaps most obviously in a subject like maths.

Nevertheless, between the subjective world of politics and the objective world of logic, there is a huge grey area that might well be difficult for teachers to navigate.

A behavioural approach

Perhaps the most common approach to thinking about controversy is known as the "behavioural criterion", which is to say that something is controversial as soon as any number of people disagree about the issue at hand.

Supporters of this approach call on teachers to remain balanced and offer a range of perspectives in order to promote student autonomy. But as Professor Robert Dearden has pointed out, the problem is that this approach “lets in too much”.

For example, in July 2019, William Latson, the headteacher of the Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Florida, was sacked after telling a parent that he would remain neutral on whether or not the Holocaust happened. 

Latson reasoned that because we do not all have the same beliefs on the subject, it should be taught as controversial in a non-directive teaching manner.

He said: “I do allow information about the Holocaust to be presented and allow students and parents to make decisions about it accordingly.”

However, as Deborah Lipstadt, a leading historian of the Holocaust, candidly tweeted: “This principal – who’s neutral on whether the Holocaust happened – should be fired because he’s an idiot. The Holocaust has the dubious distinction of being the best documented genocide in the world.” 

In other words, Latson’s reliance on the behavioural criterion, that the Holocaust should be taught as controversial because not everyone believes the genocide happened, is patently absurd when one appreciates the weight of evidence against his position.

To doubt the Holocaust, or even remain neutral on it, flies in the face of basic educational norms, and is a result of bad thinking and most probably anti-Semitism.

The epistemic approach

Rather, teachers may be better off using the “epistemic criterion” of controversiality, which is defined by Dearden: “A matter is controversial if contrary views can be held on it without those views being contrary to reason.” 

As Professor Michael Hand explains, each view needs to be judged by the evidence or reasoned arguments in their support. Where only one view enjoys such support, the teacher should take a directive approach, teaching that racial prejudice, for example, is wrong – no matter how many people may disagree. 

Hand defends this approach on the key assumption that “the central aim of education is to nurture rational thought and action”. By framing the debate through a rational lens, teachers will encourage students to develop their beliefs on the basis of reasoning and critical thinking, in the best tradition of a liberal education. 

Not all views are equal

Quite simply, not all opinions are equal. While anti-vaxxers may protest in their thousands, schools must reject those rejectionist views that fly in the face of scientific evidence for the overwhelming effectiveness of vaccines.

Indeed, Barack Obama recently warned that democratic societies are facing an “epistemological crisis” as young people are struggling to distinguish between fact and fiction. 

Teachers have a clear duty to help guide their students through the minefield of competing narratives from a largely unregulated social and news media.

Even where they may lack direct expertise in the subject matter at hand, teachers can set the boundaries to ensure a purposeful learning environment that thinks about controversy in terms of evidence, reasoned argument and critical reflection.

Glenn Y Bezalel is director of teaching and learning at a North London secondary, and is working on a PhD on the pedagogy of controversy

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Glenn Y Bezalel

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