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`The procedurally directive approach to teaching controversial issues' by Gregory, M R, Educational Theory, 646: 627-48, December 2014 bit.lyControversialIssues

As students learn and mature they begin to develop their own stances and attitudes towards potentially charged topics. However, the ways in which this development is being fostered in the classroom are problematic.

This is the view of Maughn Rollins Gregory, of Montclair State University in the US, whose recent paper proposes a more nuanced approach. It follows on from research by Michael Hand that contrasts "directive teaching" (in which the teacher attempts to persuade students of a viewpoint that is not rationally controversial), and "non-directive" teaching (in which the teacher avoids persuading students about a topic that is rationally controversial).

Gregory's analysis deals with "directive" teaching - and shows it has its pitfalls. Students might, for example, accept a teacher's position on a particular subject on the basis of their perceived "authority", rather than rationally engaging with the matter at hand.

Gregory suggests an alternative: "procedurally directive" teaching, in which the teacher "guides" the discussion rather than attempting to persuade students of an accepted viewpoint. This approach differs from directive teaching in the emphasis it places the students' freedom to form their own opinions and its faith that students' innate sense of rationality will lead them to the most rational conclusion.

Thus it is the role of the teacher to establish and maintain "procedures of inquiry" around a topic, providing students with arguments and evidence on both sides of a given debate, and encouraging rational and mature critical discussion.

This approach is not without its potential problems, of course. What if, for example, a student were to obdurately hold on to a view that the class had deemed objectionable? But, Gregory argues, even here this style of enquiry has its virtues. "Students who emerge.with unreconstructed intolerant views will at least have heard arguments against them and will therefore understand them to be socially problematic," he concludes.

Alex Tyndall

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