Constructive discussion requires give and take

22nd March 2013 at 00:00

The adage quoted ("He that complies against his will, is of his own opinion still" - Samuel Butler, poet and satirist (1612-1680)) was oft-referred to by my late father when someone was trying to browbeat him in an argument about his occasionally expressed but fervently held religious views. He prided himself on never ramming his opinions down the throat of another. Yet it was a courtesy that was frequently denied him.

As a teacher, of course, such conflict can be more than occasional; particularly, although not solely, if you are discussing religion. Do you insert your beliefs andor theories into your RE, citizenship or history lessons? And if so, is this the best way to pass on to students the truth you believe you know?

Truth is a subjective concept. You need only read Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy of plays The Norman Conquests - showing the events of one weekend through the eyes of different characters - to see this. So dictating what you believe is the truth can be self-defeating.

In a long-forgotten catechism book of my childhood, recently unearthed in a dusty wardrobe, I wrote, under instruction from my teacher: "God gives me freedom of choice - the freedom to choose the way that is right." Within a few years I knew that was a flawed statement. So I rejected everything to do with the religion - even that which may have helped me in later life.

Today, however, there is a more logical middle ground: it is not only acceptable, but useful, to reveal your views on subjects ranging from the conflict at Amritsar to religion and the war in Iraq - particularly if you frame them in a way that encourages discussion and debate, and aids students' voyage of self-discovery.

It may be frustrating to watch and listen as a student or group comes to a conclusion that you think is morally wrong. But arguably you can aid their learning more by directing them towards a new set of questions rather than telling them they are "wrong".

In years to come you may have changed your own view. And they will almost certainly have changed theirs.

The only certainty is that it is good to talk: and dangerous to be too sure about almost anything.

Jo Knowsley is acting editor of TESpro, jo.knowsley@tes.co.uk @tes.

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