Delicate touch for handling topical debate

30th January 2009 at 00:00

How far should the curriculum reflect current events in the world outside school? While emphasis is now being placed on responsible citizenship and global awareness, this question is significant. Good teachers have always sought to relate their material to topical items in order to stimulate interest and be relevant. But some reports on television and in the press pose particular challenges.

Take the financial crisis. The economic downturn will be affecting some children very directly. Parents may have been made redundant, and some older pupils may have lost their part-time jobs. So broaching the topic in class calls for sensitivity.

Teachers may find themselves subject to tough questioning from abler pupils. Some of the emphases in enterprise education might provoke a critical response. The basic assumptions of consumer demand, expanding markets and continual growth have proven rather hollow as high-street stores close down and house prices fall.

As for explaining why all this has happened, there are contested accounts. One version is that it was a combination of international banking trends beyond the control of any one institution or government. Or, the crisis can be seen as the creation of unscrupulous spivs and the failure of regulatory systems. On this view, the culture of banking was marked by a fatal mix of greed and fear. Thus, although some senior staff were probably aware that the house of cards had to crash sooner or later, they were locked into a system that did not tolerate dissent.

The implications for teachers could be tricky. Even if different interpretations are acknowledged, it is not hard to imagine an alert senior pupil saying: "If we can't trust these pillars of society who rewarded themselves with obscene bonuses while wreaking havoc on people's lives, who can we trust?" This opens up the question of where good examples of responsible citizenship are to be found among society's leaders. There are expectations that schools should promote certain civic and ethical values: that task is made much harder if the establishment is found wanting.

Consider recent events in the Middle East. A teacher could find that her class contains both Muslim and Jewish pupils, perhaps with relatives in or near Gaza. One view is that almost any attempt to discuss the issue is likely to cause offence and is best avoided. But aren't we meant to be preparing pupils for a world beyond school, including its harsher aspects? There are sensitivities about using upsetting television footage in class and the age at which such topics might be introduced, but a blanket exclusion is hard to justify.

Handling controversial subjects calls for skill and judgment, but it is vital if children are to begin to understand the complexities of politics and economics. The work of the late Lawrence Stenhouse, former head of education at Jordanhill College, offered many useful insights into this aspect of pedagogy and is well worth revisiting.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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