Don't duck sensitive topics

9th January 2004 at 00:00
A young student teacher describes her experiences in the classroom in this new programme which is designed to give new teachers help in dealing with such sensitive topics as gay rights and asylum seekers.

How should you tackle topics in which opinions are strongly held and keenly divided? We eavesdrop on classes from Year 7 upwards, and a meeting of the school council at the Cherwell school, Oxford, as teachers use a variety of techniques to stimulate discussion and explore the students' views. In the end, the aim is not to elicit "right" or "wrong" answers, or even to change minds, but to ensure that opinions are considered and informed.

If one thing emerges strongly from the film, it is the importance of preparation. This means that the teacher must think about his or her views on the subject before starting. Educationist Jeremy Hayward defines three "classic strategies" - the neutral chair, where the teacher's opinion is never revealed; the committed participant; and the balanced approach.

He suggests we consider which of these is likely to be most productive.

More important, though, is getting to know the class and preparing the students with plenty of debate on non-controversial issues before asking them what they think about eating meat, granting asylum and sex.

Of course, teaching controversial issues is itself a controversial issue.

At least, as Mr Hayward points out, it answers the common objection that school is irrelevant: surely, if there is one thing that future citizens should be doing to prepare for later life, it is learning to be better members of society, able to counter prejudices and see beyond stereotypes.

If only most other sources of opinion that they will meet were as balanced and well-informed as the teachers we see in this filmI 'Teaching Controversial Issues' is available on video (pound;14.99 from 4Learning, PO Box 400, Wetherby, LS23 7LG). There are programme notes on the Channel 4 website www.channel4.comsecondary Tel: 08701 246444

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