Some topics are not open to debate

14th November 2008 at 00:00

Teachers are mistakenly treating issues such as bullying as controversial, even though there are clear rights and wrongs in the matter.

Michael Hand, of the Institute of Education in London, points out that a number of classroom resources suggest that teachers should present all information as open to interpretation and contradiction. These resources focus heavily on the importance of giving equal weight to conflicting views.

But, Dr Hand said: "Most of these publications and resources appear to have been composed with scant regard for the question of which matters merit this kind of pedagogical treatment."

For example, the charity Oxfam produced a booklet called Teaching Controversial Issues. The first topic it covers is bullying.

"The plain implication is that bullying is one of the matters on which teachers should not endorse a particular view, but should present different views as impartially as possible," said Dr Hand. "Fairly obviously, something has gone awry here."

Similarly, a TeacherNet resource about cultural and religious diversity, ethnicity, prejudice, race and racism reminds teachers of their obligation to offer "a balanced presentation of opposing views".

"Again, this is rather worrying," said Dr Hand. "Presumably the authors of these documents do not seriously believe that bullying, prejudice and racism are topics on which teachers must assiduously avoid endorsing a view."

Teachers, he argues, should always endorse the arguments that are rationally compelling. The aim should not be to ensure pupils' compliance with these arguments, but to advance their respect for rational thought and action.

Only when both sides of a debate are equally rational should the subject be taught as controversial.

"My recognising that there is room for rational disagreement on a question should not stop me from committing myself firmly to what I judge to be the correct answer," Dr Hand said. "But it should stop me attempting to ensure that my students come to the same conclusion."

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