Teachers and teacher educators often find it difficult to explore controversial issues in their classrooms, especially in politically fraught times. Controversial issues are defined as open questions that generate significant disagreement about politics, history and social problems (Foster, 2012; Hess, 2009). These questions may be related to pandemic policies, ethno/racial conflict, legacies of violent conflict, climate change, and many other challenges.
During the BERA Teacher Education and Development (BERA TED) special interest group workshop conducted by Judith Pace with Lee Jerome in November 2021, BERA TED members got a first-hand experience, in an interactive session, to learn more about the research and practice of teaching controversial issues. Delegates explored key concepts and practical tools to help educators design and facilitate dialogic exploration of controversial issues, even in polarised political contexts.
Teachers often fear losing classroom control, conflict among students, and backlash from parents, community members, and school administrators, especially during politically turbulent times. They need robust support for taking up a set of practices that are recognised as fundamental to educating democratic citizens. A helpful framework for cultivating reflective and responsible teaching of controversial issues embodies the concept of ‘contained risk-taking’ (Pace, 2019, 2021a, 2021b). It emerged from Pace’s cross-national qualitative research project, with case studies from Northern Ireland, England and the United States, that examined how teacher educators prepared their preservice teachers to teach controversy skilfully and thoughtfully.
‘Teachers often fear losing classroom control, conflict among students, and backlash from parents, community members, and school administrators, especially during politically turbulent times.’
The four teacher educators Pace studied taught their teacher trainees strategies to proactively address the risks that may accompany teaching controversial issues. These strategies help teachers cultivate a supportive environment; select and frame issues; and employ dialogic pedagogies. Modelling by teacher educators and practice teaching during course work were highlighted by teacher trainees as particularly helpful for learning how to facilitate discussions around controversial issues. Coaching during student teaching was often missing but would have provided crucial support.
Teaching controversial issues is shaped by many factors ranging from individual orientations to national contexts (Ho et al., 2017). Pace’s participant observation methodology, which included immersive stays in each location, yielded significant attention to contextual influences and detailed descriptions of the participants and their pedagogical methodologies. Pace found that in the US, teacher trainees are prepared in detail to teach with and for discussion on controversial issues; this is in contrast to the UK where there is less emphasis on teaching the actual skills of discussion. Also, the US methods course was the only one where teacher trainees had opportunities to develop and teach their own controversy lessons. Differences emerged within national contexts as well. In Northern Ireland, one teacher educator advocated that student teachers avoid arousing learners’ emotions in the classroom, while another teacher educator was keenly interested in channelling emotions to deepen the learning experience.
Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues offers case studies and vignettes that illustrate how teacher educators prepared teacher trainees to engage with learners in exploring controversial issues and how student teachers adapted practices to real and diverse classroom settings (see Pace 2021a). The study had a small sample with only four teacher educators and 15 of their preservice teachers, but it is detailed in its description and analysis. It would be valuable to conduct a larger study across the UK and other countries with a wider range of teacher trainees and teacher educators involved.
At a time when we face many crises and young people need to engage with the world around them more critically, evidence-based tools to support examination and discussion of controversial issues provide a very timely contribution. For a helpful collection of tools and resources, see https://teachingcontroversies.com/
Foster, S. (2014). Teaching controversial issues in the classroom: The exciting potential of disciplinary history. In M. Baildon, L. K. Seng, I. M. Lim, G. Inanc, & J. Jaffar (Eds.), Controversial history education in Asian contexts. Routledge.
Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. Routledge.
Ho, L., McAvoy, P., Hess, D., & Gibbs, B. (2017). Teaching and learning about controversial issues and topics in the social studies. In The Wiley handbook of social studies research (pp. 319–335).
Pace, J. L. (2021a). Hard questions: Learning to teach controversial issues. Rowman & Littlefield.
Pace, J. L. (2021b). How can educators prepare for teaching controversial issues? Cross-national lessons. Social Education, 85(4), 228–233.
Pace, J. L. (2019). Contained risk-taking: Preparing pre-service teachers to teach controversial issues in three countries. Theory & Research in Social Education, 47(2), 228–260.