05 Feb 2017

Dealing with controversial issues in the classroom

Many jobs demand multiple skills. But the skills teachers and SLT have to pull out of the bag in the course of an average day are, frankly, mind-boggling. Let’s have a go at listing them:, communication, negotiation, wisdom, humour, patience, target-setting, motivation, managing a budget, all overlayered by the need for specialist subject knowledge.

The list could go on.

All these skills, plus more, are needed when dealing with the inevitable, controversial issues that teachers will either actively bring up in Tutor time, or during a Citizenship or SMSC lesson or will spontaneously face.

So, with huge doses of humility and acknowledgement of the vast scope and nature of the subject, I’ve had a go at bringing together the advice of experienced teachers, together with some useful insights from The Citizenship Foundation, to look at just how controversial classroom issues can be tackled.


  1. Establishing an evidence base


The greater the ability of the pupil or student to think for themselves, rather than repeating ready-made, inherited views that they haven’t always interrogated, the more likely it is that they will be able to address controversial issues effectively. Weighing up the evidence, choosing between alternative view points, questioning the source of the facts being presented are all powerful ways of encouraging a student to interrogate their own views . Using quality SMSC resources with facts, figures and reliably referenced sources helps enormously, grounding the view in helpful objectivity and inviting positive self-questioning.

  1. There are two sides to every story


Empathy is key to a more harmonious discussion when there are vastly varying views.  It’s a quality that can’t easily be taught, but can be modelled. By asking the class to divide into pairs and take the opposite view to the one they instinctively held on first facing an issue, students will be challenged to think hard about the counter-arguments. The result should be more natural empathy with a viewpoint to which they were initially opposed.

  1. It’s OK to disagree!


It’s important to acknowledge that there will be disagreements around views and it’s not accurate or helpful to communicate that there is consensus around certain issues. Accepting that there are opposing opinions about certain aspects of current affairs and history is part of democratic practice and it’s good for students to recognise this. Teacher experience suggests that it can be actively helpful for children and young people to clearly understand that adults don’t always agree on issues; that they are very few absolutes when it comes to certain opinions. The key is to make an important differentiation between an established fact-base, which draws on independent and reliable sources and individual interpretation which is then drawn from this evidence. If a pupil understands the basic, but vital lesson that opinions aren’t facts, that is a huge win in itself.

  1. It’s complicated!


So, building on this, it’s important for children and young people to understand that issues can be hugely nuanced and complicated. It’s not always realistic to believe you can come to a swift opinion with the closed thinking that can come with it. Often there are no simple answers to the most controversial issues. Sounds obvious? Maybe, but it’s really helpful to acknowledge and clearly communicate that rather than encouraging learners to settle for easy ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions.

  1. Try using a filter


If the subject area is particularly tricky, it can sometimes be        helpful to try choosing a topic from the news agenda through which it can be addressed. A recent topic on our weekly voting platform asked: “Should parents be allowed to drop off their children at the school gate wearing pyjamas?” following a Head’s banning order on sleepwear at drop-off time. Through this ‘safe’ filter, a discussion on the issues around multiple dress codes within the school community and in society becomes more approachable. An examination of  whether “Politicians should communicate more through Twitter?” allows for a cool-headed assessment of Donald Trump’s blasting through the political norms, and more of an evidence base on which to judge a figure who courts controversy with every tweet.

So, back to that list we started out with.

There’s one more skill to add: the ability to equip young people with the vital tools they need to tackle the vast array of issues they will face in a world that seems to be getting more complex day by day.

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