Module 9


Teaching Controversial Issues in Coastal and Marine Studies





Reading 1

Approaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom

Reading 2 Teaching Strategies and Methods


Reading 1

Approaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom

There are diverse points of view about environmental issues. The community is often divided over decisions that affect the management of resources and environments, including those presented in this workshop's activities.

Teachers cannot ignore this community context. They require strategies for handling potentially controversial issues in a professionally ethical way. They must first recognise that different values will emerge in classroom discussion and activities, and that it is important to deal with these conflicts in a way that avoids indoctrination.


The following five principles are of assistance in dealing with values in the classroom:

  • Be objective in the presentation of views. If asked, briefly state what you believe. Do not argue against the class consensus.

  • Encourage an atmosphere of openness, acceptance and respect.

  • Encourage all students to participate by sharing their views. (No-one is forced to share.)

  • Encourage students to accept that changing their mind after evaluating a discussion is a sign of maturity. It is not 'weak'.

  • 'Balanced' teaching is not possible given the competing and dominant influences and messages that students are constantly exposed to outside of the classroom. Instead ensure that 'balanced learning' can take place by ensuring that the quality of evidence from all viewpoints is as objective as possible, and that its presentation reflects the aspiration of balanced learning.

Reading 2

Teaching Strategies and Methods

Source: Adapted from Stradling, R. (1984) Controversial Issues in the Classroom, in R. Stradling, M. Noctor and B. Baines (eds.) Teaching Controversial Issues, Edward Arnold, London, pp. 5-12.

The starting-point for any discussion of how to teach issues is undoubtedly the role of the teacher in the class room. Three concepts seem to be central to this: balance, neutrality and commitment.

1. Balance

When asked how the teacher should approach controversial issues, many headteachers, local authority advisors and even chief education officers stress the importance of presenting students with a balanced picture. By this they appear to mean that the teacher should offer students a range of alternative viewpoints on each issue. But balance is a deceptively simple concept which on further examination raises a number of difficult questions.

Firstly, is it necessary to have a balanced approach to every single lesson or can one think instead in terms of a balanced approach across a unit or module of lessons, or even across an overall course, whereby the teacher ensures that by the end of a school term or year the student has encountered a range of alternatives but not necessarily in each lesson?

Second, what is more important here: balanced teaching or balanced learning? In the areas of the curriculum where controversial issues predominate, the teacher is in a very different position to, say, the physics or mathematics teacher. We are not initiating the students into a body of knowledge with which they are totally unfamiliar. We are intervening in a learning process which is well underway before they do any humanities or social studies. They bring with them into the classroom their own experiences, knowledge, commitments and prejudices. So, as teachers, do we ignore all of this extra-mural learning from family, peers and the mass media and offer students instead a balanced spectrum of views, including those to which they are already committed, or do we, for example, play the 'devil's advocate'? Do we seek to present them with an alternative point of view to their own at all times (even if it is a view to which we ourselves are not committed)? This, too, might be said to be a balanced approach but can clearly present teachers with problems if some students (and their parents) assume that the views presented by the teacher as devil's advocate are their own.

Finally, when considering a balanced approach it is also necessary to consider carefully whether we are talking about a genuine spectrum of alternative viewpoints or are limiting ourselves to those viewpoints which are generally accepted within, say, the broad consensus of liberal democratic values or even the liberal-humanist ideology that pervades so much educational theory.

We raise questions about the balanced approach here simply because we doubt that balance can ever be regarded as a kind of guiding educational principle to be followed regardless of circumstance or constraints operating in a particular school, or regardless of students' reactions to the approach. What is this 'balance'? Roget defines it as 'equality, parity, co-extension, symmetry, level, monotony'. How do you achieve the first five of these qualities without dropping into the sixth?

2. Neutrality

In the teaching of controversial issues, perhaps the concept of neutrality starts from the assumption that the authority position of the teacher is much stronger than most teachers realize, and that it is almost insuperably difficult for him/her to put forward his/her own points of view without implying that controversial issues can be settled on the basis of the authority of others. Procedural neutrality in the classroom involves adopting a strategy in which the teacher's role is that of an impartial chairperson of discussion groups, ensuring that all students can have their say, treating their opinions consistently, feeding in evidence when needed, and avoiding the assertion of his or her own preferences and allegiances (Stenhouse, 1970).

This teaching strategy has been characterised as follows:

  1. The fundamental educational values of rationality, imagination, sensitivity, readiness to listen to the views of others, and so forth must be built into the principles of procedure in the classroom.

  2. The pattern of teaching must renounce the authority of the teacher as an 'expert' capable of solving value issues since this authority cannot be justified either epistemologically or politically. In short, the teacher must aspire to be neutral.

  3. The teaching strategy must maintain the procedural authority of the teacher in the classroom, but contain it within rules which can be justified in terms of the need for discipline and rigour in attaining understanding.

  4. The strategy must be such as to satisfy parents and students that every possible effort is being made to avoid the use of the teacher's authority position to indoctrinate his/her own views.

  5. The procedure must enable students to understand divergence of views and, hence, must depend upon a group working together through discussion and shared activities. In such a group, opinions should be respected, and minority opinions should be protected from ridicule or from social pressure.

  6. In sensitive issues, thought must be given to preserving privacy and protecting students.

  7. Above all, the aim should be understanding. This implies that one should not force students towards opinions or premature commitments which harden into prejudice. Nor should one see particular virtue in a change of view. The object is that the student should come to understand the nature and implications of his/ her own personal view and be accountable for it. Whether or not the student changes his/her point of view is not significant for the attainment of understanding (Stenhouse, 1970).

The whole raison d'etre for procedural neutrality is that teachers occupy a position of authority over their students and therefore any views they express will carry extra weight and influence the children. At present there is very little research evidence either to support or invalidate this assumption.

Thus, Stenhouse (1970) asserts, "The basic classroom pattern should be one of discussion. Instruction inevitably implies that the teacher cannot maintain a neutral position". This rather simplistic distinction fails to take account of a whole range of student-centred and resource-based methods of learning including projects, field work, analysis of case studies and even role play and simulation, as well as other ways of organizing discussion (e.g. in small groups).

The assumption that discussion led by a neutral chairperson ensures that students will consider and understand a divergence of views is also questionable. What does the teacher do if this divergence of opinion is missing in classroom discussion? What, for example, does the teacher do when faced by unquestioning consensus from the entire class? Indeed, Stenhouse seems to recognize this problem at one point and admits that on occasion the teacher may have to "represent a view which the group has not considered" in order to challenge awareness of complacency (Stenhouse , 1970). Such situations are by no means a rarity in the classroom and adopting the role of devil's advocate can be a highly effective counter to it, but it should be emphasized that it is a very different role from that of neutral chairperson.

3. Commitment

When is it legitimate for a teacher to state his or her own commitments and allegiances in the classroom, and is it ever acceptable to go beyond this and consistently teach in a committed way? There are a number of points for discussion here. The first is essentially procedural.

Stenhouse (1970) asserts that neutrality is not a value-free approach but that the values he wishes to uphold are educational rather than substantive or partisan ones. Some teachers, however, reject the possibility of maintaining an impartial line on substantive values. Underpinning their position is the assumption that they will lose credibility with students if they do not say what they think, particularly when asked. One might also add that stating your own commitments and allegiances gives students a chance to make allowance for your 'prejudices and opinions' when evaluating what you say and how you tackle the issue.

A second point raised by some teachers is that there are some issues on which you cannot be impartial. This is an approach that derives from a view of education as being more than just learning about the social world. Education is seen here as being also concerned with helping students to develop strategies and skills for influencing social change. Other teachers take a similar line but are primarily concerned with individual attitude change. This often applies to attitudes towards race, sexism, and in particular, the understanding that should be shown towards social and sexual minorities. Even teachers of relatively non-controversial areas of the curriculum such as health often appear to be committed to attitude and behavioural change on such matters as drug-taking, glue-sniffing, alcoholism and cigarette-smoking.

Are there any environmental values on which we should not compromise? What of the values underlying sustainable development such as democracy, social justice, appropriate development and conservation?

Third, there is the view that a committed approach challenges students to think, to clarify their own point of view, to become aware of the contradictions and inconsistencies in their thinking, and to sort out fact from value judgement.

4. Indoctrination

Whatever the justification for a committed approach to teaching issues, the main potential problem inevitably is the risk of indoctrination or, at least, the risk of allegations of indoctrination. This raises a number of questions, some of which can at least be clarified if not answered, and some of which can only be answered by each individual teacher. For example, is all committed teaching the same as indoctrination or can some of it be justified on educational grounds?

Indoctrination is usually associated with attempts to teach something as if it were true or universally acceptable regardless of evidence to the contrary or in the absence of any evidence at all on this basis (Snook 1975). Teachers who make their own positions clear when teaching about issues need not necessarily be indoctrinating if:

  • other points of view receive fair and equal treatment;

  • the teacher is simply attempting to redress the balance by stating a point of view which is different from the one propounded by the student's main source of information and opinion -the mass media;

  • the teacher encourages students to subject his or her own point of view to critical examination;

  • the teacher is expressing his/her own point of view to challenge student's own unquestioned assumptions and attitudes.

Under some circumstances the ethics of one or more of those principles might be questionable; also in some circumstances one or more of them might prove objectionable to parents, but as long as students are not being asked to accept statements at face value or to treat value judgements as if they were facts, then the teacher is not indoctrinating them.

Two other questions require discussion:

  1. Are teachers indoctrinating if the point of view they express is already shared by most or all of their students?

  2. Are there some beliefs and values which are so important, so central to the well-being of the individual or the community, that it is legitimate for schools to inculcate them through indoctrination?

The latter is probably a question which each teacher and school must decide on individually. We have already suggested that some schools do consciously inculcate certain attitudes and beliefs, and seek to change specific attitudes. The examples from health education are fairly typical. Some schools have a policy against racism and sexism. In such cases teachers are expected to take a committed line against the manifestations of both racism and sexism. When we ask headteachers about the educational implications of such policies they often point out that it is legitimate for schools to counter racist or sexist attitudes and behaviour because there is legislation against both racial and sexual discrimination. In the absence of legislative legitimacy presumably schools would have to rely on some other form of external authority for teaching issues in a committed way, such as 'the national consensus': a rather more nebulous and unsatisfactory criterion in a pluralist society.

In this discussion of all three concepts (balance, neutrality and commitment) there has been a recurring question: Are they educational principles or simply teaching strategies which may or may not be useful for handling controversial issues? The advocates of balance, neutrality or commitment tend to assume that they are basic principles. The teachers we have talked to in our research and our own classroom experience suggest that they are not. It all depends on the circumstances one encounters in the classroom. If students have a lot to say, if there is a broad spread of opinion, and if their views are based on knowledge and experience rather than blind prejudice, then there is a good case for adopting the role of neutral chairman. In other circumstances the balanced or committed approaches might be more appropriate.

It simply is not possible to lay down hard-and-fast rules about teaching controversial subject matter to be applied at all times.

The teacher has to take account of the knowledge, values and experiences which the students bring with them into the classroom; the teaching methods which predominate in other lessons; the classroom climate (e.g. unquestioning consensus, apathy, or polarisation of opinion); and the age and ability of the students. But, above all, in teaching controversial issues the teacher has to be highly responsive to the reactions of students both to the content of lessons and the teaching methods being employed. Any controversial issue can arouse strong emotions leading to a polarization of the class and consequent hostility.

On the other hand, even with issues which may divide the entire nation, teachers can find themselves confronted by a wall of apathy or alienation, or unquestioning consensus, and so on. These different circumstances in the classroom require different methods and strategies and there is no guarantee that a strategy which works with one set of students will necessarily work with another group.


Stenhouse, L. (1970) Controversial Values Issues, in W. Carr (ed) Values in the Curriculum, NEA, Washington DC, pp. 103-115.

Snook, I. (1975) Indoctrination and Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.