Teaching Controversial Issues in Coastal and Marine Studies
Approaching Controversial Issues in the ClassroomThere 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:
Teaching Strategies and Methods
1. BalanceWhen 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
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?
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:
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. CommitmentWhen 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.
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:
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:
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.