4.2 Teaching approaches to controversial issues
Almost any topic can become controversial if individual groups offer differing explanations about events, what should happen next and how issues should be resolved, or if one side of an issue is presented in a way that raises the emotional response of those who might disagree.(Oxfam, 2006, p. 2)
While you might decide to teach whole lessons or units focusing on a controversial issue, they are so embedded within geographical learning it is worth including ‘values and attitudes’ as you plan any lesson. This will help you to identify relevant issues, plan to support students’ learning and to anticipate a range of possible reactions from students.
How will you feel if some students say they ‘don’t care’?
How will you tackle feelings of helplessness among students to instead engender a sense of empowerment?
Activity 10 Approaches to teaching controversial issues in geography
Table 2 lists four teaching approaches that could be adopted when covering moral or controversial issues.
Choose a potentially controversial issue that you might have to teach in geography. Then, using Table 2 or a mindmap, note down the reasons why you might adopt each approach and the dangers to be aware of. Note: you could use different approaches at different times within the same lesson.
|Approach||Reasons to adopt this approach||Dangers to be aware of when adopting this approach|
Remember that as a teacher you may have considerable power when discussing controversial issues. Also, think about stereotypes related to teachers and geography teachers in particular. How might these affect how students’ respond to your stance? Be careful not to preach to students but help them to explore their own values and choices.
Can you identify instances when your own values might affect your ability to be neutral?
It may be that you unwittingly promote a ‘green agenda’ or take a stand on social justice issues through your selection of topics, learning activities, resources and teaching. Are there times when neutrality is inappropriate?
You cannot remain neutral in cases of racism. In England, for example, the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2000 states that schools must ‘eliminate unlawful racial discrimination’. The Education Act of 2002 requires schools to ‘promote spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development’. In addition, since 2007, English schools have been responsible for promoting ‘community cohesion’, which should be seen as a common vision and sense of belonging; a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued.
In other cases, try to balance issues so that students can form their own opinions. However, if discussing a subject such as child labour, ‘you have a moral responsibility to highlight that child labour is considered to violate human rights’ (Royal Geographical Society, n.d.).
If you wish to consider these issues at greater length, you may find the resources atfrom the Citizenship Foundation useful and Mitchell (2013) has a concise but in-depth discussion of teaching controversial issues.