The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

What is controversial in the classroom?

What makes something controversial? In the first part of a two-part series, Karamat Iqbal explores definitions of controversy and approaches to teaching it.

Whether our fellow citizens can feed themselves is often in the news these days. This maybe because of Marcus Rashford’s excellent work on behalf of poor children or in discussing the work of foodbanks – why we have them, why we have so many and so on.

Maybe some children in your school access foodbanks. You decide to include the topic of poverty in your teaching. In planning your lessons, you must choose between the following statements.

  1. The Trussell Trust Food Bank Network has reported that over 1.18 million people received emergency food parcels from the Trust in the last year, the highest such figures to date. 
  2. Between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020, the Trussell Trust’s food bank network distributed 1.9 million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, a 18% increase on the previous year.

I would suggest you go for the second statement. The first one, even though its figure for the hungry is smaller, is probably likely to get you in trouble as it is from the website, while the second one is from the Trussell Trust. One is likely to be controversial and the other not.   

So, your lesson begins with charity. You refer to an academic for whom charity is an inherent form of, and mediated by, capitalism which perpetuates inequalities. Until recently capitalism was just a form of organising the economy but no more. In September 2020 it became a controversial topic when it was specifically referred to in government guidance and became the subject of debate in newspapers and social media.

What is controversial?

During your search for resources you come across this list of 25 controversial topics, including abortion, animal rights and free market capitalism. When you spot gun control and the Trump Presidency among the topics you realise this is an American website. Quite interesting, it also includes vaccines as one such topic (those who oppose the vaccines are known as anti-vaxxers).

Is there such a group who are opposed to the vaccines in response to Covid-19, I wonder? And is Covid controversial? It is if one were to refer to the National Audit Office criticising our government for the ways it awarded contracts. The report provides evidence of ‘insufficient documentation on key decisions, or how risks such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest have been identified or managed. In addition, several contracts were awarded retrospectively, or have not been published in a timely manner. This has diminished public transparency…’

One day organisations and ideas are just that; the next day they are controversial

So, given that ‘controversial’ depends on the social and political context at a given time, it would be worth asking students to draw up their own list of what is controversial.

In the 1980s, when I entered teaching, we were told what controversial meant (Carrington & Troyna, 1988):

A controversial issue is a matter which different individuals and groups interpret and understand in different ways and about which there are conflicting courses of action. It is an issue for which society has not found a solution that can be universally accepted. 

For Claire and Holden (2007): 

… a controversial issue is one which is considered important by an appreciable number of people and involves value judgement, so that the issue cannot be settled by facts, evidence or experiment alone. 

The Crick Report

According to the Crick Report, which gave rise to Citizenship Education, a controversial issue is ‘an issue about which there is no one fixed or universally held point of view. Such issues are those which commonly divide society and for which significant groups offer conflicting explanations and solutions.’

Crick referred to the then legislation, Education Act 1996, according to which children were not to be presented by their teachers with only one side of political or controversial issues. Schools were ‘to take all reasonably practical steps to ensure that, where political or controversial issues are brought to pupils' attention, they are offered a balanced presentation or opposing views.’

Crick asked schools to be proactive in this respect and said they should not shelter children from controversies of life, ‘but should prepare them to deal with such controversies knowledgeably, sensibly, tolerantly and morally.’

Crick advises teachers to ‘adopt strategies that teach pupils how to recognise bias, how to evaluate evidence put before them and how to look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for everything they say and do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.’

Three approaches to teaching controversy

Crick presented three approaches to the teaching of controversial issues which are equally relevant today.

  1. Neutral Chairman: teachers are not to express any personal views or allegiances whatsoever, but ‘to act only as the facilitator of a discussion, ensuring that a wide variety of evidence is considered and that opinions of all kinds are expressed.’
  2. Balanced: teachers ensure that all aspects of an issue are covered, and pupils are encouraged to form their own judgements. ‘This requires teachers to ensure that views with which they themselves may disagree, or with which the class as a whole may disagree, are also presented as persuasively as possible.’
  3. The ‘Stated Commitment': teachers openly express their own views to encourage discussion, inviting pupils to express their own agreement or disagreement with the teacher's views.                                         

Some have argued that teachers should always remain neutral. In case you think this view has its own bias, given that it is written by a Prevent Officer whose work has its own controversies, you may wish to listen to other views who take the opposite view. Some have even argued that neutrality is itself a political choice as it bolsters the status quo. 

Given that ‘controversial’ depends on the social and political context at a given time, it would be worth asking students to draw up their own list of what is controversial

What is controversial today?

A useful way to understand what is controversial is to look at the current controversies. One day organisations and ideas are just that; the next day they are controversial, to be handled with care.

Who would have thought an organisation such as the National Trust would be controversial! All it took was its focus on some of its buildings and their funding being drawn from the evil of slavery and then it gets reported to and investigated by the Charity Commission. As I write this, we hear of a political agenda to discredit researchers exploring the Trust’s slavery links.

Until recently, without controversy one could say: black lives matter. But no longer. Many schools have published their positions on the issue. One school I know said it was appalled at the murder of George Floyd and was fully committed to fighting racism and prejudice and to the active promotion of equality for all: ‘Without justice there will be no peace.’ Their position statement then ends with the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ which is what now makes it controversial because the government has decided as such.

Until recently, no one had heard of critical race theory, except a few in the academic world. And unconscious bias was seen as a more palatable label than race. Both have become controversial since the Equality Minister said so.

So, what of today’s ordinary ideas will become controversial tomorrow? Wait and see.

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