The Challenge of Teaching Controversial Issues

Editor(s) Hilary Claire, Cathie Holden
Publisher Trentham Books Ltd
Published 2007
Pages 182
Price £16.99
ISBN 9781858564159
Reviewed by Dr Daniel Kirk
American University of Sharjah-United Arab Emirates
Review published 10 October 2008

Having spent the last decade or so teaching around the globe, I have encountered classrooms (at the secondary school and university level) rich in diversity. Each institution, and each class, presented challenges as well as opportunities when dealing with issues of controversy, often focusing in on religious and cultural difference. These challenges were made even more acute for me personally, as I taught literature, an area that screams out to confront those elements of humanity that are often uncomfortable, possibly even taboo, to some. Now, I spend my days teaching Education, looking at how teachers are prepared, and navigating the many challenging and controversial issues that teachers face today. In The Challenge of Teaching Controversial Issues, Claire and Holden bring together an eclectic, and international, group of contributors who deal with a wide range of specific controversies that teachers and students encounter in schools. The book, divided into three distinct parts (Overview and policy issues, Teaching controversial issues through the curriculum, and Whole school values and action), presents the reader with a coherent and useful approach to the issues faced in a modern society.

Teachers understand the urgent need for children to discuss, understand and accept controversy, as a way to approach difference and conflict from a rational and reasoned knowledge base, deflecting from the hatred, misunderstanding, fear, difference and complexity that too often lead to conflict. Through open and frank discussion, dealing with controversial issues can become an integral learning process, allowing the space and time for youngsters to approach critically difficult topics. Teachers recognise this process as being of worth; talking informs and educates. Yet many teachers, often neophytes or those less experienced, encounter difficulty in approaching controversial issues from a relaxed, sensitive and pedagogically sound stance, with much anecdotal evidence to suggest that avoidance of such issues is often preferred to direct involvement. However, we know children are interested in the very topics that are difficult to deal with. They are media-savvy individuals who want to talk about Darfur, unemployment, Iraq, religion in schools, immigration, minority communities, racism, sexual orientation, and the many other topics that make it onto the television and computer screens. Schools and teachers have a role in providing an outlet for their inquisitiveness, as uncomfortable or problematic as it may seem at times for those who work with children.

One of the strengths of this text, and the benefit it will have for teachers and academics alike, is the breadth of topics covered by the contributors. From issues related to conflict (Goodall), to religious symbolism in government schools (Sliwka), through to the use of drama in confronting controversy (Hennessy), the contents read like a user’s guide through the minefield of difficult discussions teachers face every day. Although the book states it is for teachers and coordinators of Citizenship, English, PSHE, drama and humanities, I feel that the scope is wider than subject based teachers. I can envisage using the text with pre-service teachers, teacher educators and generalists with an interest in wider educational issues dealing with classroom discourse. It is a text that one will refer to throughout the course of teaching, rather than read cover to cover, with individual chapters used in teacher training or with school pupils as a way in to discussing specific issues, or the whole notion of controversy and different worldviews.

Overall, the book is successful at setting out the issues related to teaching controversial issues in school, and combines overarching themes and information, with specific issues that will arise in schools. The book adds to the practitioner-focused literature that is now available to teachers and aspiring teachers alike. I think the book will be of benefit to student teachers, as well as to those of us who have been in the game for a while. I know that through reading the book I have gained new insight, both theoretical and practical, that I will be trying out in my classes soon.