Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 2 of 12

In a second understanding, the study of controversial issues refers to the use of a range of pedagogical strategies that tap on the social scientific method or historical method, requiring students to gather data from multiple and competing views and evaluate the soundness and validity of the data, before deriving a well-reasoned conclusion supported by evidence (Ho, McAvoy, Hess, & Gibbs, 2017). This approach focuses on developing capacities, such as criticality and data-based argumentation, to nurture effective citizens capable of analysing competing viewpoints before deciding for themselves what they think or believe (Lockwood, 1996). Within this context, controversial issues in Social Studies generally take on two broad forms:

  1. Empirical: Was it necessary to drop the atomic bombs to end the war with Japan?
  2. Value Judgment: Should Singapore abolish the death penalty?

Although this article seeks to distinguish between issues raised during disciplined inquiry from those arising from the examination of values, these two domains are more often than not inextricably intertwined.

It is also worthwhile at this juncture to clarify that controversial issues are deemed controversial because they are often underpinned by uncomfortable ideas related to equity, rights, power and privilege (Cooper & Portelli, 2012). The goal in addressing controversial issues in the Social Studies classroom is not to search for universal truth or achieve consensus, but to develop tolerance and understanding for different perspectives so as to enable students to eventually contribute to civil society peacebuilding (Avery, 2002).

Controversial Issues in School

There is good evidence to support the claim that discussing controversial issues promotes democratic thinking and positive citizenship outcomes in student-citizens. Research has found that exposure to polemical discussions develops understandings of justice and the common good, essential civic competencies, as well as communicative virtues such as listening to understand, disagreeing respectfully, the willingness to suspend judgment and the humility to change one’s position in light of new information (Burbules & Rice, 1991; Hess, 2004; Young, 1996).

There is also evidence to suggest that discussing controversial issues in school significantly influences students’ civic behaviour after they graduate. A study by Andolina, Jenkins, Keeter and Zukin (2002) reported that students who discussed conflictual issues in school were more likely to demonstrate their desire for economic and social justice through tangible actions, like volunteering for the community and participating in online petitions and consumer boycotts.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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