Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 3 of 12

Despite significant educational and societal benefits, controversial issues often receive little attention in schools due to institutional and pedagogical constraints faced by teachers (Carrington & Troyna, 1988; Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). The socio-political milieu within which schools operate invariably shapes what is deemed as appropriate and inappropriate, leaving teachers with many disincentives, including the fear of breaking laws or facing censure from peers, superiors and the general public (McCully, 2006; Phillips, 2008). In addition, mandated content coverage for the purpose of testing, a lack of pedagogical confidence and the tendency to over-emphasise conflict avoidance in the name of promoting safe and caring learning spaces are some other reasons why controversial issues are rarely broached in schools (Hess, 2002; Ho, 2017; Houser, 1996).

Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Controversial Issues

Recent pedagogical approaches to teaching controversial issues in Social Studies have largely focused on the use of discussion to help students better understand the characteristics of an ideal democracy and the role citizens play in the political process (Ho, McAvoy, Hess, & Gibbs, 2017). This section will address different discussion-based instructional approaches to teaching controversial issues, namely the argumentative design and an alternative affective approach more suited for primary school students.

Advocates of argumentative approaches, such as the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) model, draw on the theory of constructive controversy. The theory suggests that conceptual disequilibrium and uncertainty brought about by the exposure to alternative views motivates epistemic curiosity, which in turn results in an active search for more information, more experiences and a more adequate reasoning process to resolve uncertainty (Johnson, 2015). Implementing the constructive controversy procedure in the classroom involves (a) researching and investigating a position, (b) supporting it, (c) rebutting opposing argumentation while defending one's own position and (d) reversing perspectives, before (e) synthesising the various positions to create a joint position that all sides can collectively agree on (Johnson & Johnson, 2012).

On the other end of the spectrum, critics of argumentative design contend that the approach is too rationalistic, as students are expected to clinically weigh the evidence for and against opposing positions while engaging in dispassionate forms of communication. They argue that for students to find meaning and value in classroom conversations about conflictual issues, educators must move beyond students’ rational cognition and grapple with their imaginative and emotional responses (Barton & McCully, 2007; Smith & Fairman, 2005). Against this backdrop, Bickmore and Parker (2014) offer an alternative approach known as constructive conflict talk. This relatively under-researched instructional method in the controversial issues literature focuses on developing norms and relationships for respectful non-violent interactions as well as understanding the perspectives held by diverse stakeholders in the community. Under this paradigm, inclusive opportunities for all students are provided to teach them how to voice their own views, consider alternative perspectives, understand how these perspectives matter to others and participate in restorative peacemaking circle dialogue in preparation for collective problem-solving (Parker, 2010; Bickmore & Parker, 2014).

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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