Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 4 of 12

Another key feature of conflict dialogue education is the emphasis on emotional and imaginative engagement on top of the development of rational cognition (e.g., Barton & McCully, 2005; Zembylas & Kambani, 2012). This is often achieved by tapping on the multiplicity of perspectives of characters found in fictional literature and historical narratives, to provide opportunities for students to discuss diverse frames of reference and consider questions of justice through dramatic role-play and inclusive peacemaking circles (McCall, 2004; McCully, 2006). It is believed that when students are given such opportunities to imaginatively consider and perform roles other than their own in conflict, they become more willing to share divergent points of view in classroom conversations (Parker & Bickmore, 2012; Hemmings, 2000).

Participants and Data Collection

In this article, we examine the work of two experienced Primary Social Studies teachers, Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa (names are pseudonyms), in a government school in Singapore. Both teachers belong to the same Professional Learning Communities (PLC) group and had participated in the same professional development initiative by the writer, who is the Subject Head of National Education and Social Studies in Rosyth School. The initiative comprised a series of school-based workshops that introduced teachers to controversial issues pedagogy, role-play and peacemaking dialogue circles, which involved the use of a talking piece and asking a series of open-ended questions to teach children how to listen and communicate with one other to develop community understanding and engage in collective problem-solving. More specifically, this initiative illustrated to participants how peacemaking circles and role-play can be applied in the discussion of conflictual issues in Social Studies or even children’s fiction.

Following the professional development workshops, Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa designed an integrated unit that prompted students to investigate what makes a fair society. Both teachers wanted to help students critically examine the concept of governance, the role of a government and the rights of citizens, as they felt that these important concepts were inadequately addressed in the Primary Social Studies national curriculum. They built the unit around a short controversial story and infused lessons with student-centred conflict dialogue pedagogy, such as establishing constructive conflict norms and skills, small group discussions, teacher-guided peacemaking circles and community decision making.

The case study featured in this article is based on one Student Learning Space (SLS) lesson and four classroom observations, sixty minutes each, conducted between June 2020 and July 2020 in a Primary 5 Social Studies class made up of nineteen boys and fourteen girls. All lessons were co-taught by both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa. Field notes were written or typed during and after each lesson observation. At the end of all the lessons, one formal thirty-minute interview was conducted with each teacher to highlight their key takeaways and the shift in their thinking pertaining to the teaching of Social Studies.

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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