Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 9 of 12


Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa’s unit of lessons have demonstrated the importance of explicitly teaching their young charges constructive conflict communication norms and skills when engaging in conflict talk.  They consistently reminded students to listen attentively and speak respectfully by establishing routines and processes, such as passing the talking piece, suspending judgement, turn taking and emphasising openness to alternative viewpoints (Maloch, 2002). Such processes not only equipped students with the skills and knowledge to engage in constructive, open-minded dialogue with divergent viewpoints, but also reshaped the power dynamics within the class, improving the quality and frequency of individual participation in class discussions and providing more opportunities for positive interactions between dominant students and less dominant ones. Compared to a more adversarial approach which tends to promote competitive habits, such as zero-sum decision-making and the silencing of dissenting views, the use of dialogue pedagogies embodies a constructive, inclusive and equitable approach that better prepares students to engage with divergent perspectives in an increasingly conflictual and polarised world (Bickmore & Parker, 2014).

The recognition of alternative perspectives, especially the perspectives and voices of the silent and marginalised, is an important element in dialogic conflict education. Although Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa could have selected a more visceral story that mirrored complex real-world social tensions, the story that they ended up selecting did explore many important concepts (e.g. social domination, social justice and equity) from the perspective of the marginalised. These are the very concepts that often do not receive sufficient attention and coverage in our Primary Social Studies national curriculum. Beyond the selection of appropriate content, both teachers have also put in place important pedagogical processes, such as framing the story using a contentious question (i.e. Is Sikkal a fair society?) to draw attention to previously discounted voices and engaging students to participate in circle dialogue in the role of stakeholders to elicit powerful classroom conversations about rights and equity. From carefully selecting controversial content that introduced students to marginal voices, to putting in place inclusive and equitable pedagogical processes, both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa have demonstrated the illuminating role teachers play in awakening critical consciousness of society’s oppressive structures (Freire, 1970).

Another significant element observed in this unit of study was the sharing of power in the classroom when engaging in collective problem-solving and decision-making. The respectful communication norms and skills taught were particularly helpful in eroding certain power imbalances within the classroom and encouraging the normally marginalised or less confident students to voice their viewpoints when they were working in small groups to create an action plan to help Sikkal become a fairer society. This deliberate attempt to share power in class surfaced again when both teachers were consolidating the suggestions mooted by the different groups of students. Through the use of the peacemaking circle process and a talking piece, both teachers ensured that every single student had an opportunity to share any deeply held concerns or propose alternative solutions to improve the class action plan. By moving away from a majority-rule approach towards a shared governance approach in decision-making, both teachers empowered students to believe that even the decisions and actions of one citizen is instrumental in building a strong democracy and expanding social justice (Ochoa-Becker, 2007).

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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