Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 10 of 12


Although Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa are both extremely experienced primary school teachers who specialise in teaching mainstream and GEP Social Studies, both of them shared that they have traditionally steered clear of controversial issues due to the fear of violating state laws (e.g. Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act) and breaching out-of-bound (OB) markers. They maintained that it was simply “safer” to self-censor and adhere closely to the prescriptive official curriculum.

However, after designing and carrying out this unit of study, both teachers expressed approval of teaching controversial social issues through fictional stories. They shared that the fictionalised account made them feel more “confident” to broach sensitive issues as it made no specific reference to “any particular group of people.” Yet, it was nuanced in such a way that students were able to “draw parallels to the real world” beyond the classroom walls. They also observed that assigning students to take on a character’s perspective other than their own provided “a safe way” for diverse groups of students within class to engage in conflict dialogue without having to risk revealing their own social vulnerabilities. Lastly, both teachers agreed that exploring controversial issues through fiction gave them the flexibility to adapt and customise the story to reflect varying levels of divisiveness and sophistication based on students’ learning progress and socio-emotional readiness.

Both Ms. Mimosa and Ms. Angsana also shared that they have always found it challenging to create sufficient opportunities for marginalised students – those who are quieter or less engaged because of the inherent power structures in schooling – to be included in the classroom community. As such, both teachers were initially worried that the cognitive and verbal demands associated with discussing controversial issues would only serve to further alienate these students.

After carrying out this unit of study, however, both teachers found the non-judgmental classroom atmosphere, the consistent use of open-ended questions to elicit links to children’s experiences and the guaranteed opportunity to speak in well-facilitated circle discussions seemed to encourage quieter girls and low-status students – those with ideas or identities that are less familiar or welcomed by the dominant majorities – to participate in class. In particular, Ms. Mimosa reflected that she learnt about “some really private stuff about their families” that she was not aware of prior to the lesson. She also shared that she was really “surprised” by the “good thinking” displayed by the “few quiet girls who opened up and participated” during the various conflict conversations that took place across the different lessons.

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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