Controversy Education in secondary Social Science Classrooms: Issues, Concerns, and Implementation
TWO KEY ISSUES
Why in the world would secondary teachers want to take on controversy as part of their instructional regimen? The presentation of controversial issues very delicate, to be sure. Whether issues such as stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion, homosexual marriage, or others, teachers risk much through "controversy education, including a better education for their students. Having spoken personally with dozens of high school and college educators throughout the nation and parts of Europe, there seemed to emerge two major issues from the opening question. Each warrants a brief examination.
Issue #1 : Should educators rule out dealing with "some" controversial issues-particularly if they are grounded in serious disagreement, or unlikely to be resolved? The answer to this question is a resounding "No!" Educators must come to understand clearly that many controversial issues may not be solved within classrooms-and that is all right. After all, some controversial issues are marked by a lack of resolution. Nonetheless, teachers can strive for the shedding of new light, or even a broader understanding of an issue by students. The realization that some issues take time to solve will empower students to continue to strive for solutions to problems, promoting others into serious inquiry. Teachers should not avoid the teaching of a controversial issue simply because it cannot be quantitatively analyzed, or solved within the design of a school period.
Issue #2: What happens if parents object to dealing with controversial issues in the classroom? Richard Riley, former secretary of Education (1994), understood the nature of this concern when he wrote:
There are many Americans, and many of them are deeply religious, who are skeptical about any expert or federal official, including the U. S. secretary of Education, having a role in informing them how they should mold their children's characters. Yes, they are deeply concerned about characters and ethics. We need to be aware of this skepticism, recognize why it has developed, and work to find those connections that enable us to reach out to these Americans.
In terms of "controversy education" curriculum, it is critical to run things across the desk of school administrators. First, teachers must be aware of state curriculum framework and content standards for social science. Within the document, there is much flexibility to deal with unresolved "issues" in society-at-large. In 1994, the California State Board of Education adopted a handbook on the rights and responsibilities of school personnel and students in the areas providing "Moral, Civic, and Ethical Education Teaching About Religion Promoting Responsible Attitudes and Behaviors and Preventing and Responding to Hate Violence." California expects teachers to be proactive in dealing with controversial issues, as understood in the following excerpt from the document:
All educators are obliged to awaken youth to the moral and ethical values that build a fundamental strength of character and are firmly grounded in our American heritage. There is a common core of personal qualities and social imperatives with which all citizens must be conversant and to which each is accountable. This common core ... must be integrally woven throughout curriculum, instruction, programs, and activities provided in the California public schools. Moreover, educators are obligated to model these personal qualities and evidence their respect for these social imperatives in their daily interactions with students (Center for Civic Education 1996-7).
Since it is apparent that the state "obligates" teachers to bring moral and ethical values into the classroom, it would help to have some practical guidelines on how to go about this implementation as smoothly as possible. However, it is sometimes both the values chosen and the methods of implementation that some parents find offensive (Loges & Kidder 1997).
Second, there must be adequate training, in-depth knowledge, and understanding on the part of the teacher who is to instruct through the issue. Taking content rich classes at a local university, attending in-service events, or other professional growth opportunities are good starts. Communities that are aware of teachers with particular expertise, may be more inclined toward toleration. Third, parents or local community experts can be called upon as allies in dealing with controversial issues. Whatever the case, eliciting parental support is key to the success of most educational programs and activities. This must never be forgotten.
A fourth issue here involves whether or not the controversy to be analyzed would best be addressed at a later time. There is the reality that some issues are more emotional due to their immediacy, or local context. Teachers must be sensitive to this. It might well be best to delay addressing the issue in class, or wait until a less "heated" environment is possible. Next, teachers must guard against stirring up controversy where none existed to begin with. For example, if a teacher is an environmental or animal activist, his or her biases toward the organizations or their platforms might make for controversy born o/the teacher. Regardless of the personal biases we have, as educators, we must guard against this tendency-which leads to the last point.
Teachers with peeves or a personal agenda should work hard to set these aside for the sake of the students. This equates to a higher road professionally. There are enough controversial concerns within the school context as it is and, in terms of handling controversial issues in the classroom. We must adhere to the educational aspects of controversies for the sake of our students, collegiality between parents, community, and the school.
CHALLENGES IN PRESENTING CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES
Besides the possibility of parental concern, there are at least five additional areas of challenge for the sec ondary social science educator to consider, in tenus of controversy education. These are: (1) There must be consideration given to determining whether or not an issue is controversial on its face, or whether the issue has been elevated because of external forces. (2) Educators must concern themselves with the alleviation of risk from students taking counter positions on the issue. secondary teachers must provide, as much as possible, risk free environments for students to state positions and lobby for them ardently and passionately. (3) From a logistical vantage point, secondary educators should be aware of the more outspoken students, attempting to monopolize classroom discussion of the issue. Students who seek to control the flow of the discussion send not so subtle messages to the more reserved, or quieter students, thereby creating another controversy with which to be dealt. (4) Teachers would be well advised to ground any controversial issue within one or more contexts. At first glance, these challenges are common knowledge to the majority of seasoned veterans. However, the fourth challenge bears much closer consideration.
CONTEXTUALIZING CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES: SECONDARYSOCIALSCIENCE
Placing controversial issues into one or more contexts alleviates some of the natural stresses accompanying controversies. In many ways, social science teachers have the luxury of incorporating their lessons into a larger historical perspective, which provides a genuine sense of continuity. Teachers seek ways to ground their instruction in one or more contexts. The following list includes prompts teachers to consider historical, moral, legal, religious, and other contexts as the best mooring for the issue.
Considerations When Contextualizing Controversial Issues
* Does the issue have any connection to political or rights issues found in distant or recent history? Does it deal with limitations or expansions of rights? Constitutional issues?
* Are there found any particular moral or religious issues at the center of the controversy? Are there any ethical or moral principles involved?
* Is the controversy best grounded in a context, which examines traditionalism, neo-classicalism, reconstructionism, post-modernism, or some other interpretive model?
* Is there a "contextual collision" between the medical and legal communities over the issue?
* To what extent can an issue be "recontextualized," by comparison to it current incorporation into an existing schemata?
* Is the issue best suited for a local context, or does it extrapolate to a much larger arena?
Thinking Through Controversial Issues in the Classroom
Kidder and Born (1999) developed a framework through which to analyze controversial issues. Their strategy considers a key question, which is subsequently followed by the categorization of the controversial issue into one or more lines of thinking. The key question asks whether the issue to be analyzed requires ends based thinking, rule-based thinking, or care-based thinking.
* Ends-Based Thinking. This type of thinking is ruled by the axiom: "Do whatever provides the greatest good for the greatest number." In some ways, this type of thinking is equivalent to consequentialism, as it is difficult to determine the greatest good without guessing what the future might entail. It is very subjective and there is a heavy "here and now" experiential focal point. The ends arrived at often outweigh the means to achieve these ends.
* Rule-Based Thinking. This approach is exemplified by the statement "If everyone in the world were to do what I am about to do-to follow the rule I am about to follow-is that the kind of world I would want to live in?" Rule-based thinking is in opposition to ends-based thinking. The rule-based thinkers hold that sticking to one's principles is a higher priority in the long run and may be the safest of all courses.
* Care-Based Thinking. This type of thinking requires the notion that "We do unto others what we would want others to do unto us." This, of course, is the Golden Rule. Most cultures have similar notions as this and incorporate them (Lewis 1948). This type of thinking is also called the "rule of reversibility." A rule of reversibility requires that a person place oneself into another's shoes in situations. Each of these types of thinking can be employed in the secondary classroom to think through controversial issues.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYZING CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES
The following five steps comprise a practical conceptual framework used by this author over the past few years in college prep and Advanced Placement (AP) United States Government classes. It is an extension of Kidder and Born (1999), mentioned above. Following the framework is a data/analysis worksheet to be used with as instructed.
CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYZING CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES
Steps and Instructional Tasks
Step 1: Define the Issue in Context
Teacher defines the issue as it appears in more or more contexts (see above discussion).
Step 2: Pre-Analysis
Contextual definition extended. Teachers and students research and examine the perspectives associated with the issue. Assign supplemental readings for students. Teachers and students familiarize themselves with the different religious, historical, legal, and civic/secular perspectives surrounding an issue.
Step 3: Oral Analysis
Class discusses and debates positions. Teacher to present and/or review the categories above with the class, in terms of Contextualizing Controversial Issues in the secondary Social Science Classroom (Zarra 2002), and Thinking Through Controversial Issues in the Classroom (Kidder and Bom 1999)
Step 4: Written Analysis
Students complete a suggested data collection and analysis chart (Zarra 2002) constructed by teacher (see sample analysis chart below).
Step 5: Post Analysis
Teacher will assess depth of learning and knowledge. Students evaluate issue based on analysis and complete following assessments: Culminating Final Project, Written Examination, and Reaction Paper.
A CLOSING CHALLENGE FOR EDUCATORS CONSIDERING CONTROVERSY EDUCATION
Adults must mentor students, like all generations before them. This mentoring also extends to modeling analysis of controversial issues. Students must be led into discussions and analyses of these issues seriously, yet passionately. The challenge before us is to lead students into the light of the difficult academic issues. "Controversy education" focuses on the issue addressed, is viewed within a larger historical perspective, encourages student analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, and refines student logicall admirable goals for any secondary social science classroom educator.
California State Board of Education (1988). Moral and civic education and the teaching about religion. Sacramento, CA.
California State Board of Education (1994). Handbook on the rights and responsibilities of school personnel and students in the areas of providing moral, civic, and ethical education, teaching about religion, promoting responsible attitudes and behaviors and preventing and responding to hate violence. Sacramento, CA.
California State Department of Education (1997, 1988). History-social science framework for California public schools. Sacramento, CA.
Center for Civic Education (1996). "The role of civic education: A report of the task force on civic education." Online: http://www.civiced.org/ whpaper.html.
Center for Civic Education (1997). "A Summary of CIVITAS: A framework for civic education." Online: http ://www, civiced.org/civitasexec.html.
Kidder, R. M. & Born, P. (December/January 1998/1999). ."Resolving ethical dilemmas in the classroom." Educational Leadership, 56:4, 38-41.
Lewis, C. S. (1948). The abolition of man. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
Loges. W. E., & Kidder, R. M. (1997). "Global values, moral boundaries: A pilot survey." Camden, ME: The Institute for Global Ethics.
Riley, R. (1994). "Conference on character building for a democratic civil society." Online: http:// www.ed.gov/Speeches/07-1994/charactr.html.
Zarra, E. J., Ill (Summer 2000). "Pinning down character education." Kappa Delta Pi Record, 36:4, 154157.
Ernest J. Zarra, III was born in Montclair, New Jersey. He holds five earned degrees, including the Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. He has studied at other major universities in the US. In addition to teaching AP and CP Government and Economics in a public high school, he is an author, conference speaker, and adjunct university professor. Dr. Zarra is a member of several national honor societies, including Kappa Delta Pi, and is listed several Who's Who publications, including Who's Who Among America's Teachers, Who's Who in the World, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His current research interests are Teacher Education, Character and Moral Education, and First Amendment Issues.…