In Texas, teachers who once taught controversial issues in history and politics are now afraid to do so. Political attacks on school board members across the country also threaten those in California. State laws banning critical race theory in schools are censoring educators and the curriculum.
Does this mean the time has passed when teachers can engage students in open discussion of controversial issues, which we know is a cornerstone of democratic education?
We think the answer is no. We’re convinced it can and should still happen here despite intense political polarization and an increasing number of state laws restricting teacher autonomy.
We’ve worked with educators in deeply divided countries, including Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and South Africa, who are committed to teaching multiple perspectives on divisive questions on national identity and legacies of conflict, so we know it can be done. We also know that teachers may face controversy in the classroom whether or not they intend to. Unquestionably, this pursuit is harder and more dangerous than ever before in the United States.
That means it must be done smarter.
Research shows that some successful teachers use an approach to teaching controversial issues characterized as “contained risk-taking.” This approach encourages inquiry and discussion of open questions related to public policy and contested history from diverse perspectives — Should college be tuition-free for all? What is a fair refugee policy? — while the teacher proceeds with caution by building a supportive environment, selecting and framing issues appropriately, and choosing resources and pedagogies wisely.
We believe that school leaders, like teachers, should act as contained risk-takers. They should support teachers wanting to do this work. At the same time, they need to ensure that teachers are prepared to teach controversial issues skillfully and responsibly.
Professional development is key
There is no comprehensive professional development kit that educators can pull off the shelf. But there are abundant curricular and instructional teacher resources, organizations and experts who can help teachers be knowledgeable and thoughtful about how they build a supportive classroom atmosphere, select and frame issues, and structure inquiry and classroom discussion. The Los Angeles County Office of Education has modeled how to provide professional development in civic education to hundreds of teachers.
A supportive classroom atmosphere depends on a community of learners in which students get to know one another, build trust and feel comfortable exchanging ideas. Teachers must help students develop an appreciation for disagreement, the ability to disagree with others respectfully and strategies for dealing with emotional reactions constructively.
Today, teachers must be careful about expressing their own views. Past research shows that teachers can be transparent about their own political views in class while fostering critical examination of competing perspectives and encouraging students to formulate their own positions. But in this intensely politicized climate, teachers should think hard about the purposes behind disclosing their own views and the potential risks before doing so.
Teachers must thoughtfully select open issues appropriate for their curriculum and students and frame them as questions to encourage inquiry and discussion of diverse perspectives. The sequencing of issues should progress from cooler to hotter. For example, teachers might start off with “should the voting age be lowered to 16?” and move to “should vaccinations and masks be mandated?” Controversies that are empirically settled, such as whether the Holocaust occurred or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, should NOT be examined as open controversial issues, even if groups of people believe otherwise.
Teachers should learn how to 1) apply frameworks such as human rights to help students evaluate different perspectives and 2) find high-quality resources that inform students, represent diverse (and often marginalized) voices and encourage student engagement.
Teachers also need to know different approaches to discussion and align their approach to the types of issues being explored. For example, emotionally charged issues, which may affect certain students deeply, should be handled differently from those that are not so charged. Determining the level of charge requires understanding the students in a given classroom.
Communication with parents and the community is essential
School leaders must support teachers by communicating with stakeholders about the value of teaching controversial issues proactively as well as when troubles arise. They must know their communities extremely well.
Teaching controversial issues is a cornerstone of democratic education and, contrary to public opinion, is the antithesis of indoctrination. It is a powerful vehicle for developing civic reasoning and discourse in all subjects as well as independent thinking.
Of course, no matter how thoughtful teachers are in framing and executing lessons on controversial issues, some parents, community members or other stakeholders may react negatively. In those instances, it is important that school leaders support their teachers, assuming that they have made appropriate pedagogical choices. Defending teachers from external threats is, unfortunately, an essential aspect of supporting the civic development of students in this era of political polarization.
Does standing up to parents and other stakeholders carry a certain amount of risk? Certainly. However, for the sake of our democracy, we believe it is a risk worth taking.
Judith L. Pace is a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco and the author of Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues. Wayne Journell is a professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of Teaching Politics in Secondary Education: Engaging with Contentious Issues.
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