Social Studies is, in many ways, all about current events, isn’t it? Because what happened before impacts what happens today in so many ways, doesn’t it? Of course, teaching current and controversial issues is not without its problems, as my friend and colleague Dr. Robert Dahlgren has explored in his work on this very issue. Happily, they are doing something right up in Escambia County here in Florida, and they have been profiled on the news for how they approach difficult issues.
The points made in the piece are excellent. Providing students an outlet for discussion, while also linking it to what they are learning in civics, in government, and in history, is, really, one of the most important elements of our jobs. And yes, it CAN be difficult to avoid letting our opinion be known, as Sue Mullin expressed. However, students being aware of your own opinion is NOT always a bad thing if you have created a classroom environment that allows them to understand that THEIR opinion should be THEIRS rather than a reflection of yours! As an example, I spent many years teaching history and government in a small rural school in Florida. While I did my best to ensure that my own political and social views were private, students would often come to me and say that one of my colleagues, a wonderful teacher on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, had told them something about, for example, the death penalty. They would want to know what I thought about what that teacher had taught them. Despite my best efforts, they knew my own general perspectives on these issues differed from hers. That is, ultimately, okay. Don’t let this fear keep you from teaching these issues! If you have created a strong, safe, collaborative environment for your students, whether in 7th grade civics, 3rd grade social studies, or high school history, you can have effective quality discussions about current events and controversial issues even if students already know or suspect where you stand!
Diana Hess, in her 2005 article ‘How Do Teachers Political Views Influence Teaching About Controversial Issues (Social Education, 69(1), p.47-48) (NCSS Members Only Link), suggests that there are 4 ways that teachers can approach teaching current events and controversial issues. From page 48 of the article:
Denial: It isn’t a controversy at all. “Some people may say it is controversial, but I think they are wrong. There is a right answer to this question. So I will teach as if it were not controversial to ensure that students develop that answer.”
Privilege: It IS a controversy, but there is really only one right answer: “It is controversial, but I think there is a clearly right answer and will try to get my students to adopt that position.
Avoidance: There IS a controversy, but the teacher does not believe they can be fair. “The issue is controversial, but my personal views are so strong that I do not think I can teach it fairly, or I do not want to do so.”
Balance: There IS a controversy, and the teacher wants to ensure all sides get a fair hearing. “The issue is controversial and I will aim toward balance and try to ensure that various positions get a best case, fair hearing.”
Each of these approaches are ones used in social studies classrooms across the country, and they all, even the balanced approach, have problems. As Hess argues, what if you are in a community that in fact does NOT see an issue as controversial (Denial), but you approach the issue from the Balanced perspective? And keep in mind too that the Denial or Privilege approaches can come from a liberal OR conservative worldview! It does seem to me that our friends in Escambia are doing a good job trying to use a Balanced approach to teaching about these issues, and kudos to them for not shying away from controversy and finding ways to effectively engage their students in discussion AND instruction!