BCTF/CIDA Global Classroom Initiative 2005

Teaching Controversial Issues:

A four-step classroom strategy for clear thinking on controversial issues

by Pat Clarke

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For the past decade, one of the most popular workshops offered by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation has been "Teaching controversial issues—Without becoming part of the controversy." The popularity of the workshop reflects a growing awareness of the need to teach social issues. Yet the motivation for teaching about environmental sustainability, limits to growth, animal rights or euthanasia is tempered by an understandable wariness of controversy. So while our workshop on teaching controversial issues is well subscribed, we know that the pedagogical danger zone social issues present is one many teachers avoid.

The reasons teachers may avoid controversial issues as classroom topics are as complex as teaching itself. The issues are complicated. Teachers may be discouraged, not so much by complexity, but by lack of familiarity with the topic: they are uncomfortable if they do not feel "expert" or at least well versed. Furthermore, teachers may be concerned that complicated issues would take too long to cover and regular curriculum would be neglected. With increasing standardization and calls for "accountability," teachers are not inclined to venture down the side roads of learning, where social issues can so often lead. We also live in a time of general decline in the protocols of civil discourse. Television talk shows bristle with outrageous behaviour, which teachers are understandably reluctant to see reproduced in their classrooms. Also, we sense that we are living in particularly cantankerous times when our actions as teachers are under close and often uninformed scrutiny. If we teach about an issue, we can easily find ourselves accused of bias or ulterior political motives. In other words, in teaching about a controversy, we become the controversy. Teachers in the Pacific Northwest experience this when they address sustainability issues and find themselves accused of being antilogging.

But the fact remains that contemporary teaching presents certain challenges, not the least of which is relevance. The value of a formal education is increasingly measured according to the degree that it is future oriented.

Further, there is a growing belief that a good contemporary education is a global education, an education that concentrates on helping students understand connections and interdependence, develop an awareness of the planetary condition, and be well prepared to act as effective, responsible citizens in a complex world. In that context, the relationship between education and public issues is apparent: Global education in practice turns to contemporary issues for its content. We could well ask, What are our chances of becoming global educators if we remain averse to taking on controversial public issues as part of our teaching practice?

What is needed is an approach to teaching issues that overcomes the obstacles—specifically, a concern for the influence of a teacher’s own biases, a fear of becoming a lightning rod for controversy oneself simply because a controversial issue is discussed in a class, and a lack of confidence because of unfamiliarity with an issue.

The approach to teaching an issue put forward here tries to answer at least part of those concerns. It does not deal directly with the role of issues in prescribed curricula. The possibilities for teaching issues as permitted or encouraged by curricula vary from province to province. However, it would not be extreme to suggest that any teacher who wants to can find a way to integrate consideration of issues into regular course work.

I sometimes refer to this approach to teaching issues as a de-mystification strategy, offering students a way of making sense of a complex and confusing world. It is a method of analyzing an issue, considering the merits of an argument, and forming an opinion on the basis of critical analysis.

As an essentially inductive process, it is student centred, and the teacher’s role is primarily that of monitor or resource person. The teacher’s bias is therefore less of a concern. Public concern over teaching a controversial issue is addressed because the strategy is itself a demonstration of fair consideration. As an inquiry method, it provides a framework for classroom activity that discourages one-sided argument or ill-informed opinion.

The de-mystification strategy: A framework for teaching

Controversial public issues

The teaching strategy for controversial public issues is based on four steps or elements. Each provides students a set of questions that gives them a number of ways of looking at an issue as well as a sound basis for making a judgment.

To demonstrate how the strategy and related questions might work as applied to a controversial issue, we offer a lesson on this site by Steve Naylor entitled "Honour killings: What do we need to understand in looking for solutions?"

1. What is the issue about?

Identify the key question over which there is a controversy. Virtually every controversy turns around three types of questions: those relating to values—What should be? What is best?; those relating to information—What is the truth? What is the case?; and those relating to concepts—What does this mean? How should this be defined? In short, What is this controversy about: values, information, or concepts?

By responding to these questions, students begin analyzing an issue by identifying the nature of the controversy. In doing this, students can fairly quickly get to the heart of the issue. This element of the strategy helps students get past some frustration that can be experienced in trying to understand an issue. It also gives them a chance to analyze an issue dispassionately before any consideration of the merits of a case.

Applied to the honour killing question, the inquiry starts by determining if it is a values issue. Is it a controversy over what should be, or in recognition of differences in cultural values, can honour killings be excused? Is it an information issue? Is it an issue around which there is controversy because it is difficult to know what or whom to believe? Or is it be a question of what we mean by the concept of "honour killing?" Concept is very much a matter of cultural interpretation. What is considered murder in one culture may not be in another. If students gravitate toward that interpretation, how do they deal with the universal value that killing another person is wrong?

For this issue, students might conclude it is mostly a values issue with information and concepts related but not central to the main question, Is it right? In any event, such a discussion reveals that even a question as blunt as Honour killing, right or wrong? has shades of complexity.

2. What are the arguments?

Once students have determined what the issue is about or the nature of the controversy, they consider the arguments supporting the various positions on the issue. The key concern here is determining just what is being said and whether there is adequate support for the claims being made. This step is largely analytical in that it calls for some determination of the content of an argument. It is also judgmental to a degree. At this step, students can begin judging the validity of a position on a controversial issue. If students have determined that the controversy surrounding an issue involves information, then they should ask questions about the information available or provided. Is there adequate information? Are the claims in the information accurate? Is the information appropriate to the issue? Are the sources primary or secondary? In general, are the conclusions presented in the argument reasonable, given the information?

Most controversial issues are about values, and there are critical questions students can ask about the values stated or employed in an argument. Specifically, what criteria are being used to make a judgment? In general there are two: moral and prudential. Moral criteria for judgment are based on a concern for how all people will be affected. Prudential criteria are concerned mainly with how my group or I will be affected.

Other questions students can use to test the acceptability of values claims are well known and universal in application: Would you like that done to you? What if everybody did that? Are there any situations where you would feel different or disagree with this value? These questions give students a set of criteria for making judgments that can take them beyond relativism and, because of their universal application, help them reflect on the validity of dogmatic positions.

If the controversy involves definitions, meanings, or concepts, then students should try to determine if the arguments presented use meanings or definitions that are clear. Also they should test to see if meanings are used consistently or if they are appropriate and used in a proper context.

If students have decided that the honour-killing question is about values, then they will have to respond to a moral question and then decide if it has a universal application. So they may decide that honour killing has to be accepted because of cultural considerations and that in certain cultures such a practice has a prudential value because it assures the broader well being of a family? The obvious question then is, Is this a good enough reason? and we turn to the moral question, What if everyone did it?

If they decide on the moral imperative I wouldn’t want this for me or this is a practice that would have terrible consequences if everyone did it, then they also have to think about the consequences of applying this value in a culture which does not hold to it.

3. What is assumed?

Once students have considered the arguments in an issue, the critical question becomes what are the assumptions or what is taken as self-evident in the presentation of arguments. It is at this stage that crucial matters of principle are employed to determine the validity of a position.

This framework or process has at its heart a fundamentally important aspect and that is that there is no values relativity.

It is not true that any opinion, position, or point of view is acceptable or legitimate. If assumptions taken to justify an argument are based in prejudice, if the attitudes behind arguments are ethnocentric, racist, or parochial, then the assumptions are grounds for criticism and reduce the legitimacy of an argument. The question for students to pose is what are the assumptions behind the argument? Is it based on a prejudice or on some other attitude contrary to universally held human values such as those set out in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.?

A second element students can use to evaluate assumptions or what is behind an argument is the voice of the argument. Who is saying this? Insiders or outsiders? Insiders may have particular information and interests that could give an argument a certain shape or orientation. If the voice is that of an outsider, do they know the issue or is being an outsider an advantage in this case since they have no special interest? Often the assumptions behind an argument can best be tested by hearing views of both insiders and outsiders.

The honour-killing question has obvious application to the UN Declaration. It can be analyzed from the Who is advocating this? perspective. Are the people who make a case for honour killing mostly self-serving and conducting the killings for their own benefit or to accommodate their own distorted notions of truth? Or are there such deeply imbedded cultural reasons for the practice that prohibiting it in those cultures would have consequences such as the destruction of traditional cultures, which, in turn, could lead to more death and destruction?

Once the arguments have been analyzed and the assumptions scrutinized, the final step has to do with how the issue or the arguments pertaining to it are presented or manipulated. The final question in the process then tries to help students judge the quality of the information they are receiving.

4. How are the arguments manipulated?

This is the stage of the process when questions are asked on the politics of the issue. This step is particularly important for students because it can help them understand how information can be used to influence opinion.

To determine how an argument is being manipulated students must first determine who is involved and what their particular interests are in the issue. What is the rationalization for their position? What are their reasons for taking the position they advance?

By considering these questions, students begin to see how information can be selected, emphasized, or ignored according to its value to various positions on an issue. The degree to which the parties involved are acting in self-interest and use information only to support that interest could affect the legitimacy of a position. On the other hand, a strongly supported position or one with strong moral reasons could add credibility to an argument. A growing contemporary concern is the role of media in controversial issues and how media can engage in argument manipulation. It is very important for students to have an appreciation of how media are involved in issues. Media literacy has become an essential survival skill as the influence of the media increases. The question for students to address is, How can the media both reflect and create reality? To what extent on any given controversial issue is the media either creating the issue or manipulating the arguments?

Argument manipulation is usually accomplished through such strategies as scapegoating, false analogies, extreme examples, and others. The degree to which media or advocates of a position rely on such strategies is an indication to students of the validity of an argument. Detecting such tactics gives students a useful tool for assessing an argument and making a judgment on an issue.

As far as the honour-killing question is concerned, there is lots of argument manipulation to go around and in the end it may not lead to a conclusion, only an awareness that manipulation happens. That in itself is a worthy learning outcome. Nevertheless, for this issue, it is evident that some time spent looking at examples of statements on either side should allow an informed opinion on where the manipulation is found and if one side is more prone to it than the other.


At the end of such an inquiry or de-mystification process, students may be less certain of their position than when they began. That is entirely an outcome of having more information and going through a process that requires critical reflection and open mindedness. Most importantly, they will have arrived at their conclusions through their own deliberation, and we teachers will have provided the lamp of learning not the pointer and the answer book.

Acknowledgment: This article and the BCGEP workshop Teaching Controversial Issues is based on The Media and Public Issues: A guide for teaching critical mindedness, by Walter Werner and Kenneth Nixon, 1990, ISBN 0-920354-27-0, Althouse Press, 1137 Western Road, London, ON, N6G 1G7.



Common strategies for manipulating arguments