Many teachers worry about bringing controversy into the classroom because it could spark conflict between students or result in reproaches from administrators or parents, but addressing and thinking through divisive issues is necessary for children who are learning to live, participate, and empathize with diverse perspectives in a democracy.
University of San Francisco professor Judy Pace, an alum of Harvard Graduate School of Education, has studied the predicaments and possibilities of tackling charged topics in class. In her recent book, Hard Questions: Learning to Teach Controversial Issues, she explores how preservice programs prepare teachers to include controversial issues in their teaching.
What Is a Controversial Issue?
Importantly, Pace notes that controversial issues are not the same as controversial topics, which are polarizing subjects that some stakeholders argue should not be taught. Instead, controversial issues “have to do with open questions that are significant in terms of society or the past on which it is important to explore different perspectives that have legitimate sources of information,” says Pace. “We’re not talking about something like, ‘Do humans contribute to climate change?’ because that’s a settled question.” For example, open questions that introduce controversial issues and promote critical thinking could range from, “Should we lower the voting age?” to “What kinds of reparations should be paid to the descendants of enslaved people?”
Preparing Teachers for Controversy in Classrooms
Of course, generating these kinds of questions and leading students through open and fair discussions requires skilled teachers. To better understand how educators learn to teach controversial issues, Pace conducted a series of interviews with and observations of four teacher educators — instructors who teach people how to be teachers — and 15 preservice teachers in three different countries including the United States, Northern Ireland, and England.
While the preservice teachers often worried about the risks associated with teaching controversial issues, Pace noted that the teacher educators acknowledged these anxieties and taught specific strategies to help address these concerns, rather than ignoring them. “In these methods courses, [teacher educators] encouraged [preservice] teachers to explore controversial issues using a variety of pedagogical approaches” that contained the risks, says Pace. Preservice teachers, she found, were often able to adapt the strategies they learned to fit their teaching contexts and their own identities as teachers. “I think [contained risk-taking] provides a way forward in this incredibly contentious political climate we’re trying to navigate.”