Learning and Teaching of Controversial Issues
3. Specific approaches to handle controversial issues (a) Emphasise facts and reasons
Teaching controversial issues should be based on rationality, deduction and facts.
Controversial issues may have complex backgrounds. They may also involve many
Under the influence of family, friends and the mass media, students may have some preconceived ideas on an issue. These ideas may arouse strong emotions even before they have detailed information about and a clear picture of the whole event.
Teachers need to guide students to distinguish between facts, opinions and emotions, and encourage them to collect related information so that they can analyse the issues with a discriminating attitude and see the whole picture.
Teachers should enhance students’ ability to emphasise facts and consider evidence so as to understand that facts outweighs presumptions. When the arguments and rationales of the other party are well founded, logical and convincing while one’s own are not, it is reasonable to revise one’s stance and not at all necessary to insist on one’s own opinions.
Teachers can arrange group discussions about less controversial events as “lead in” to provide opportunity for students to practise discussing in a respectful, justified and reasonable manner before introducing discussion about more controversial issues. Such an approach would highlight the effectiveness of an incremental teaching process.
During the group discussions of controversial issues, teachers need to raise appropriate questions and lead the discussions in order to avoid emotional abuse by students. Students are advised not to declare their stances or draw conclusions too soon, but are encouraged to collect as much information as possible, base their arguments on facts upon full consideration and make due analysis of the issues from proper and practical perspectives.
Discussion of controversial issues often involves intense and subjective emotions, which tend to arouse sentiments of the participants. Different stances on an issue may also lead to conflicts among students. Appropriate precautions (e.g. negotiating an agreement, strengthening students’ emotional management skills) and remedial measures (e.g. timely resolution of the conflict, mediation after class) are therefore needed.
(b) Select and apply information with caution
When selecting information, one should know:
- where the information comes from;
- whether the information is first-hand or second-hand;
- whether the writer or narrator of the event has any designated role to play or any vested interest in the incident;
- whether the writer or the narrator has limitations or blind spots in his/her understanding of the event (e.g. limited by personal experience, views and interests);
- whether the information is reliable on the whole;
- whether the source of the cited information is reliable;
- whether the cited information is correct or involves any amendments; and
- whether there are any transmission errors and whether the truth has been distorted.
Even when the information appears to be objective on the surface, some of the facts may have been obscured, fabricated or distorted if the facts are interpreted selectively (e.g. the choice of photos in news reporting). The above problem may also arise in the selection of materials. Teachers should be alert and cautious in their selection of information to avoid
often attract strong stances, which may be contradictory to one another. Teachers can let students compare and contrast the information of different sources, stances and rationales so as to guide them to analyse the values and attitudes implicit in the information.
Teachers can guide their students to analyse the media coverage of controversial issues by considering the following questions: What kind of facts is newsworthy to the media? Is the news partial to any viewpoint? Will the manner in which the issue is defined in the news and the extent of the coverage impact public discussion? What are the facts/opinions in the news report? Are the opinions founded on reasons? What is the source of the information reported in the news? What messages are conveyed in the news photos? Has the discussion about the issue become polarised? Will the issue appear to be different if it is seen from a different perspective?
(c) Be neutral, impartial and respectful of diversity
Teachers have to be neutral when they guide students to discuss controversial issues in order not to let subjective views influence the teaching. To balance different views, teachers should stay impartial and make comments from multiple perspectives. Apart from teachers’ views and supporting reasons, a successful discussion should include the presentation of opposing views. This enables students to take into consideration different arguments in order to make caring and reasonable judgements.
In order to encourage students to express different opinions freely, an open discussion is necessary. Teachers should not present themselves as an expert or the ultimate authority.
To maintain fairness and equality, students should have liberty to express different views and they should be treated fairly during their presentation. Teachers should not take sides in the discussion. When most students share the same view on a topic while different views are held by the minority, teachers should make sure that the students in the minority are given the right to speak and protected from peer pressure. In this way, students with different views can express freely, and the majority can also learn to respect the minority and differences in opinions.
While teachers should remain neutral when guiding students in discussion, they can express their stances and views on the issues to encourage students to express their views openly. Teachers can also remind students that all are entitled to their own opinions. They should make their own judgements based on reasoning rather than blindly follow any authority.
Teachers should avoid offering definite answers since students have the right and obligation to clarify their own set of values and make individual moral judgements.
Controversial issues often involve relatively complex backgrounds that invite contradictory and confusing interpretations. It is not easy to reach a definite conclusion.
Teachers should remind students to note the complexity of the issues, which may not possibly be explained by a definite and simple answer.
(d) Balance between detachment and involvement
To facilitate rational discussion, teachers should prevent students from making strong emotional response. Teachers can help students detach themselves from strong emotions
understand and objectively explore the background and development of the controversial issues.
Before discussing controversial issues, teachers can divide the class into different community groups in a virtual setting. Teachers can then present incidents similar to the controversial issues to students through experiential learning to facilitate learning. For example, through taking part in a “simulated financial meeting”, students can explore the issue of distribution of resources by considering the reality and social trends. Both the welfare of certain communities and the problem of limited resources should be taken into consideration to ensure that the needs of different stakeholders in society can be addressed, and that resources can be fairly and reasonably distributed and used, thus benefitting both the society and the economy while ensuring a vigorous sustainable development.
Teachers can encourage students’ active involvement by selecting related real-life cases and inviting students to play different roles and share their reflections. For example, teachers can guide students to understand, from the perspective of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), how NGOs help farmers in poor mountainous areas by promoting self-help. Students can play the roles of the helpers and those being helped to explore the implicit values and attitudes such as respect for others, equality, care for others and perseverance, and consider how the needs of the helpers and those being helped can be well balanced. Students can make caring and reasonable judgements and take actions accordingly. Such teaching activities can stimulate students’ reflection and prevent students’ thinking from being biased by preconceptions.
Primary students may find it difficult to understand abstract concepts. Teachers can help these students understand some aspects of the issues through contextual learning to enable them to make judgements in related contexts. For example, they can use “the silence loop” activity (students inside the loop are not allowed to say a word) to establish different contexts in which students can play such roles as “speakers”, “controllers” and
“judges”. Teachers can set up different contexts for students to participate in the activity.
First, teachers can request one speaker to make groundless accusations or prevent others from speaking. Then, this “speaker” will be asked by the “controller” to stay in the
“silence loop” so that he/she cannot speak and the “judges” will be invited to express their views. In addition, teachers can invite another ‘speaker’ to express, in a respectful manner, his/her views based on facts. In this case, the “speaker” will not be asked by the
“controller” to stay in the “silence loop”. The “speaker” can freely express his/her views and the “judges” will also be invited to express their views.
Through role plays and discussions in different contexts, students will therefore learn to appreciate the importance of freedom of speech and realise that freedom of speech is based on a responsible, reasonable and respectful attitude. Students can also learn to strike a balance between rights and obligations, and consider the rights and feelings of others, thus leading to caring and reasonable judgements, and actions in different life events and issues. Through experiential learning, they will also have a better understanding of the concepts involved in the controversial events.
Over detachment will hamper the exploration of values in the discussion of controversial issues. Students can be assigned to role play the parties concerned in controversial events.
Students will find it easier to empathise with the parties concerned through experiential learning and first-hand narration of the events. The parties involved in certain controversial issues can be invited to share with the students the actual experience and their feelings about the events.
The learning and teaching of the controversial issues can be complemented with related learning experiences/activities when necessary to diversify students’ learning experiences and encourage them to directly reflect upon the events. If the controversial issues concern historic events, teachers can conduct site visits of historic remains, monuments or memorial halls.
(e) How to help students develop positive values and attitudes through the discussion of controversial issues
When teachers are guiding students to discuss controversial issues, they should encourage students to search for information covering different views and stances to discover and identify the implicit values and attitudes. In the interactive process of learning and teaching, teachers should value students’ thinking and judgement processes, and provide them with conceptual frameworks, discussion skills, analytical perspectives, decision-making models, etc.
Teachers should emphasise the importance of independent thinking and remind students not to simply take popularly held views on board. Students should be encouraged to think and judge from multiple perspectives and understand the values embedded, instead of repeating what others have said.
The primary objectives of the discussion should be the promotion of the capacity to think and distinguish right from wrong, rather than winning a debate or even instilling teachers’
views and values into students. Teachers should act as a facilitator of learning during discussions by questioning and providing simulated activities to help students analyse an issue from multiple perspectives, and make decisions by effectively incorporating positive values into the topic discussed.
During discussions, if the class is indifferent to an issue or if they reach a consensus on weak grounds or without careful deliberation, teachers may play the devil’s advocate to challenge students’ unconvincing opinions or point out the contradictions in their opinions.
This can stimulate students’ thinking and enhance their learning motivation.
Students should understand that people’s opinions on controversial issues are often affected by their values and world views. They need to review the reasons and the related values underlying the different views with critical thinking. At the same time, they need to reconsider their views to avoid being biased by preconceptions.
For example, when discussing the issue “Shall we report to the teacher if we find our good friend cheating in an examination?”, students should by no means be content with considerations like “His parents will punish him severely if they find out.”
(individual-oriented), or “He is my good friend, so I am not going to be disloyal or turn him in.” (relationship-oriented); they should instead base their judgements on some universal values such as justice and honesty, and uphold the belief that “If everybody cheats, the examination will become meaningless.”, or “Being his good friend, I can’t
harm than good.”
During discussions of controversial issues, value conflicts are often involved and not easy to handle. Teachers can select different approaches appropriate to the learning stage of the students and consider their cognitive development and critical thinking skills. For instance, in primary classes, teachers can focus on discussing the rights and wrongs of cheating in tests and examinations. For more mature students, teachers can enrich the discussions by introducing more abstract moral concepts such as integrity, fairness, loyalty and common interest. Teachers should also allow students to have diversified thinking and introduce discussions about values conflicts.