©1996 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.
As good social studies educators, we know the importance of engaging students in lively discussions of controversial issues. We also know that it's a lot easier said than done. Teaching about issues that are controversial requires a lot of time, preparation, and in-depth study. Resources that will motivate students to learn, and are balanced and readable, are often hard to find or too expensive. And, of course, there is always the risk of offending a student, parent, or another colleague, which can end you up in the principal's office trying to explain why it is your job to help students explore issues that push people's buttons.
Given all these dangers and difficulties, why should we do it? In this article, I will argue that, despite the real difficulties just described, social studies educators must hold tight to the belief that teaching about issues that are controversial is a cornerstone of our professional responsibility. I believe that the raison d'etre of the social studies is to teach students the kind of substantive knowledge that will promote a deeper understanding of their social world. This means instilling the capacities to make thoughtful decisions and judgments, encouraging students to sustain democratic principles and participate in democratic processes, and creating habits that will fortify continued learning. The best way to promote these goals is to provide consistent opportunities for students to tackle controversial issues.
What's Different about Today
The call to devote more attention to teaching about controversial issues is certainly not new. Esteemed social studies educators, such as Edwin Fenton, Lawrence Metcalf, Hilda Taba, Anna Ochoa, Shirley Engle, and others, all advocated teaching the processes of inquiry that generate enduring questions, positive confusion, reflective thought, and an understanding of differences in values, priorities, and definitions of morality.
Teaching about controversial issues has been widely viewed as preparing students for effective citizenship. Learning the content and thinking skills necessary for students to make public policy decisions, operate successfully in a society to build consensus, and learn to negotiate and manage differences have been the bulkheads of the field.
So what's new or different about today? What are the pedagogical and societal issues of life in the 1990s that make it even more critical that young people engage in open and thoughtful discussion of issues that are controversial?
Important pedagogical reasons for the teaching of controversial issues are that research findings have shown it to be beneficial, that it helps students to think in depth, and that it enables students to identify and analyze their own values and those of others.
What the Research Can Tell Us. An examination of social educational research on the relationship between teaching controversial issues and the goals of citizen education provides a modest, yet significant, degree of confidence in the practice (Hahn 1991). Social educational research over the past twenty-five years supports the findings that
o Positive citizenship outcomes were associated with giving students opportunities to explore controversial issues in an open, supportive classroom atmosphere. Social studies courses without controversial issues had little or no effect on students' political interest or orientation towards participation. (Hahn 1991)
o Students who experienced more social studies courses, who reported higher degrees of controversial issues exposure, and whose responses on the Classroom Climate Scale were highest exhibited lower levels of cynicism, higher levels of sense of citizen duty, increased participation, and increased levels of political efficacy. (Ehman 1969)
o More reported exposure to controversial issues was associated with positive changes in attitudes in the form of increased levels of political interest, political confidence, and social integration. Students who recalled a wider range of views having been considered in their classrooms were:
o Students' perceptions of an open classroom climate were positively correlated with global attitudes, with political efficacy, political confidence, and political interest. (Blankenship 1990)
o An increase in discussion, particularly discussion initiated by students, was related to beliefs that people can successfully affect their political system. (Zevin 1983)
Encouraging Students to Think. Teaching about issues that are controversial requires in-depth study over a substantial period of time. That cannot happen in an atmosphere where teachers and students are valued for assessment results that reflect rote regurgitation of the facts and low levels of thinking.
A major problem facing the teaching of controversial issues arises from curricular practices that give priority to breadth of coverage of facts rather than in-depth study of issues. The recent content standards developed by special interest groups will, if anything, reinforce the tendency to give priority to the broad coverage of facts and dates. The problem of attempting to cover too much was aptly described by James Leming in a 1994 review of CIVITAS, a 650-page framework for civic education. According to Leming:
CIVITAS (Center for Civic Education 1991) does not recognize coverage as a potential problem; indeed, its massive attention to detailed knowledge may contribute to the forces that work against depth. In a discussion about the social studies curriculum with a high school government class last fall, one student illustrated the nature of the coverage problem to me when he commented that "... sometimes these classes can be like trying to take a drink from an open fire hydrant." CIVITAS, if taken seriously, may result in a further opening of the knowledge hydrant. (Leming 1994)
There is no question that substantive knowledge is an essential ingredient of the learning process, for it is useless, and even impossible, to learn how to think unless there is something important to think about. A practical way of acquiring information and encouraging thinking skills at the same time is to connect the learning of facts to the study of controversial issues. Information becomes meaningful when it is part of a study given focus and direction by inquiry into a specified issue.
Teaching about Values. Subjects are controversial, in part, because they address basic questions of identity and worth-who am I (or who are we), how should we judge others, and how should we judge ourselves? These questions are highly subjective and depend, to a great extent, on one's view of the world and one's values. Values are the lenses through which events and knowledge are interpreted and transmitted. It is impossible to learn about the reality and drama of the past, present, and future without understanding the role played by values.
Teaching about issues that are controversial is a responsible and appropriate way for students to learn about values and to study value conflicts. It is also a responsible and appropriate way to teach students to prize certain values and behave in ways that reflect these values.
Teaching about values is less difficult than teaching values. The goal is not to pass judgment but to help students gain a deeper understanding of others' values, as well as their own. Through the study of issues that are controversial, students come into contact with multiple perspectives-questions of values, how they are defined, how they shape behavior, and how and why they clash. Textbooks and data bases can and do teach students to answer the questions of what, when, and who? But it is teachers who move students beyond the basic facts to a deeper and necessary understanding of the whys of the world and the so whats. These are the real questions worth educators' time and expertise.
Deciding what values to teach, and when and how to do it, is a far more difficult task. It is difficult, in part, because "good" values come into conflict with each other when they encounter real-life situations. Teaching certain values is also difficult because the process of socialization that may be appropriate (and supported by parents) at the earlier grades is often not suitable for older students. Still, I am an advocate of the belief that there are certain values that should be taught and reinforced in the classroom. I have no problem teaching students the values of peace and justice, the dignity of the individual, and the importance of worldwide democratic reforms.
Helping students learn certain values can be accomplished in two ways. One way, of course, is to engage students in a discussion of values in the context of teaching about issues and people that are controversial. There will be numerous opportunities for students to talk about their own views of the values being explored. A second way involves creating and maintaining the kind of classroom environment where certain values are promoted and protected. For example, a classroom designed to teach students to respect each other's views is one where
Social and Other Issues
There is no lack of important current issues for discussion in the social studies classroom. Among the most important are the rise of multiculturalism, the nature of the post-Cold War world, the culture of violence, and the proliferation of television and radio "talk-show" programs.
The Rise of Multiculturalism. According to a recent Washington Post article (Rich 1995), the Census Bureau reported that "... after a surge in immigration [legal and illegal] over the past 20 years the foreign-born population of the United States reached 22.6 million people in 1994, making up 8.7 percent of the total population, the highest proportion since World War II and nearly double the percentage in 1970." This development partly explains the increased tensions in American society and the political, social, and economic hostilities associated with growing pluralism and, some would argue, the fragmentation of the country.
In addition to the numbers and changing demographics of the new immigrants, minorities in America (really majorities in many communities) are much more visible today. If the recent controversy over the U.S. history standards is any indication, there is great disagreement over questions of whose stories should be included in the curriculum and whose should be left out. African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics, in particular, are demanding a greater voice in all aspects of American society. Because questions of what content is of most worth and what perspectives should be transmitted to the young drive what is taught in the classroom, it is understandable that the social studies curriculum has become a battleground. Today, more than at any other time in America's recent past, it is critically important that communities understand the role culture plays in defining one's identity. The continuing struggle for acknowledgment and inclusion is one that cannot be ignored.
At the heart of this controversial issue is the age-old debate over the myth and reality of the American Dream. The question of assimilation v. pluralism is witnessed daily in such conflicts as the movement to require "English only" or to have bilingual education programs; in controversies over college admissions and hiring policies and practices; and in debates between advocates and opponents of language that is "politically correct." Racial, religious, ethnic, gender, generational, and economic class divisions are real in American society. Classrooms are all too often places where these difficult and delicate divisions result in verbal as well as violent confrontations.
Teaching about issues that are controversial provides today's students with opportunities to understand the factors that influence how perspectives are developed and how knowledge is constructed. James A. Banks, a leader in the field of multicultural education, points out:
The knowledge construction process encompasses the procedures by which social, behavioral, and natural scientists create knowledge in their disciplines. A multi-cultural focus on knowledge construction includes discussion of the ways in which the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives, and biases within a discipline influence the construction of knowledge. ... Teachers help students to understand how knowledge is created and how it is influenced by factors of race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. (Banks 1993)
The Nature of the Post-Cold War World. Today's world is experiencing a series of dramatic and rapid changes unparalleled in human history. While scholars and policymakers may disagree about the nature and future development of the post-Cold War world, most agree we are living in a time of increasingly complex and rapid changes in global, national, and local political, economic, and social conditions. More people in formal and informal institutions are interconnected in more and new ways. This growing interdependence is reflected in increased international trade and economic dependencies, the porousness of political borders-as witnessed by the spread of AIDS and the effects of environmental disasters and growing numbers of refugees and displaced persons-and mass communications through advanced technologies. There is simply no way to escape the reality that individuals, groups, nations, states, and international organizations are affected, albeit unequally, by increasingly complex and rapid changes occurring at all levels of society.
Most, if not all, of these changes involve varying degrees and types of conflict. Clashes over territory; natural and human resources; the status and autonomy of ethnic, religious, and national identities; struggles over political power and issues of governance; and the control and distribution of economic resources touch people everywhere. There is a growing sense of increasing economic competition. Sometimes an intrastate conflict, as witnessed in the Balkans, can rage violently for years. The question for social studies educators is how we can best help students become conscious of these changes and relate to them in ways that both prepare them for their future and diminish their feelings of confusion and hopelessness.
As is the case with teaching about different cultures, it is important for teachers to emphasize that perspectives and culture are socially constructed. In unraveling a controversial issue, the search for answers often leads to more questions. There are questions related to historical events or who did what to whom and when. Claims to a homeland in the Middle East, for example, look very different depending on whether one is a Palestinian or an Israeli. In this case, a great deal of time has been spent debating the truth of God's will. Where does one look for the answer? The Old Testament, the Koran, and/or thousands of years of history? The stories of all the parties (winners, losers, victims, heroes, and heroines) only begin to make up the fabric of the larger picture.
Teaching about controversial issues also involves teaching about values. What is cherished in a society drives human behavior, and because questions of what and whose values are at the heart of conflicts, they play an instrumental role in understanding causes and possible resolutions. Therefore, teaching about controversial issues involves making judgments, for citizens ultimately become advocates. The goal is to inform the decisions that eventually must be made, whether the issue is the future of affirmative action or how the U.S. should act to assist the peace process in the Middle East. These realities, and the accompanying demands on the citizenry, require that social studies educators make special and continual efforts to help students understand the roots of conflicts and learn about ways to manage them constructively.
Teaching topics that are controversial is both about the content of the issues as well as the processes of engaging in critical thinking. For example, take the following issue: "Has the world become a more dangerous place since the end of the Cold War?" Just think about all the things you need to learn to arrive at even a tentative answer! How should the idea of "dangerous" be defined? What history from the Cold War period needs to be explored to judge the danger and violence experienced by the people in North and South Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, or Nicaragua? How should that history of "danger" be compared to current conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Guatemala? And how do we compare and contrast the differing perspectives, analyze and evaluate the data found, and make judgments about current and future public policies that would be consistent with our findings and the answer we chose? To address these questions, it is essential to engage in careful and reflective thought about the information gathered and perspectives explored.
Working at the United States Institute of Peace has provided me with important insights about how to approach issues related to the increasing complexity and rapid change occurring in all regions of the world. History and social science textbooks often describe, but do not explain, the causes of conflicts and the wars that result. What are not included are the many times in history and today when conflict has been managed successfully and violence has been ended and even been prevented. Today, there are thousands of individuals and hundred of groups, representing governments, non-governmental and international organizations, and transnational civic groups, that are working successfully to prevent and manage conflict. Yet continuous and successful peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace-building efforts are rarely the subjects of study in the social studies classroom.
Take, for example, the move toward a multiparty democracy in South Africa, the slow but steady process to bring the violence in Northern Ireland to an end, and even the rocky progress being made in the Middle East. Positive changes are happening, and the realities of the Post-Cold War era are not all bad. By examining these controversial issues in the classroom, it is possible to provide students with concrete examples of positive efforts to prevent and stop violence. By studying models of successful efforts to manage conflict without violence, social studies classrooms can provide students with evidence that there are other ways to resolve conflict in their own lives. Conflict is not the same thing as violence, for people all over the world are learning to manage their differences. And while these successes do not often make the nightly news, they do offer tremendous opportunities to focus on peaceful solutions.
The Culture of Violence. It is estimated that there are close to 120 violent international and intrastate conflicts around the world (Gurr 1993). In addition, while some types of violent crime in the United States seem to be stabilizing or even decreasing in certain areas, there is no question that the increasing violence in our own society is having a devastating impact on children, schools, families, and communities. Guns have replaced spit-balls in some classrooms: add to this the lure of money from the sale of drugs and the pernicious sense of hopelessness in the future, and there is a real danger of increased loss of life. Violence, graphically depicted on increasingly popular television shows and in movies, serves to glorify and reinforce the use of force to manage conflict. As the culture of violence continues, the danger exists that more individuals and communities will arm themselves (and build bigger fences), and that will require Herculean efforts to teach and promote the use of non-violent approaches to managing differences.
I hesitate to advocate the teaching of controversial issues as a means to prevent violence in the school or community. Schools alone cannot possibly solve conflicts that are rooted in families, communities, and institutions. However, to begin to break the cycle of violence that often appears to permeate every aspect of our lives, it is essential to make efforts to reduce and prevent violence in the school and community. Social studies classrooms can contribute greatly to the exploration of ways people can handle their anger, frustrations, and disappointments without the use of violence. The question is not one of teaching students to avoid conflict, for conflict and controversy are simply a part of human relationships. We all live in a world where beliefs, ideas, needs, and wants differ among people and societies. While conflict is not a "bad" thing, it is wrong to resort to abuse, violence, and intimidation.
Studying controversial issues in the social studies classroom can provide a platform for the use of teaching strategies that increase students' knowledge about the real world of conflict and ways people have avoided and can avoid violent confrontations to find common ground. Learning how to constructively deal with controversial issues in the social studies classroom can be a bridge helping students deal with the conflict that touches their own lives.
Don't Confuse Me with the Facts. In the last decade there has been an explosion in the number and political bent of television and radio talk/call-in shows. Many of these shows are nothing more than "food fights" providing ample opportunity for diatribes and few chances for the in-depth investigation of reliable evidence or presentation of contrary points of view. Shows with a particularly strident ideological, political, economic, or social agenda are more entertainment than education, and I fear we are losing our ability to know the difference. Controversial issues, as presented in the media, are usually dealt with at a purely emotional level, often with little attention paid to an examination of evidence. With the exception of the kind of media program discussed in the next section, I am far from confident that the "airwaves" contribute substantially to the public's abilities to engage in an informed dialogue.
It is understandable that everyone yearns for simple answers and solutions to the many conflicts that face this country and the larger world. Yet the truth is that there are no simple answers, because the political, economic, and social questions that underlie conflicts are extremely complex. In a society that values free speech, it becomes even more important that individuals have the dispositions and capacities to judge fact from fiction.
Teaching about controversial issues in the social studies classroom provides a forum for looking into difficult and complex questions that have endured through time and across cultures. It also provides a safe place for students to try out their ideas and practice participation in constructive and intellectually sound conversation. As advanced information technologies proliferate, it becomes increasingly critical that students learn how to evaluate and judge the quality of information.
The Talent of Promoting Informed Discussion
There are exceptions to the poor general quality of radio talk shows. In preparing this article, as I was pondering the problems of organizing effective classroom discussions, I realized I was half listening to a long-standing staple of the Washington, D.C., community, The Diane Rehm Show, which is an excellent model for teaching issues that are controversial. Broadcast two hours daily over National Public Radio member station WAMU-FM, this radio talk show reaches a weekly audience of about 130,000 in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area (the show has just gone national). The programs include in-depth interviews and call-ins on top news stories ranging from foreign policy to science and the arts, roundtable discussions, newsmaker interviews, and in-depth conversations with authors of newly released books.
I suspect that the things that fascinate Ms. Rehm are the same things social studies teachers find most stimulating and worthwhile in their own teaching. For example, in preparing a show on the question of sending U.S. military forces to Bosnia, Ms. Rehm begins by generating a number of critical issues for discussion. These might include such questions as, Is this action in the national security interests of the United States? What, if any, are the moral obligations of the United States to participate in this peacekeeping mission? What are the military objectives of the mission, and how will success or failure be determined? What are the financial and political costs of the mission? What are the potential costs of not participating in the mission?
Next comes the process of focusing the investigation and identifying a wide range of views to be "exposed" to the public for consideration and debate. As is the case with other issues that are controversial, there are no easily identifiable positions that can result in simple "yes or no" answers. Like colors of a spectrum that blend together between the various bands, finding the shades of the various complex arguments is both extremely difficult and intellectually rewarding. Although it is unrealistic to believe that all perspectives can be given equal in-depth treatment in the classroom or on The Diane Rehm Show, it is this aspect of the process that holds the most promise for real learning.
Once the most compelling questions have been identified, Ms. Rehm invites as guests men and women who have substantial experience with these critical issues. Each one takes a turn responding to her carefully formed questions while, playing the devil's advocate, Ms. Rehm teases-out the deeper layers represented in the views. Opportunities are provided for the guests to engage in discourse with one another while she facilitates a lively but civil conversation.
During the last twenty minutes, The Diane Rehm Show moves to the call-in portion, where John and Jane-Q-Public ask questions and present their own views. Ms. Rehm challenges all to think harder and make decisions and judgments necessary for policy selection and implementation. While substantive knowledge is essential to the learning process, its main function is to provide fuel for decision making and civic action. The Diane Rehm Show, just like effective social studies instruction, is about learning to form well-reasoned opinions about important public issues.
Teaching about controversial issues is not easy. I can remember my own social studies classes and my futile efforts to get students involved in what I considered to be the big issues of the day. I know the feeling of being all exercised about some current development in the world until looking over and seeing one (or several!) of my students struggling to stay awake, as if to say "please don't ask me to think today."
I continue to believe that teaching about issues that are controversial is the best way to achieve social studies educational goals and priorities. Given the societal and pedagogical imperatives of the mid-1990s, the costs to all of us are enormous if social studies education continues to be perceived (rightly or wrongly) as irrelevant, insignificant, mediocre, and boring. Renewed and persistent support by the social studies education profession for curriculum and instruction that promotes the teaching of issues that are controversial is long overdue. It is time to put all other disagreements aside and advance this priority.
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Mary Soley is senior program officer in the Education and Training Division at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.