- Join over 1.2 million students every month
- Accelerate your learning by 29%
- Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month
Free essay example:
John Bolton, BA(chs) year 3
What controversial issues might arise in the classroom,
and how might they be dealt with?
This issue can be split into two discussions, and before either can be entered into, a brief examination of citizenship education would be helpful. Citizenship is a wide-reaching subject, embracing existing curricular topics as well as introducing new concepts. In autumn of 1998, Professor Bernard Crick produced the report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship, which can be regarded as something of a bible for educationalists studying this subject. For a definition of citizenship as a concept, there can be no higher authority to turn to than the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett;
It is essential that we do more to help young people develop a
full understanding of their roles and responsibilities as citizens
in a modern democracy, and to equip them better to deal with the
difficult moral and social questions that arise in their lives and in society. (http://www.citizen.org.uk/education2.htm)
It is to these moral and social questions that we now turn our attention, since these are surely the controversial issues one might encounter in the classroom. But what are controversial issues? And how does one contextualise them – to whom are they controversial, and what do they pertain to? These questions will all be answered, as best they can be, presently.
A logistical flaw of citizenship education is that where this kind of education is concerned, the curriculum tends to marginalise its status because it is non-examinable (Ahier and Ross (ed), 1995, p.170). When one considers that at secondary level many children might be doing as many as ten GCSEs, one has to wonder how important this exalted personal and social education lesson will be deemed. The result, according to Ahier and Ross, is that it is allowed limited time and resources. But let us imagine a fully comprehensive, all-embracing timetabled citizenship course. To all intents and purposes, and for the sake of argument, this provision is encompassing all of the desired aims outlined in the Crick Report;
…children learning…self-confidence and socially and
morally responsible behaviour…becoming helpfully
involved in the life and concerns of their communities…
and how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and values (Crick, 1998, 2.11, pp.11-13)
Let us consider some of the controversial issues the teacher might encounter in the teaching of this very controversial subject. The question of what constitutes a controversial issue is deceptively easy to answer. The Crick Report provides one definition,
…an issue about which there is no one fixed or universally
held point of view. (1999, 10.2, p.56)
The condition of any controversial issue is that by its very definition it will be contentious. Some individuals will not care about it one way or the other, while others will have decidedly strong views on the subject. A subject such as religion is one such educational hot potato. Jennie Lindon (1999, p.100) states that a 1991 circular from the Department for Education stated that religious education (RE) should not just be limited to information about different religions, but should “extend into wider areas of morality, including the different between right and wrong”. The teaching of religious education is a contentious issue. Jennie Lindon (1999, p.98) reminds us that the Education Act of 1988 made it a compulsory subject except for the parental right of withdrawal. Thus presented with these facts, we should have schools educating their children about morals, and the beliefs and ideas of different religions. But Audrey Osler (1995, p.4) makes the disconcerting statement that “European education systems have tended to remain monocultural”. She says that those schools who do provide a polycultural curriculum are those schools in regions affected significantly by immigration. It is worrying that more schools nation-wide are not providing education covering different religions and cultures.
The first exemplar controversial issue we shall consider is how a multicultural school might cover in its lessons a religious story. By multicultural, we will assume the school has children of different religious faiths, and the story we will consider will be that of Joseph and his eleven brothers. For a Church of England school no real discord will arise with teaching this Bible story. There is currently a theatre company touring the country with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s musical ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. It draws thousands of people to each venue, and I can personally testify that a great element of the audiences is children. Adam Bowler, in the programme for the new production of Joseph, explains how the musical is based on the story depicted in chapters 37 to 50 of Genesis (section 12 of the Koran). The Bible and the Koran differ in their telling of the tale, sometimes in quite fundamental and important ways. It isn’t reasonable to expect a teacher to cover this story as it is represented in these two texts. But nor is it reasonable to expect Muslim children to be deprived of learning about the story in the context of their religion. Equally, why shouldn’t Christian children learn about the story in its context outside their religion? And will the ethos of given school influence the curriculum it teaches?
The school is a busy place. With the well-established National Curriculum operating, as well as the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies in place, where will room be made for citizenship lessons, and at what sacrifice?
Religion is just the beginning of the problems citizenship would encounter. Let us consider the implications of drug education. This is in a very real sense an issue of tremendous importance and significance in schools today. Julian Cohen (1996) quotes Peter Walker of the Home Office Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs,
Every secondary school has a drug or solvent abuse problem
and so do many primary schools. There is no way that schools
can ignore the issue. We need to tell the young the facts so they
can make their own choices. (1996, p.47)
Peter Walker suggests that the aim of drug education should be to get children making their own choices. Certainly very diplomatic. Julian Cohen is the author of a non-fiction book, on the subject of drugs, aimed at pre-teens and adolescents. He reveals an intriguing fact about drugs education, that if a trusting environment is created, some students will talk about their own drug use, or that of friends or peers (1996, p.47). This, of course, should not be an aim of drugs education, but cannot be regarded as anything less than a wonderful result of it. But Hirst (1974) says,
If teachers meet pupils only in classes where some
particular area of academic education is the focus of
concern, their understanding of pupils will necessarily
be quite inadequate for a relationship in which the complex
moral interests of pupils are seriously handled. (1974, p.108)
Hirst is implying that time is short, and time together too infrequent, for trusting teacher-pupil relationships to form, and for the level of trust Cohen talks about to be formed.
Cohen says that drugs education should include strong focus on developing skills such as decision making, risk assessment, communicating with others and encouraging others to get help (1996, p.34). He concludes that the education should be more about drugs than against them. His arguments bear up on closer examination. There is the widely held contention that telling children not to do something only drives them closer towards doing just that. Perhaps informing children about drugs and their dangers will be more beneficial than just condemning them.
The issue for the teacher is this; if we suppose that Peter Walker is right, and that most secondary schools do have a drugs or solvent problem, how should a teacher tackle the subject anticipating that some members of the class will be users? There is the understandable danger that the teacher’s delivery of the lesson will lean perceptibly towards don’t do it, and if you do do it, seek help, rather than Cohen’s suggested about not against approach. The solution lies in the teacher’s tact, but it is in the governor’s and government’s hands whether the teacher should be put in that situation in the first place. Another concern is that schools are the last place most children can be held together in one place and educated about drugs. Once they leave school that opportunity will never again arise, so shouldn’t that opportunity be taken to try to sway children as much as possible against drugs?
A new concern arises; at what age should drugs education begin? If children have no idea what drugs are, is it a good idea to tell them about them too soon in school? Conversely, isn’t it better than a child’s awareness of drugs first occurs in the classroom, where from the beginning they can be told they are bad, rather than the first time being someone offering them a substance – in which case the education might just come too late. The idea that the school can have a marked effect on children’s social outlook is dishearteningly disputed by McLaughin et al. (1991), who say that the roots of moral and social education and development are found somewhere outside the school walls, and that schools are relatively powerless tools for change (1991, p.51).
The final controversial issue we shall consider will be sex education. It is hard to think of any more controversial issue that this. There is no question of its importance to educationalists, as Dilys Went (in Peter Lang, 1988, p.276) indicates as she cites the HMI discussion document ‘Health Education from 5-16’;
The importance of sexual relationships in all our lives is
such that sex education is a crucial part of preparing children
for their lives now and in the future as adults and parents.
Sex education dovetails with so many other educational issues; bullying, religion, race. The link with religion reveals an especially interesting point. The Catholic faith prohibits contraception, while a crucial part of sex education is the promotion of contraception (the hope of stopping teenagers having sex full stop is not a notion educationalists should bother entertaining). This is not to assert that sex education is solely concerned with contraception. It is a vital environment for explaining reproduction and providing a forum for questions to be asked without embarrassment or (ideally) reproach, for dispelling playground myths, to raise awareness of dangers, to explain pubertal changes and provide reassurance about changes in the body (adapted from Dilys Went, in Lang, 1988, p.279). The risk, therefore, is that once sex education comes around in the timetable, Catholic parents might remove their children from the class on account of this issue. Thus those children, as well as others, whose parents consider the lesson/s ‘inappropriate’, will miss out on a vital part of their education. Can we rely on parents to provide that education? No such lesson in the world could hope to occur without some amount of sniggering and general (pre-/) pubescent folly, and children who don’t attend might become the source of ridicule and bullying.
Went (in Peter Lang, 1988, p.276-7) cites the DES Circular, ‘Sex Education at School’ which says,
At the primary level particular care and sensitivity is
needed in matching teaching to the maturity of the pupils
involved, which may not always be adequately indicated by chronological age.
On top of a million other concerns the teacher has to deal with, they also have to decide in their own minds what language or detail of lesson content is universally suitable for the whole class, and what should be toned down or omitted entirely for the benefit of one or two children.
One can see, in attempting to conclude on the issue of citizenship, that conclusions cannot easily be made. Contention, controversy and uncertainty are its buzzwords. Controversial issues are equally difficult to define objectively. One has to decide to whom they are controversial and also if, on teaching them, one doesn’t in some way remove the stigma that makes them controversial. Sex education wouldn’t be controversial to those who have already explored that avenue, not too would drugs education be controversial to drug users. Drugs and sex are the two main issues we have discussed here, and having contextualized them as controversial to certain members (and/or their parents) of a given class in school, we will look now at how one might deal with these issues in the classroom.
Crick says that,
Education should not…shelter our nation’s children from
even the harsher controversies of adult life, but should prepare
them to deal with such controversies knowledgeably, sensibly,
tolerantly and morally. (Crick, 1998, 10.1, p.56)
He goes on to make the valid point that controversial issues crop up in subjects across the curricular board, such as controversial themes in novels and plays and poetry in English literature. Crick even says that missing out these issues is to go against the very purpose of a “worthwhile education” (1998, 10.5, p.57). And finally, he points to the qualities of mind that would be enhanced by the examination of controversial issues in a programme of citizenship education. These include the willingness and ability to see and comprehend the interests and beliefs of others, to “value a respect for truth and evidence in forming or holding opinions”, and “a willingness and ability to participate in decision-making, to value freedom…and to value fairness” (Crick, 1998, 10.6, p.57). Crick seems to regard how this education would immediately affect the children, instead missing a step and leaping to avoid teacher bias.
Of greater concern is how controversial issues would upset, worry or otherwise disturb the children studying citizenship. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious way of tackling certain issues without running the risk of upsetting somebody. Everyone reacts in different ways, and there is no way of estimating how an individual will react, let alone a class, or a town, or the whole country. It is not something the government can plan for. We won’t know until the subject hits the classroom. Precautionary measures, therefore, must be taken.
When teaching sex education, a strong awareness of the sensitivity of the subject matter must be upheld at all times. That nobody asks a question when invited does not mean that nobody has any questions. The invitation should be made for children to speak to the teacher, confidentially, at any time with any worries or queries. The same is true of drugs education.
With religious education, and the teaching of multicultural appreciation, care must be taken not to isolate anyone in a minority. Nobody should feel the finger is being pointed at him or her. Citizenship is all about making children into good citizens, and in the process no child should be made to feel that maybe they are bad. If a given story is being covered, children from differing religions should be encouraged to offer any other interpretations they are aware of, to celebrate and share their faith rather than subdue it.
In short, citizenship education should practise what it preaches; it should be do as I do, not do as I say. The subject should be partially open, so children can make suggestions of what they would like to discuss. And any children who feel uncomfortable with a given subject should be allowed to talk to the teacher individually to address their concerns. Only by being fully negotiable and democratic can citizenship ever hope to achieve its goals.
Bohler, A. (1997) A Tale of Two Stories, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat production programme, John Good Holbrook Design and Print.
Cohen, J. (1996) Life Styles – Drugs, Evans Brothers LTD, London.
Crick, B. (1998) Education for Citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools, DfEE, London.
Hirst, P. H. (1974) Moral Education in a Secular Society, University of London Press LTD, London.
Lang, P. (ed) (1988) Thinking About…Personal and Social Education in the Primary School, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford.
Lindon, J. (1999) Understanding World Religions in Early Years Practice, Hodder and Stoughton, London.
McLaughin, C. et al. (1991) Gender and Pastoral Care:the Personal-Social Aspects of the Whole School, Basil Blackwell Ltd., Oxford.
Osler, A., Rathenow, H-F., Starkey, H. (eds) (1995) Teaching for Citizenship in Europe, Trentham Books Limited, London.
This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our University Degree Teaching section.
- Join over 1.2 million students every month
- Accelerate your learning by 29%
- Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month