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Coastal and marine studies in Australia: a workshop manual for teachers

Griffith University and the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1997
ISBN 0 868 57872 X

Module 9

Teaching Controversial Issues in Coastal and Marine Studies


People need to make decisions everyday. Decision-making is an increasingly complex process and it is, therefore, essential that students are introduced to the range of skills and techniques required for informed decision-making. As citizens, students will eventually be expected to be well informed about aspects of environmental issues. They will also need to be able to make soundly based decisions. This workshop introduces participants to the nature of the controversial issues they face as citizens and the use of role play as one strategy for addressing these issues in the classroom.


The objectives of the workshop are:


There are five activities in this workshop:

  1. Introduction
    The workshop begins with an introduction to the workshop aims and objectives. Participants then play the 'MC Bingo Game' which introduces some aspects of controversial issues in coastal and marine studies.
  2. Teaching Controversial Issues
    A mini-lecture introduces the role of values in decision-making, the nature of controversial issues, and the range of ways in which they can be addressed in the classroom.
  3. 'Whale Bay' Role Play
    Role play is one useful strategy for exploring the variety of values and conflicts in a controversial issue. In this activity, participants take on the role of particular interest groups involved in deciding the future of a 'Whale Bay'.
  4. Evaluating Role Play
    This activity presents a list of advantages of using role play for teaching controversial issues and invites participants to evaluate the role play in Activity 3 as well as other experiences of using this technique.
  5. Conclusion
    Participants review principles for handling controversial issues and make plans for priority actions in the weeks following the workshop.


Overhead Transparencies
OHT 1 Objectives of the Workshop
OHT 2 Workshop Outline
OHT 3 Dealing with Controversial Issues in the Classroom
OHT 4 Whale Bay Public Meeting: The Motion
OHT 5 Claimed Advantages of Role Play


Resource 1 MC Game
Resource 2 Four Stances on Controversial Issues: Teachers' Opinions
Resource 3 Dealing with Controversial Issues in the Classroom
Resource 4 'Whale Bay': Background Information
Resource 5 Role Cards for 'Whale Bay'
Resource 6 Claimed Advantages of Role Play


Reading 1 Approaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom
Reading 2 Teaching Strategies and Methods


Manuel, M., McElroy, B. and Smith, R. (1995) Coastal Conflicts: Our Future, Our World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Pennock, M. and Bardwell, L. (1994) Approaching Environmental Issues in the Classroom, National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Stradling, R., Noctor, M. And Baines, B. (1984) Teaching Controversial Issues, Edward Arnold, London.


1. Introduction

2. Teaching Controversial Issues

3. 'Whale Bay' Role Play


One approach to use in teaching controversial issues is that of role play or simulation games. ,/p>

4. Evaluating Role Play

OHT 5 and Resource 6 contain a list of the educational advantages often claimed of role play as a teaching approach. This activity requires participants to evaluate the Whale Bay role play as an approach to handling controversial issues.

5. Conclusion


Objectives of the Workshop


Workshop Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Teaching Controversial Issues
  3. 'Whale Bay' Role Play
  4. Evaluating Role Play
  5. Conclusion


Dealing With Controversial Issues In The Classroom

  1. Consider your students' backgrounds and developmental needs.
  2. Create a positive learning environment for students and encourage them to share their views.
  3. Create on atmosphere of openness where students and parents feel free to discuss concerns.
  4. Recognise the complexity of issues.
  5. Ensure that 'balanced learning' occurs.
  6. Be honest about your own views.
  7. Allow constructive disagreements that further the learning process.
  8. Support students who change their stances.


Whale Bay Public Meeting: The Motion

The public of Whale Bay demands that the Shire Council immediately urge the State Minister of Environment to protect the whale watching tourist industry which is vital to the economy of Whale Bay by strictly enforcing all existing whale protection measures, and further reduce human impacts by:

  1. placing a ban on all commercial fishing within five kilometres of the coastline; and
  2. imposing a $10 per person tourist levy on all tour boat passengers to fund whale conservation.


Claimed Advantages Of Role Play

Claimed advantage

To what extent is this advantage reflected in the 'Whale Bay' role play?

Role play can simplify or simulate complex real-life situations and processes.  
Role plays 'collapse' time and enable lengthy processes to be studied in a relatively short time frame.  
Role plays emphasise decision-making processes rather than abstract knowledge.  
Role plays can develop critical thinking skills for analysing data and evidence.  
Role plays can develop decision-making and problem solving skills.  
Role plays can encourage students to recognise the multiplicity of values and positions on an issue.  
Role plays can help students clarify their own values and attitudes towards an issue.  
Role plays can help students empathise with the values and attitudes of other people.  

Resource 1

MC Game

Adapted from: Fien, J. (1996) Introduction to Environmental Education, Teaching for a Sustainable World, UNESCO- UNEP IEEP and Griffith University, Brisbane, Module 2.

Find someone who:

  1. has visited a marine reserve, or other undeveloped coastal area in the last month. Which one?
  2. knows the name of the national Minister for the Environment. Who?
  3. is a member of a coast/marine environmental group. Which one?
  4. works as a volunteer for a coast/marine community group. Which one?
  5. knows the title of the 1995 report of the state of the marine environment in Australia. Title?
  6. has been whale-watching. Where?
  7. has never driven on the beach in a four-wheel-drive car. Why?
  8. can name a current controversial issue affecting a coastal or marine environment. Which one?
  9. has a boating or navigation certificate. Since when?
  10. has a swimming Bronze Medalion, first aid certificate or life-saving award. Which?
  11. has written a letter to the editor on a coast/marine issue that affects him/her directly. Which one?
  12. has spoken or written to an official about a local coast/marine issue. Which one?
  13. can name a local coast/marine issue that affects him/her directly. Which one?
  14. knows where their local waterway enters the sea. Where?
  15. has a favourite coastal place to go when he/she needs 'regenerating'. Where?
  16. can name a global coastal or marine problem that affects him/her directly. Which one?


Which one?






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Resource 2

Four Stances On Controversial Issues: Teachers'Opinions

Source: Adapted from Stradling, R., Noctor, M. and Baines, B. (1984) Teaching Controversial Issues, Edward Arnold Publishers, London, pp. 111-112.

The Balanced Approach
The teacher presents students with a wide range of alternative views.

Potential Strengths

Potential Weaknesses

"Essential: I think one of the main functions of a humanities or social studies teacher is to show that issues are hardly ever black and white."

"Necessary when a class is polarised on an issue."

"Most useful when dealing with issues about which there is a great deal of conflicting information."

"If a balanced range of opinions does not emerge from the group, then it is up to the teacher to see that the other aspects are brought out."

"Is there such a thing as a balanced range of opinions?"

"As a strategy it has limited use. It avoids the main point by conveying the impression that 'truth' is a grey area that exists between two alternative sets of opinions."

"Balance means very different things to different people. The ABC's view of balance is not mine. Teaching is rarely value-free."

"This approach can lead to very teacher-directed lessons"

"Like ABC interviews you are always chipping in to maintain the so-called balance."

The Devil's Advocate Strategy
The teacher consciously takes the opposite position to the one expressed by students or in teaching materials

Potential Strengths

Potential Weakness

"Great fun, and can be very effective in stimulating the pupils to contribute to discussion."

"Essential when faced by a group who all seem to share the same opinion."

"Most classes which I have taught seem to have a majority line. Then I use this strategy and parody, exaggeration and role reversal."

"I often use this as a device to liven things up when the discussion is beginning to dry up."

"I have run into all sorts of problems with this approach. Kids identifying me with the views I was putting forward as devil's advocate; parents worried about my alleged views, etc."

"It may reinforce pupil's prejudices."

"Only to be used when discussion dries up and there are still 25 minutes left."

Stated Commitment
The teacher always makes known his/her views during discussion

Potential Strengths

Potential Weaknesses

"Pupils will try to guess what the teacher thinks anyway. Stating your position makes everything above board."

"If pupils know where the teacher stands on the issue they can discount his or her prejudices and biases."

"It is better to state your preferences after discussion rather than before."

"It should only be used if pupils' dissenting opinions are treated with respect."

"It can be an excellent way of maintaining credibility with pupils since they do not expect us to be neutral."

"It can stifle classroom discussion, inhibiting pupils from arguing a line against that of the teacher."

"It may encourage some pupils to argue strongly for something they don't believe in simply because it is different from the teacher."

"Pupils often find it difficult to distinguish facts from values. It's even more difficult if the purveyor of facts and values is the same person, ie the teacher."

Procedural Neutrality
The teacher adopts the role of an impartial chairperson of a discussion group.

Potential Strengths

Potential Weaknesses

"Minimises undue influence of teacher's own bias."

"Gives everyone a chance to take part in free discussion."

"Scope for open-ended discussion, ie the class may move on to consider issues and questions which the teacher hasn't thought of."

"Presents a good opportunity for pupils to exercise communication skills."

"Works well if you have a lot of background material."

"Pupils find it artificial."

"Can damage the rapport between teacher and class if it doesn't work."

"Depends on pupils being familiar with the method elsewhere in the school or it will take a long time to acclimatise them."

"May only reinforce pupils' existing attitudes and prejudices."

"Very difficult with the less able."

"Neutral chair doesn't suit my personality."

Resource 3

Dealing With Controversial Issues In The Classroom

  1. Consider your students' developmental needs, including age, gender, family contexts, reading skills, thinking styles and so on.
  2. Create a learning environment in which students feel a sense of investment, ownership and empowerment. Consider how you can give authority and responsibility to students. Be enthusiastic yourself about the learning process, the project the students are doing, and life in general. Encourage an atmosphere of openness, acceptance and respect by being sensitive to students' needs. Listen to their concerns with your complete attention. Respect their feelings and, particularly with young people, err on the side of caution regarding their emotions. Encourage all students to participate and share their views - but no-one has to share if he/she would rather not.
  3. Have well articulated goals and rationales. Encourage parents and others to voice their questions and concerns. Have a support system of people such as an administrator, colleagues, interested parents and community members.
  4. Teach about the complexity of many issues. Do not try to protect students from it, but recognise the difficulty of such complexity, even for adults, and that the way we teach needs to be developmentally appropriate.
  5. Teach multiple perspectives on all topics but be aware that 'balanced' teaching is not possible given the competing and dominant influences and messages that students are constantly exposed to outside of the classroom. Instead ensure that 'balanced learning' can take place by ensuring that the quality of evidence from all viewpoints is as objective as possible, and that its presentation reflects the aspiration of balanced learning.
  6. Be honest in your presentation of views. Be aware of your own feelings and opinions about an issue. Be clear about whether concerns are your students' or your own. If you decide to express your opinions on an issue, make it clear to students that this is your personal view and that it is okay if other people, including them, disagree.
  7. Let disagreement further the learning process. Allow disagreements between students to be constructive rather than destructive.
  8. Encourage students to accept that changing their mind after evaluating an issue during a discussion is a sign of maturity.

Resource 4

'Whale Bay': Background Information

Source: Adapted from Oliver, J. (1992) Whale Bay: A Simulation Game, in B. Moffatt, Marine Studies, Wet Paper, Ashmore, pp. 586-598.

Whale-Bay occupies the area between a large island, Wallaby Island, and the mainland somewhere in Australia. On one side, its mangroves and wetlands fill most of the channel, and some of these are Fish Habitat Reserves where fishing is prohibited, but some bait collecting occurs along the mud. The eastern side is open to the ocean, and has deep clear water. Close to the western shore grow hectares of seagrass, which support nearly 1000 dugong, the marine sea cow. Several species of turtle live and feed in the Bay and some nest on the sandy shores to the north. Wrecks of a few nineteenth century ships sailing too close to some of the rocky shores lie on the sea bed. These provide fascinating dive spots and coral reefs with soft corals, feather stars, numerous molluscs, worms and fish. The Bay is considered to be one of the best dive sites in the state. It also supports twenty trawlers and an active recreational fishery. The fish are off loaded at the fishworks in the small township of Whale Bay on the western shore and some are frozen for the capital city markets.

The Bay's newest arrivals are the Humpback Whales who have been moving into the Bay to rest en route between their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic and their winter breeding grounds in the waters of north-eastern and north-western Australia. Whales are seen in the Bay from late May to June and on the return journey between August and October. Many can weigh up to 40 tonnes and measure up to 15 metres long. On the return journey from the warm waters, most of the females are accompanied by their calves born up north. Thousands of visitors crowd into charter boats to visit the Bay in the hope of seeing the whales swimming close to the surface or diving or leaping out of the water ('breaching'). The whales only feed in the Antarctic Ocean and consume enormous quantities of krill (tiny crustaceans).

Whale scientists and conservationists are getting alarmed that the great mammals will become pressured by the increasing numbers of whalewatchers now crowding into Whale Bay. The whales may then move away from the Bay altogether. There has to be a reasonable management approach so that tour operators and visitors can still use the resource, but that at the same time, the whales will not be hindered in Whale Bay. Regulations are already in place and state that boats may not approach closer than 100 metres from whales, and boats should not break up groups or separate mothers and calves. Swimmers and divers are not to be closer than 30 metres. Rubbish or plastic may not be thrown into the water. The preservation of clean water in the Bay is also important for the whales' survival.

Resource 5

Role Cards For 'Whale Bay'

Source: Adapted from Oliver, J. (1992) Whale Bay: A Simulation Game, in B. Moffatt, Marine Studies, Wet Paper, Ashmore, pp. 590-596.

1. Chairperson

Your role is to chair the public meeting and to keep order so that everyone who is supposed to speak gets a chance to do so. You can draw up a time table. You will need to gather information about each of the groups and individuals so that you have some idea of how people are thinking. You have to sum up and supervise the voting at the end of the meeting. You are the Shire President so you are used to being in charge and are good at keeping control. You know this is an important occasion so you should wear formal clothes.

2. Tour Boat Operator

You own a large fast boat Star Trek 4 and take groups of tourists out to see the whales during their northern and southern migrations. You like to get your boat as close as regulations permit. You have been making a lot of money lately and want to see your business thrive, so you do not want any controls which would prevent you taking your boat out into the whole Bay. However, your livelihood depends on whales so you want their areas protected, so long as you can get into them!

3. Commercial Fishing Organisation Officer

You spend your time talking about fishing, and want to see commercial fishing people with good access to their traditional fishing grounds. You have accepted that you need to talk with conservationists but think everyone is pushing 'nature' too much. You have already agreed to the regulations controlling the size of nets, where these can be placed, and where trawlers can go. You are not prepared to see most of the Bay made into a restricted area.

4. Professional Trawler Operator

You own the Whatsit, a trawler operating in Whale Bay. You are sick of being told what to do: you have had to change the size of your nets and where you place them, and are worried that restrictions are going to be placed so that you can only fish five kilometres offshore. You want a one kilometre off-shore fishing limit as that is where most fish are. You are sorry that dugongs and turtles get tangled in your nets, but if lines and ropes and plastic bait bags fall overboard, well, that's life and you have to make a living.

5. Traditional Aboriginal Elder

You are a local Aboriginal Elder. The sea and land traditionally belong to you and your clan and you believe that you have a right to be involved at the decision-making level rather than being consulted along with the others as just another interested party. You are concerned about the area and do not want more development to go ahead as it may impact upon the cultural areas of significance for your clan. You think that the motion is too narrow.

6. Local Aboriginal Women

You are one of the local Aboriginal women in the area who practise traditional fishing in the mangrove creek for food for your family. You want to maintain your privacy and solitude and you especially do not want to see the area over-fished or netting occurring in the mangrove estuary. You do not mind other fishers accessing the area and think the motion will be helpful.

7. Department of Environment Officer

You represent the Minister for the Environment and have to wait to see how people react to the motion. The ideas in the motion were originally put forward by you so you know a lot about it and try to persuade everyone to agree with it

8. Tourist Developer

You own a lot of land around the shore, and want to see tourism expand. You spent a lot of time in the United States looking at hotels, motels and marinas and are keen to see a 'Whaler Wharf', more shops, more boats and more activity in Whale Bay. You know that the whales have to be protected as they are the draw card for tourists but, after all, everyone has to make money.

9. Whale Conservation Society

You are the representative of the organisation which specialises in whale watching, conservation and providing information to the public. You have travelled all over the world looking at whales and are very knowledgeable about them. Nothing should happen to these Humpbacks who are only just increasing in numbers after years of whaling operations. You would like the whole Bay as a Marine Park with no zones for fishing or entry, and you would really like all boats to be kept away if possible too.

10. National Parks and Wildlife Officer

You have been at the Bay for two years and spend most of your time keeping tour boats away from whales, supervising the rescue of injured animals caught in plastic, and in reporting pollution to your office. You think fishing needs to be kept well away from the marine life, and don't want any more tourists. You feel the mangroves, of which there are extensive stands (mainly Avicennia marina and the rarer myrtle mangrove, Osborna octodonta) need to be protected as they provide valuable fish breeding habitats.

11. Shire Town Planner

You are the local planner from the Shire Council at Whale Bay and are a bit confused as to what the best thing would be. You are knowledgeable about land use, but you don't know much about water in the Bay except that it is 'salt'. You have never been in a boat, and are frightened of whales, turtles and anything that is connected with the sea. You are happy to see the Shire go ahead so do not mind tourists, developers etc., so long as they follow the rules.

12. Scientists - Dugong Expert

You are a well known Australian expert on dugongs and have just completed your PhD on these mammals. You know lots about their food, sea grasses, and know that the sea grass beds are only found on the northern side of the Bay close inshore. Whale Bay is one of the very few sites of one of the sea grasses (Halophila ovalis) in the State. You think there are insufficient Fish Reserves in the area and you are aware that fishing people from outside the Bay tend to take far less care than the fishing boats in Whale Bay itself. You like whales too but think that dugongs deserve more fuss.

Resource 6

Claimed Advantages of Role Play

Claimed advantage

To what extent was this advantage reflected in the 'Whale Bay' role play?

Role play can simplify or simulate complex real-life situations and processes.  
Role plays 'collapse' time and enable lengthy processes to be studied in a relatively short time frame.  
Role plays emphasise decision-making processes rather than abstract knowledge.  
Role plays can develop critical thinking skills for analysing data and evidence.  
Role plays can develop decision-making and problem solving skills.  
Role plays can encourage students to recognise the multiplicity of values and positions on an issue.  
Role plays can help students clarify their own values and attitudes towards an issue.  
Role plays can help students empathise with the values and attitudes of other people.  

Reading 1

Approaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom

There are diverse points of view about environmental issues. The community is often divided over decisions that affect the management of resources and environments, including those presented in this workshop's activities.

Teachers cannot ignore this community context. They require strategies for handling potentially controversial issues in a professionally ethical way. They must first recognise that different values will emerge in classroom discussion and activities, and that it is important to deal with these conflicts in a way that avoids indoctrination.

The following five principles are of assistance in dealing with values in the classroom:

Reading 2

Teaching Strategies and Methods

Source: Adapted from Stradling, R. (1984) Controversial Issues in the Classroom, in R. Stradling, M. Noctor and B. Baines (eds.) Teaching Controversial Issues, Edward Arnold, London, pp. 5-12.

The starting-point for any discussion of how to teach issues is undoubtedly the role of the teacher in the class room. Three concepts seem to be central to this: balance, neutrality and commitment.

1. Balance

When asked how the teacher should approach controversial issues, many headteachers, local authority advisors and even chief education officers stress the importance of presenting students with a balanced picture. By this they appear to mean that the teacher should offer students a range of alternative viewpoints on each issue. But balance is a deceptively simple concept which on further examination raises a number of difficult questions.

Firstly, is it necessary to have a balanced approach to every single lesson or can one think instead in terms of a balanced approach across a unit or module of lessons, or even across an overall course, whereby the teacher ensures that by the end of a school term or year the student has encountered a range of alternatives but not necessarily in each lesson?

Second, what is more important here: balanced teaching or balanced learning? In the areas of the curriculum where controversial issues predominate, the teacher is in a very different position to, say, the physics or mathematics teacher. We are not initiating the students into a body of knowledge with which they are totally unfamiliar. We are intervening in a learning process which is well underway before they do any humanities or social studies. They bring with them into the classroom their own experiences, knowledge, commitments and prejudices. So, as teachers, do we ignore all of this extra-mural learning from family, peers and the mass media and offer students instead a balanced spectrum of views, including those to which they are already committed, or do we, for example, play the 'devil's advocate'? Do we seek to present them with an alternative point of view to their own at all times (even if it is a view to which we ourselves are not committed)? This, too, might be said to be a balanced approach but can clearly present teachers with problems if some students (and their parents) assume that the views presented by the teacher as devil's advocate are their own.

Finally, when considering a balanced approach it is also necessary to consider carefully whether we are talking about a genuine spectrum of alternative viewpoints or are limiting ourselves to those viewpoints which are generally accepted within, say, the broad consensus of liberal democratic values or even the liberal-humanist ideology that pervades so much educational theory.

We raise questions about the balanced approach here simply because we doubt that balance can ever be regarded as a kind of guiding educational principle to be followed regardless of circumstance or constraints operating in a particular school, or regardless of students' reactions to the approach. What is this 'balance'? Roget defines it as 'equality, parity, co-extension, symmetry, level, monotony'. How do you achieve the first five of these qualities without dropping into the sixth?

2. Neutrality

In the teaching of controversial issues, perhaps the concept of neutrality starts from the assumption that the authority position of the teacher is much stronger than most teachers realize, and that it is almost insuperably difficult for him/her to put forward his/her own points of view without implying that controversial issues can be settled on the basis of the authority of others. Procedural neutrality in the classroom involves adopting a strategy in which the teacher's role is that of an impartial chairperson of discussion groups, ensuring that all students can have their say, treating their opinions consistently, feeding in evidence when needed, and avoiding the assertion of his or her own preferences and allegiances (Stenhouse, 1970).

This teaching strategy has been characterised as follows:

  1. The fundamental educational values of rationality, imagination, sensitivity, readiness to listen to the views of others, and so forth must be built into the principles of procedure in the classroom.
  2. The pattern of teaching must renounce the authority of the teacher as an 'expert' capable of solving value issues since this authority cannot be justified either epistemologically or politically. In short, the teacher must aspire to be neutral.
  3. The teaching strategy must maintain the procedural authority of the teacher in the classroom, but contain it within rules which can be justified in terms of the need for discipline and rigour in attaining understanding.
  4. The strategy must be such as to satisfy parents and students that every possible effort is being made to avoid the use of the teacher's authority position to indoctrinate his/her own views.
  5. The procedure must enable students to understand divergence of views and, hence, must depend upon a group working together through discussion and shared activities. In such a group, opinions should be respected, and minority opinions should be protected from ridicule or from social pressure.
  6. In sensitive issues, thought must be given to preserving privacy and protecting students.
  7. Above all, the aim should be understanding. This implies that one should not force students towards opinions or premature commitments which harden into prejudice. Nor should one see particular virtue in a change of view. The object is that the student should come to understand the nature and implications of his/ her own personal view and be accountable for it. Whether or not the student changes his/her point of view is not significant for the attainment of understanding (Stenhouse, 1970).

The whole raison d'etre for procedural neutrality is that teachers occupy a position of authority over their students and therefore any views they express will carry extra weight and influence the children. At present there is very little research evidence either to support or invalidate this assumption.

Thus, Stenhouse (1970) asserts, "The basic classroom pattern should be one of discussion. Instruction inevitably implies that the teacher cannot maintain a neutral position". This rather simplistic distinction fails to take account of a whole range of student-centred and resource-based methods of learning including projects, field work, analysis of case studies and even role play and simulation, as well as other ways of organizing discussion (e.g. in small groups).

The assumption that discussion led by a neutral chairperson ensures that students will consider and understand a divergence of views is also questionable. What does the teacher do if this divergence of opinion is missing in classroom discussion? What, for example, does the teacher do when faced by unquestioning consensus from the entire class? Indeed, Stenhouse seems to recognize this problem at one point and admits that on occasion the teacher may have to "represent a view which the group has not considered" in order to challenge awareness of complacency (Stenhouse , 1970). Such situations are by no means a rarity in the classroom and adopting the role of devil's advocate can be a highly effective counter to it, but it should be emphasized that it is a very different role from that of neutral chairperson.

3. Commitment

When is it legitimate for a teacher to state his or her own commitments and allegiances in the classroom, and is it ever acceptable to go beyond this and consistently teach in a committed way? There are a number of points for discussion here. The first is essentially procedural.

Stenhouse (1970) asserts that neutrality is not a value-free approach but that the values he wishes to uphold are educational rather than substantive or partisan ones. Some teachers, however, reject the possibility of maintaining an impartial line on substantive values. Underpinning their position is the assumption that they will lose credibility with students if they do not say what they think, particularly when asked. One might also add that stating your own commitments and allegiances gives students a chance to make allowance for your 'prejudices and opinions' when evaluating what you say and how you tackle the issue.

A second point raised by some teachers is that there are some issues on which you cannot be impartial. This is an approach that derives from a view of education as being more than just learning about the social world. Education is seen here as being also concerned with helping students to develop strategies and skills for influencing social change. Other teachers take a similar line but are primarily concerned with individual attitude change. This often applies to attitudes towards race, sexism, and in particular, the understanding that should be shown towards social and sexual minorities. Even teachers of relatively non-controversial areas of the curriculum such as health often appear to be committed to attitude and behavioural change on such matters as drug-taking, glue-sniffing, alcoholism and cigarette-smoking.

Are there any environmental values on which we should not compromise? What of the values underlying sustainable development such as democracy, social justice, appropriate development and conservation?

Third, there is the view that a committed approach challenges students to think, to clarify their own point of view, to become aware of the contradictions and inconsistencies in their thinking, and to sort out fact from value judgement.

4. Indoctrination

Whatever the justification for a committed approach to teaching issues, the main potential problem inevitably is the risk of indoctrination or, at least, the risk of allegations of indoctrination. This raises a number of questions, some of which can at least be clarified if not answered, and some of which can only be answered by each individual teacher. For example, is all committed teaching the same as indoctrination or can some of it be justified on educational grounds?

Indoctrination is usually associated with attempts to teach something as if it were true or universally acceptable regardless of evidence to the contrary or in the absence of any evidence at all on this basis (Snook 1975). Teachers who make their own positions clear when teaching about issues need not necessarily be indoctrinating if:

Under some circumstances the ethics of one or more of those principles might be questionable; also in some circumstances one or more of them might prove objectionable to parents, but as long as students are not being asked to accept statements at face value or to treat value judgements as if they were facts, then the teacher is not indoctrinating them.

Two other questions require discussion:

  1. Are teachers indoctrinating if the point of view they express is already shared by most or all of their students?
  2. Are there some beliefs and values which are so important, so central to the well-being of the individual or the community, that it is legitimate for schools to inculcate them through indoctrination?

The latter is probably a question which each teacher and school must decide on individually. We have already suggested that some schools do consciously inculcate certain attitudes and beliefs, and seek to change specific attitudes. The examples from health education are fairly typical. Some schools have a policy against racism and sexism. In such cases teachers are expected to take a committed line against the manifestations of both racism and sexism. When we ask headteachers about the educational implications of such policies they often point out that it is legitimate for schools to counter racist or sexist attitudes and behaviour because there is legislation against both racial and sexual discrimination. In the absence of legislative legitimacy presumably schools would have to rely on some other form of external authority for teaching issues in a committed way, such as 'the national consensus': a rather more nebulous and unsatisfactory criterion in a pluralist society.

In this discussion of all three concepts (balance, neutrality and commitment) there has been a recurring question: Are they educational principles or simply teaching strategies which may or may not be useful for handling controversial issues? The advocates of balance, neutrality or commitment tend to assume that they are basic principles. The teachers we have talked to in our research and our own classroom experience suggest that they are not. It all depends on the circumstances one encounters in the classroom. If students have a lot to say, if there is a broad spread of opinion, and if their views are based on knowledge and experience rather than blind prejudice, then there is a good case for adopting the role of neutral chairman. In other circumstances the balanced or committed approaches might be more appropriate.

It simply is not possible to lay down hard-and-fast rules about teaching controversial subject matter to be applied at all times. The teacher has to take account of the knowledge, values and experiences which the students bring with them into the classroom; the teaching methods which predominate in other lessons; the classroom climate (e.g. unquestioning consensus, apathy, or polarisation of opinion); and the age and ability of the students. But, above all, in teaching controversial issues the teacher has to be highly responsive to the reactions of students both to the content of lessons and the teaching methods being employed. Any controversial issue can arouse strong emotions leading to a polarization of the class and consequent hostility. On the other hand, even with issues which may divide the entire nation, teachers can find themselves confronted by a wall of apathy or alienation, or unquestioning consensus, and so on. These different circumstances in the classroom require different methods and strategies and there is no guarantee that a strategy which works with one set of students will necessarily work with another group.

References Stenhouse, L. (1970) Controversial Values Issues, in W. Carr (ed) Values in the Curriculum, NEA, Washington DC, pp. 103-115.

Snook, I. (1975) Indoctrination and Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.