Blog: Teaching controversial topics in the classroom

Published: 5 Nov 2020

Author: Michael Davies
Blog: Teaching controversial topics in the classroom

The tragic murder of a French history teacher in October has highlighted the perils and importance of tackling controversial topics in the classroom, and the need to do it right.

"Standing in the middle ground of a dispute can be a tricky business when there is no agreed middle ground to stand on." - Michael Davies, Fellow

Both my experience as a high school history teacher and my Churchill Fellowship inspired me to set up Parallel Histories, an educational charity that helps teachers to reintroduce controversial topics in the classroom. We currently work with 115 schools in the UK and another 20 around the world.   

Here are five top tips for teachers on discussing controversial history which we have distilled over the years at Parallel Histories.

1. Acknowledge there are two sides and teach both. 

For example, if you want to teach the history of Israel and Palestine, you have to teach two parallel and competing histories, one told from a Palestinian perspective and the other from an Israeli perspective. If you want to teach the history of the conflict between the Sunni and Shi’a, the same approach applies, as it would to the history of the Union between England and Scotland, told from both unionist and nationalist historical perspectives. Don’t take on the role of arbiter of the truth yourself. Standing in the middle ground of a dispute can be a tricky business when there is no agreed middle ground to stand on. If you are not careful, you will find yourself being pushed into arguing for one side or another far more forcefully than you had intended. Your role in the classroom is to ensure that both narratives are given equal weight.

2. Emphasise the importance of studying source evidence at first hand. 

Give the students plenty of source evidence and ask them to critically evaluate it. Give them more source evidence than they’ll actually have time to study, so that they feel they are selecting evidence for themselves rather than being fed selected pieces. Help them to understand that not all source evidence carries the same weight, but that almost every bit of evidence is useful in some way to any investigation of the past. Parallel Histories has banks of sources so teachers can offer a wide variety of different types of evidence – photos, news clips, maps, diaries, letters, newspapers. Ensure that the evidence ranges in difficulty, so that there’s something accessible enough for a younger student and challenging enough for an older student, and trust them to draw their own conclusions. Do correct matters of misinterpretation that are based on a lack of comprehension or knowledge, but allow students to draw their own inferences.

A team of Year 9 students preparing their arguments during a Parallel Histories lesson

3. Test the contrasting historical narratives through debate. 

Pick turning points and create debating motions (for example, ‘This House believes that the British Government should be praised for the Balfour Declaration’). Allocate your students into teams of debaters and have them make their arguments based on the historical evidence they have been studying. Once they have debated on one side, pick a new historical question (for example, ‘This House believes that Jewish armed forces were responsible for the flight of Palestinian refugees in 1948’). Get the students to swap sides, so if they were making a pro-Israeli argument last time, now they will be making a pro-Palestinian one.

4. Assess students’ knowledge and attitudes before the course of work starts and after it finishes. 

This is especially useful if you are teaching a topic about which your class starts with strong opinions. Show them how their attitudes and understanding have changed as they have learnt the two narratives. Finally ask them to apply this lesson about learning both sides of an argument to other aspects of their lives. 

5. Tell the parents what you are going to do, well ahead. 

Suggest that any parents who would like more information should come and see you at school. Otherwise, by the time there’s a demonstration at the school gate, you have lost the argument.

I recently received an Activate Award grant from WCMT to develop a programme of online debating for students. If you are a teacher who would like to find out more please visit our website or simply email me at [email protected].

Parallel Histories classroom resources  

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