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Dealing with Controversial Issues in the Classroom

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Taking a Reasoned Stance Against Misinformation” by Wayne Journell in Phi Delta Kappan, February 2021 (Vol. 102, #5, pp. 12-17); Journell can be reached at

In this Kappan article, Wayne Journell (University of North Carolina/Greensboro) says controversial issues have always been tricky for teachers because:

  • The open exchange of ideas is a hallmark of democratic classrooms.
  • Students and their parents have strong views on a range of topics.
  • There isn’t time in the school day, or space in the curriculum, to debate every issue.

Being a curricular gatekeeper is especially challenging in the current era because some cable news pundits, talk-show hosts, and politicians are spreading scientifically dubious claims and outright falsehoods with great confidence, amplified on social media. Teachers have to contend with students and community members who sincerely believe information that isn’t factual. “When teachers attempt to broach contested issues in the classroom,” says Journell, “they often find themselves having to address poor information, prejudices, or beliefs that cannot be objectively evaluated.”

            Teachers have always had a responsibility, even more so in the current climate, “to turn classrooms into spaces where reason and inquiry trump ignorance and hyperbole,” he says. To accomplish that, teachers need “clear and reasonable guidelines that explain why they will entertain some arguments but not others – including arguments that may be popular with some students and parents.” Teachers have to be able to justify which ideas deserve to be taken seriously in the classrooms, and not be accused of being politically partisan or indoctrinating students. The best approach, he says, is to distinguish between “open” and “settled” issues:

            • Open issues “are those on which more than one rational or reasonable position can be taken.” When these are raised in classrooms, “all rational and reasonable positions should receive a fair hearing.” The teacher’s role is to referee a debate, not hesitating to say when an argument is not reasonable or isn’t backed up by evidence.

            • Settled issues are those on which there is only one rational and reasonable position. With these issues, says Journell, “teachers should avoid debates and instead provide students with the settled position and describe any competing beliefs as unreasonable.”

            Of course, things are not always clear-cut. For example, some seemingly settled issues can become open – for example, FDR’s executive order directing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was considered settled during the war, on grounds of national security, but was fiercely contested in the years that followed. Then, by the mid-1970s, the issue became settled again: the policy was considered immoral, multiple public apologies were issued, and reparations were ultimately paid to living survivors of internment.

            Journell cautions against the belief that an issue is open (i.e., worthy of deliberation) just because someone contradicts it. That’s because pretty much any position – including the roundness of the earth, which has been a scientific finding for at least 500 years – has been contradicted. Yes, there are still people who believe the earth is flat, but this is not a situation where a teacher should “teach the controversy.”

            Here’s another settled fact that is vigorously contested: that President Obama was born in the United States. “Even in 2016, at the end of Obama’s second term in office, approximately 30% of Americans believed he was born in Kenya,” reports Journell. Working with preservice teachers, he frequently uses the flat-earth and “birther” examples, and finds that teachers-in-training have no problem dealing with the first, but waffle on the second. That’s because they know that some of their prospective students – and their parents – will have strong convictions on the issue. “Yet,” says Journell, “if the goal is to determine whether a topic is worth deliberating, it shouldn’t matter how strongly students insist on false beliefs. That’s no way to decide whether a controversial issue belongs in the classroom.” He suggests three approaches for deciding:

            • The epistemic criterion – Openness is determined solely on empirical data – can it be reasonably proven.

            • The political criterion – Teachers might entertain some views – such as arguments based on religious beliefs – even though they cannot be empirically proven. Applying this criterion involves judgment, and teachers have latitude to censor extreme or abhorrent beliefs, while permitting arguments based on personal convictions.

            • The politically authentic criterion – Using this, a teacher could entertain a controversial view that was under active debate – for example, an issue that appears on a ballot initiative. An example is the controversy about mail-in ballots in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election: “All the available data suggest that mail-in voting is a secure way to cast one’s ballot,” says Journell; “however, it became an open political issue for those who did not want to accept the results of the election.”

            These criteria are useful when deciding what issues to raise for discussion, and what kinds of evidence to take seriously, says Journell: “Do the empirical data show that this issue is settled, or is it still open? If it’s not an issue that lends itself to data-driven conclusions, then is it an argument that’s appropriate to consider at all, given our cultural values and laws? And is it an issue that the public and its political representatives are actually debating?” Teachers could use this approach to decide whether to have classroom discussions on issues like legalizing the sale of marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, lowering the voting age, or making assisted suicide legal. A more difficult issue is climate change, where the overwhelming scientific evidence points in one direction, but there’s a lively political debate taking place. Journell suggests that handling this issue depends on the teacher’s subject:

  • A science teacher might take the epistemic approach, informing students that it’s a settled issue.
  • A civics teacher might treat the issue as open, encouraging students to apply critical thinking skills about the differing types of evidence and sources of beliefs among political decisionmakers.

But Journell draws the line on some issues, including the Obama birther question. “Without legitimate data suggesting that Obama was born outside the United States,” he says, “such claims are grounded solely in racism and xenophobia and do not deserve to be validated in a public classroom.”

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