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Handling controversial issues in the classroom


The content of the curriculum has never been included in the discrimination law in the past and the Equality Act 2010 now states explicitly that it is excluded. However the way in which a school provides education – the delivery of the curriculum – is explicitly included.

Excluding the content of the curriculum ensures that schools are free to teach the full range of issues, ideas, and materials in their syllabus, and to expose pupils to thoughts and ideas of all kinds, however challenging or controversial, without fear of legal challenge based on a protected characteristic. (Equality Act – equal treatment irrespective of protected characteristics – age, sex, race, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation, gender re-assignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy/maternity.)

However, schools do need to ensure that the way in which the curriculum is taught does not subject individual pupils to discrimination.

Teachers are increasingly asked to teach about controversial issues which cut across traditional subject boundaries. Of particular interest to humanists are issues where science, ethics, and religion meet: topics such as the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth, advances in genetics and medicine, and environmental issues.

This kind of topic is most likely to come up in science or Religious Education/Religious and Moral Education lessons, but may also emerge in subjects like English, geography, citizenship, and PSHE/PSE/health and wellbeing. Controversial issues are an aspect of National Curriculum science, though there is little advice about how to deal with them. RE/RME teachers are used to dealing with differences in matters of personal belief, and some of this advice is based on good practice in RE/RME.

The teacher’s dilemma

Vol6Controversial issues are fundamental to developing their pupils’ critical thinking and analytical skills.

Teachers want to discriminate between fact and/or well established theories (matters for which there is good evidence, matters on which there is a scientific consensus) on the one hand, and stories or opinion (or matters of personal belief) on the other. Often there is no conflict between the two, but, for example, creationists do claim as fact what most people consider to be myth or opinion, and they often claim that evolution, a scientific theory (a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation) is no better than their ‘theory’.

Teachers are committed to respecting diversity and to dealing with pupils’ beliefs tactfully and diplomatically. Religious beliefs are often sincerely and strongly held, and are often aspects of a pupil’s cultural and family background. To criticise those beliefs can seem to the pupil like belittling their family and culture.

Teachers might be concerned that they will seem insensitive and biased if they adhere to the facts, but that if they are too receptive and tactful, their own integrity will be undermined or a strong-minded pupil will confuse or subvert the class.

Ground rules and guidance

Teachers need to establish ground rules about discussion before they start: students should listen politely to each other, and to agree to differ on occasion. Teachers can model calm and polite behaviour, without giving in to irrationality. Before beginning a discussion on a controversial issue pupils and students could be asked to agree their own ground-rules.

It is important to make clear to children the nature of evidence, what counts as evidence, and how evidence helps us to understand nature. It is equally important not to be contemptuous or dismissive of deeply held beliefs.

General advice often encourages the use of ‘owning and grounding’ language, such as ‘in my opinion…’ or ‘scientists / some people say…’ as one way of dealing with disagreements diplomatically.

In science

It is important that students understand what scientific method is and how it differs from taking authority as one’s source of knowledge.

Umberto Eco, writing in The Guardian (September 2004) gave a clear account:

‘Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is based on the principle of ‘ fallibilism ‘ (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists themselves) according to which science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes – and by considering that an experiment that doesn’t work our is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or start over from scratch… This way of thinking is opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, to all literal interpretations of holy writ – which are also open to continuous reinterpretation – and to all dogmatic certainty in one’s own ideas. That is good ‘philosophy’ in the everyday and Socratic sense of the term, which ought to be taught in schools.’

There are topics where ‘balance’ or equal treatment is not called for. You can value both story and science if everyone acknowledges the differences and values them for different reasons – myths, legends and stories can be very beautiful and pleasing and may even tell us much about ourselves and our emotions – while science explains how the world works. Don’t invite false debate.

In Science lessons, it is important to be clear and confident about what is ‘controversial’ among scientists and what is not. For example, the fact that life on Earth evolved is not controversial amongst biologists, though they may differ about time scales, the origins of life and the processes driving change. See Creationism for further arguments.

Sometimes when teaching controversial issues a teacher should adopt a neutral or balanced stance, however in science lessons it would be more appropriate to take a ‘stated commitment role’, and to say ‘As a scientist, with a commitment to scientific method and ways of thinking, this is what I think…’

It is reasonable to ask for reasons and evidence for any hypothesis put forward, and to differentiate between strong and weak evidence.

You can say things like: ‘How interesting that you believe that…’ and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that different people believe different things for different kinds of reason, and to demonstrate the kinds of reason that are considered scientific, or appropriate in science lessons, assignments and exams.

Correct factual misinformation, wherever possible without confrontation and citing supporting evidence.

In RE/RME and other subjects

In lessons in Religious Education (as it is known in England and Wales) and Religious and Moral Education (as it is known in Scotland), empirical evidence is less called for, though reasons and explanations for beliefs and opinions should still be required.

Controversial issues such as Genetic research and engineering offer an opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of views within religions as well as between them. For example, pupils may be aware that some religious groups oppose human cloning, but may be less aware of liberal thinkers such as the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who supports therapeutic cloning and who joined Richard Dawkins in opposing creationist schools.

Many religious groups, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church, do not think that the creation stories in Genesis are literally true, and accept the evidence for evolution – they simply believe that God plays a part in evolution. Science can demonstrate that there is no real necessity for divine intervention in evolution, but not conclusively that it did not or cannot happen – and at that point the religious and the non-religious have to agree to differ.

Religion and science are not necessarily in competition. Science may little to say about ethics beyond providing the evidence base for ethical reasoning, and religion a great deal – though it is not the only source of moral ideas. Both subjects would benefit from drawing on, for example, philosophy and medical ethics, and teachers from different departments would gain from working together on some topics.


National Curriculum documents and guidance

Non-statutory guidance on RE (Department for Children, Schools and families, 2010, PDF)

Citizenship Foundation: Controversial issues: guidance for schools

Oxfam: Teaching Controversial Issues

Royal Geographic Society: Controversial issues teacher’s notes

Wellcome Trust: educational resources on biomedical issues

The Association for Science Education

School Science

The Nuffield Foundation – Science for Public Understanding

Free downloadable Logical Fallacy poster:
Logical fallacies


Humanism for Schools

Humanism is a non-religious approach to life, which the 2013 national framework for RE in England recommends be studied in schools as an example of a 'non-religious worldview'.

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