Teaching controversial issues in religious education

Karen Walsh



What is meant by ‘controversial issues’?
a_Pencils-11.jpgIn some respects, it makes little sense to talk of teaching controversial issues in RE as in many ways it is a term that sits more comfortably within curriculum subjects such as Citizenship or PSHE see http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk for further details. Indeed, the term ‘controversial issues’ rarely appears in RE curricular documentation. Instead, the topics that come under the heading of controversial issues in Citizenship and PSHE are more likely in the RE curriculum to appear under the following headings:

a) Issues of conviction
b) Issues of truth, justice, and trust
c) Contemporary social issues
d) Cultural issues
e) Scientific, medical and health issues
f) Issues of right and wrong
g) World issues
h) Ethical issues
i) Global issues

Point to Consider: What does this lack of explicit reference to controversial issues in the RE curriculum tell us about RE’s understanding of ‘controversial issues’?

a_Pencils-11.jpgAccording to the Citizenship Scheme of Work for Key Stage 3: Teacher’s Guide (QCA, 2001), controversial issues are ‘those that have a political, social or personal impact and arouse feeling and/or deal with questions of value or belief.’ It is therefore perhaps not surprising that RE makes little direct reference to the teaching of controversial issues as, according to the above definition, all of its subject matter could be deemed controversial. However, it is clear that issues that are described as controversial elsewhere in the curriculum such as war and conflict; animal rights; abortion; euthanasia; and stem cell research to name but a few, are explored in the RE classroom. Many GCSE syllabuses for instance, examine religious perspectives on contemporary world issues and the study of Ethics is a popular choice for those wishing to continue Religious Studies at AS and A2 level. However, although GCSE, AS and A2 Religious Studies are enjoying increasing popularity with students, OfSTED warns that such approaches to RE can be problematic as students’ investigation and analysis of religious perspectives on ethical and social issues, particularly within GCSE short course options, are often superficial and contrived. As a result, students do not acquire a sufficiently incisive understanding of the religion or belief perspective which means that their understanding of the impact of religions and beliefs on people’s decision-making is often distorted (Ofsted, 2010, 31 ). What this suggests is that if as RE teachers we are in the business of teaching ‘controversial issues’, then such teaching must be in the context of, rather than divorced from, the religious and faith traditions we are presenting in the classroom.

Approaches to teaching controversial issues

Approaches to teaching controversial issues

a_Pencils-11.jpgThere is much guidance available for teachers, particularly within the context of Citizenship, on how to teach controversial issues in the classroom. For instance, guidance on the Citizenship Foundation website http://www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk/main/page.php?79 addresses common concerns such as:

a) What can teachers do to avoid unfairly influencing pupils?
b) What kind of values may legitimately be taught in school?

According to this guidance, teachers can avoid unintentional bias by:

  • not presenting opinions as if they are facts;
  • not setting themselves up as the sole authority on a subject;
  • as far as possible, not giving their own accounts of the views of others, but, rather, letting the actual claims and assertions of protagonists speak for themselves;
  • not revealing their own preferences in unconscious ways, e.g., facial expressions, gestures or tone of voice;
  • not implying a correct opinion through their choice of respondents in a discussion;
  • not siding with a majority opinion but subjecting all views to rational criticism

Point to consider: To what extent is this commitment to the avoidance of unintentional bias equally appropriate for the teacher of RE? Why/why not?

Guidance documentation and teacher resources offer a number of approaches to the teaching of controversial issues in the classroom. These approaches, which usually take the form of the teacher adopting a particular role in the classroom, have been summarised in Jerome. L et al. (2003):

  1. Neutral chair
    Here, the teacher is a facilitator acting to encourage informed debate between students. The teacher does not present any opinion but facilitates the discussion between different opinions. Some opinions may been given more airing than others as they may be more popular than others.

  2. Balanced approach
    The teacher may present a range of opinions (not necessarily their own) but in doing so try to present the different opinions in a balanced way, giving each opinion each weighting. Such an approach may involve playing ‘devil’s advocate’ and arguing passionately for two different opinions.

  3. Committed participant
    The teacher makes their own position and reasons for that position, known to the students.

Clearly each of these approaches has its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, whilst the committed participant model allows the teacher to openly present their own opinion, beliefs etc, some would argue that the teacher should never make their own position known in the classroom as to do so may be to bias a discussion or inadvertently influence the opinions of their students. In reality it is likely that the teacher may adopt some or all of these approaches within the context of a scheme/unit or work or even a single lesson.

Think about:
a) Which of the above approaches (if any) would be most effective in the context of the RE classroom and why?
b) Might some approaches be better suited to the exploration of particular issues than others? Why/why not?

Further examples of guidance for teachers may be found on the websites below.

As each of these guidance documents have emerged from a particular context and organisation, it is important to read the guidance carefully and ask yourself:

  • What similarities/differences do you see in the guidance these organisations have produced for teachers?
  • Are there any tensions evident in the advice given by these organisations?
  • What values/assumptions/beliefs might underpin these tensions?
  • How would resolve these tensions for your own practice as a teacher?
Controversial issues across the curriculum

Controversial issues across the curriculum

a_Pencils-11.jpgAs we have already seen, controversial or sensitive issues are not just the concern of the RE teacher but appear throughout the curriculum, most noticeably perhaps in subjects such as Citizenship and PSHE but also in subjects such as science and history. Topics such as evolution, intelligent design and creationism may be covered in both the science and RE classroom, as may questions concerning the ethics of stem cell research and testing medical products on animals. The Holocaust frequently crosses the History and RE boundary and of course many of the world conflicts studied in the history classroom may have close connections with topics covered in RE such as religiously motivated conflict, violence, oppression, discrimination etc.

It is clear therefore that whilst issues of a sensitive or controversial nature will arise in RE, the teaching of what are generally termed ‘controversial issues’ extends beyond the RE classroom into other discrete curriculum subjects and cross curricular themes. National curriculum documentation suggests that teaching controversial issues provides students with opportunities to develop their critical capabilities and personal, learning, and thinking skills (PLTS). Learning to explore, discuss and examine issues of a controversial and sensitive nature can give students the confidence to engage in genuine dialogue with others in an attitude of openness and respect. Moreover, in so doing they also learn to examine their own opinions and interrogate the beliefs, values and assumptions that underpin those opinions. Teaching controversial issues thus provides children and young people with essential skills for life.

Teaching controversial issues in RE

Teaching controversial issues in RE

a_Pencils-11.jpgHowever, whilst the above are certainly valuable skills, it is important in RE that we don’t lose sight of the overall context within which we might be exploring sensitive or controversial issues. Divorcing issues such as contraception, abortion, and euthanasia from the faith traditions we may be exploring can lead to superficiality and the promotion of religious stereotypes. It is not unsurprising that people get frustrated when they feel their beliefs are taken out of context or misrepresented in the RE classroom. To refer to all Catholics as being against contraception for instance would not represent the real lived experience of many people who would consider themselves to be part of the Catholic church. Neither would it accurately represent the importance of individual informed conscience in the Catholic church’s teaching on issues of morality. It is crucial therefore that as RE teachers we properly contextualise the issues we are exploring.

One of the easiest ways to ensure that we avoid stereotypical representations in the RE classroom is to refer to ‘some Christians’, ‘some Buddhists’, ‘some Muslims’. This enables our teaching of religious perspectives on sensitive or controversial issues to be sufficiently open to allow for a wide variety of beliefs and opinions within and as well as between religious traditions. Similarly, it would equally as important to refer to ‘some Catholics’, ‘some Baptists’, ‘some Anglicans’, as we cannot assume that there is just one single unified response to difficult and complex issues even within denominations.

Another important point to make concerning the teaching of controversial issues in RE concerns one of starting points. Many GCSE syllabuses make it appear that the starting point for a religious person is a contemporary moral issue from which they work back to a fundamental belief or moral stance. In reality this is not the case. Most of us do not live our lives with a set of opinions about contemporary moral issues at the forefront of our minds. Rather, it is when we are faced with an ethical and difficult dilemma that we turn our minds to thinking about how we might respond to that dilemma. One of the things we would then turn to is our world view - our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the nature of the world, the value and purpose of life. So in studying religious perspectives on contemporary world issues it is important that we don’t put the cart before the horse, that is, the issue before the person and their faith or beliefs.



Further guidance:

a_Pencils-11.jpgChannel 4 produced a video entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues’. This video features teachers from three different schools and focuses on the different approaches they take when delivering lessons on controversial issues. The aim of the video is to assist teachers in the delivery of lessons on controversial issues by highlighting and disseminating best practice in this area. For further details see http://www.channel4.com/learning/programmenotes/inset/teachcontrv01.htm

Find out about REsilience. The aim of this project is to help RE teachers become more confident in their teaching of contentious issues, particularly where such issues are sometimes used to justify extremism and violence.The programme is school based and tailored to individual needs.


http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/guide/ http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/rs/

Teaching about controversial issues - (Teachernet)

Further Reading:

  • Claire, H., and Holden, C. (2007) The Challenge of Teaching Controversial Issues. Trentham Books.
  • Geddes, A. N. (1991)_ Improving the Quality of Science Classroom Discourse on Controversial Issues_. Science Education, 75(2), 169-183.
  • Hsu, Pei-Ling. (2010) Beyond Space and across Time: Non-Finalized Dialogue about Science and Religion Discourse. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 5(1), 201-212.
  • Jerome. L et al. (2003) The Citizenship Co-ordinators' Handbook. Nelson Thornes Ltd.
  • Settelmaier, E. (2010) The Conflict on Genesis: Building an Integral Bridge between Creation and Evolution. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 5(1), 243-249.
  • Stolberg, T., and Teece, G. (2010) Teaching Religion and Science: Effective Pedagogy and Practical Approaches for RE Teachers. Routledge.
  • Watson, J. (2004) Educating for citizenship- the emerging relationship between religious education and citizenship education. British Journal of Religious Education, 26(3), 259-271.
  • Wooley, R. (2010) Tackling Controversial Issues in the Primary School: Facing life's challenges with your learners. Routledge.