Q & A: Controversial topics are opportunities for open discussion

September 12, 2017
Gordon Thomas, ATA Executive Secretary

Question: What a summer! I know my students will want to talk about Charlottesville, Donald Trump, flawed historical figures, racism and alt-right rallies. These can be controversial topics. If I discuss them in class, is my job at risk?

Answer: Absolutely not. The classroom is a place where controversial issues are discussed, and Alberta Education has developed a policy on controversial issues to guide teachers on issues that may be sensitive and upon which there may not be a consensus of views or of values. The complete policy is printed in the Guide to Education.

The controversial issues policy makes clear that “discussing or studying controversial issues provides opportunities to

  • present alternative points of view, subject to the condition that information presented is not restricted by any federal or provincial law

  • reflect the maturity, capabilities and educational needs of the students

  • meet the requirements of provincially prescribed and approved courses and programs of study and education programs

  • reflect the neighbourhood and community in which the school is located, as well as provincial, national and international contexts.

Controversial issues that have been anticipated by the teacher, and those that may arise incidentally during instruction, should be used by the teacher to promote critical inquiry and/or to teach thinking skills.”

With municipal elections approaching and with the United Conservative Party leadership election in full swing, there may be opportunities to discuss various issues at school. It’s important that these events be opportunities for open discussion, inquiry and values clarification.

However, I need to make very clear that ideas like white supremacy or others that could be categorized as hate speech cannot be treated as if they are worthy of exploration. In other words, these aren’t debatable in our classrooms. Such discussion would just lend legitimacy to the ideas and could in itself violate hate speech laws.

The controversial issues policy can be very helpful as we address student learning needs. Teachers can create situations for discussion of opposing viewpoints. This is healthy and educational. But dictating how to think undermines the policy and creates unwelcome circumstances where controversial issues are not seen as controversial. It is critical that some thought be given to how best to provide opportunities for values clarification and inquiry; students can learn critical thinking skills very effectively.

University of Alberta education professor Jim Parsons always said that a lesson plan is something to do unless something better comes along. Sometimes opportunities present themselves and it is highly appropriate to capitalize on the teaching moment. However, teachers need to be sensitive in addressing the issues and responsive to various positions that may be taken. That said, issues like white supremacy or hate speech are not supported and a teacher should condemn such activities. There is no risk to a teachers’ employment in such circumstances. ❚

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (gordon.thomas@ata.ab.ca).