Should we teach controversial issues in the history classroom?
Posted by Cate Duquette
Like most university teachers in Quebec, my classes are three hours long, split into two ninety-minute blocks by a welcome fifteen minute break. This break, I feel, is a key moment of the class since it is a time when students not only ask questions but also engage in interesting discussions regarding history and history education. Today, the subject of our conversation was the political situation in Egypt and Yemen. At some point, a member of the class wondered how she could address the topic with her students. Most of her classmates were quick to give her suggestions, except for one. She remained quiet for a time before voicing her concerns: should such a controversial topic be brought up in the classroom? Do students have sufficient knowledge of the history of the Middle East to fully understand the crisis and take a critical position on the situation? And what about her own opinion, should she share it with her students? As a history teacher, we sometimes hesitate to bring up controversial issues in the classroom. We know from experience that heated discussions, often based more on emotions than on critical thinking, might erupt, causing us to lose control of both topic and students. Why then should we present controversial issues to our students? Is the study of controversial issues profitable for the learning of history?
Teaching history and citizenship
One of the main reasons to promote the use of controversial issues in the history classroom is its connection to citizenship education. If teachers carefully avoid all controversial topics in their classrooms, can we really hope to produce citizens “ […] capables d’une participation sociale ouverte et éclairée, conformément aux principles et aux valeurs démocratiques ” (Gouvernement du Québec, 2007, chap.7, p.1). Citizenship education, I feel, cannot be separated from the debates that are part of our society. History as a discipline allows students to take a step back and gain a more critical comprehension of the controversy, making the history classroom a privileged space for discussion. Students can be brought to understand that social debates are rarely black and white, and that finding a solution that will please everybody is a next to impossible task. In this way, teaching history using controversial issues allows students to realize the complexity of the society they live in.
Controversies and Historical Thinking
Teaching controversies can also help with the development of students’ historical thinking. Many studies have shown that students find it difficult to understand the role of historical thinking in the study of the discipline. Students prefer to see history as a true story rather than an interpretation of the past (Sandwell, 2005). Moreover, the influence of past events on the current issues is not always clear for students. They seem to view the past and the present as two independent entities having no ties with one another (Duquette, 2011). This comprehension of the discipline is problematic since students do not seem able to understand that historical thinking is a key element to the interpretation of the past. Using controversial topics in the classroom has the potential to help students overcome these difficulties by clarifying the links between past and present. When researching a controversial topic, students have to interpret the past to better understand the controversy found in their present. For example, issues around Native American affairs in Canada cannot be understood without some knowledge of the history of Natives and European relations. Moreover, a topic becomes a controversy when two or more groups have opposite opinions based on different interpretations of similar events. The study of controversial issues can thus help students realize that events, both historical and current, can be interpreted using different perspectives. This may help them move away from their understanding of history as a true and never-changing story of what happened in the past. Overall, the study of controversial issues in history classrooms can serve both as a trigger to promote the development of historical thinking and as a motivation tool to engage students in discussions around issues currently found in their society.
How can one use controversial topics in the history classroom?
Although controversies appear to be an interesting strategy in history education, some important questions remain, including how one might proceed without losing control of the discussion, and how to use controversial subjects to foster the development of historical thinking. To this date, very little research exists on this topic. My next post will review these studies and the methods they propose to see how they can be applied to the history classroom.