Learning to Disagree training in Italy

The project Learning to Disagree was presented in Italy during a National Training organized in cooperation with the Chair of History Education of the University of Bari (Apulia region). The training took place as a cycle of three webinars held in July and focused on strategies to implement learning in times of pandemic.

Speakers during the first two meetings presented resources and examples of tasks developed to foster active learning with students working through online platforms. The last session focused on the challenges that the emergency poses to traditional models of education and knowledge.

Video lessons and materials have been published in Italian on Historia Ludens.

Roberto Maragliano, former professor of Education at Roma Tre University, argued that there is a relevant difference between “physical distance” and “social distance”. Whereas the first one is necessary in our times, teachers should aim at avoiding the second one. He highlighted that the current state of crisis of school teaching in Italy could be an opportunity to revise some of its long-standing principles of inspirations. Italian schooling still favours upper general secondary schools over technical/vocational and primary schools, and keeps alive a conflict between humanistic and scientific culture, as well as verbal and non-verbal learning. Forced online learning put into evidence the pitfalls of this system. Although in the immediate aftermath of the Corona crisis the Italian teachers tended to take on the challenge and look for new approaches, in the following months a strong reaction has tended to debase these attempts. The long-term impact of this phase is thus difficult to foresee and might contribute to confirm an old education model rather than to overcome it.

Antonio Brusa, former professor of History Education at the University of Bari, stated that each generation tends to refer to a presumed former golden age of historical knowledge and identifies a cause of growing historical ignorance in its present time. Nowadays, online learning is taken as the cause of Italian students’ ignorance. Although he admitted that many Italian students were not able to take advantage of online learning, Brusa claimed that digital resources enabled millions of them to keep on learning. Thus, online learning should be seen as part of the solution. However, Brusa pointed out that using technologies and new media is not enough to innovate transmissive approaches to teaching and learning. On the opposite, teachers should be aware of the risk that the use of up-to-date digital technologies covers a very traditional, teacher-centred approach. Moreover, the use of technologies must base on awareness of the epistemology of the disciplines and specific aims of each lesson. These, in turn, depend on real pupils and students.

Mr Paolo Ceccoli, former EuroClio President, opened the first session by presenting the Association and its activities. This was of special interest for Italian teachers because there is not a single strong association of history teachers in the country. This a great occasion to present Euroclio activities in Italy.

Mr Valerio Bernardi, member of the core team of Learning to Disagree, described the aims and the teaching materials that have been produced. In the first session, he introduced and showed some aspects of the teaching guide and how the project developed during the years. He also presented the activities prepared from the core team and published on Historiana. During the second session, he provided a detailed presentation of the activity about migration and the Vlora case study (which will also be presented at the 2020 EuroClio Annual Conference, see link). One third of the participants expressed a will to use the material proposed in class next year.

Ms Lucia Boschetti, who is working on a PhD in History Education at the University of Bari, focused on playful learning in history. She stressed the importance of creative learning and presented an activity set up in the 16th century. It aimed at enabling students to understand the changes in the concept of citizenship from Modern Times to European citizenship through playing interactive stories. Moreover, she explained how the free programming language Scratch supports the development of computational thinking as well as of historical thinking. Indeed, by creating a project about the crisis of the 14th century by using Scratch, students have to ask themselves questions about historical relevance and causality.

Mr Cesare Grazioli, who has published several articles about teaching contemporary history in Italy, explained how he planned and implemented materials to assess students’ historical thinking skills when learning online. He proposed examples of both formative and summative assessment. Attendee particularly appreciated an assignment which required students to select, analyse and use images as evidence of contention regarding political and social problems in the aftermath of the Second World War.

75 teachers followed at least 2/3 of the course, and 63 of them answered a final survey. On the basis of the results, attendees were equally distributed between lower secondary and upper secondary schools and came from all around Italy, although the majority worked in Apulia.

The course aimed to offer an opportunity for training but also to create a community of educators wishing to exchange ideas, doubts and experiences. The attendee particularly appreciated this aspect. Indeed 94% of them declared that they would like to join other meetings to discuss about daily teaching routine with colleagues. A higher percentage agreed that digital resources can contribute to improving the quality of teaching and learning after the pandemic. As argued by experts, teachers can achieve this result if they can plan their lessons with an awareness of the aims and methods of history teaching. Otherwise, online teaching and learning are likely to strengthen the comeback of a purely transmissive approach to the discipline, which proved to be poorly effective regardless of in-class or on-line teaching.


Written by Valerio Bernardi, history teacher and member of the Learning to Disagree team & Lucia Boschetti, PhD candidate in History Education at the University of Bari


Learning to Disagree Offline – An in-person workshop for teacher trainers in Miskolc, Hungary

Djoera Otter Articles, Report

Learning to Disagree Offline – An in-person workshop for teacher trainers in Miskolc, Hungary

Picture: Participants discuss the Lesson Plan in small groups.


Learning to Disagree is slowly but steadily coming to an end. This project was initiated in response to the needs of educators who experience difficulties in addressing sensitive and controversial issues in their classrooms.  The project offers workshops and support materials for teachers to face these controversial topics head-on in their classrooms.

This is of course bittersweet as the team has had a wonderful time working together over the past three years. However, this also means that we can finally share the learning activities with the wider EuroClio community. The sharing of the learning activities often happens during national teacher trainings, which would usually have people meet in person. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the subsequent restrictions to limit the spread of the disease, have made meeting people in person a little difficult. Nonetheless, we are happy to report that Zsolt Vódli, core member of the Learning to Disagree team and board member of the Hungarian History Teachers’ Association (Törtenelemtana'rok Egylete), managed to organise a national training in person on September 18, 2020.

The workshop was held at the University of Miskolc at the faculty of Arts and Humanities. 19 graduating teacher trainers, most of who majored in history, partook in the workshop that presented the learning activity Leaders in Times of Turmoil, created by Zsolt and Juraj Varga.  This learning activity allows students to work in small groups and discuss provocative statements about decision made by leaders at the most pivotal times in history. Then, according to the Four Corner Teaching Strategy that is incorporated in the learning activity, students must decide whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statements and come to a shared understanding.

Thus, besides gaining a more in-depth understanding of the historical context in which these decisions were made, students will simultaneously develop a plethora of skills and abilities, such as: substantiating their opinion with relevant (historical) sources, eloquently and respectfully voicing their opinions to others, considering and valuing different viewpoints, critical thinking, and it goes without saying that they learn to disagree. These are all skills and abilities students will be able to enjoy long after leaving secondary education.

During the workshop Zsolt taught the teacher trainers that were present how they could foster and facilitate this process of learning for students, by illustrating and discussing how teachers could directly implement the lesson plan in their own classroom.

The participants found the content of the material very informative, as it provided a wide range of historical background knowledge. This was specifically considered valuable in the Hungarian context in which the workshop took place, as students in secondary schools do not learn much about the events of recent past, and in particular of events from other countries. The four-corner strategy was also received very positively as participants said the statements were provocative and generated interesting discussions and helped to improve critical thinking as well as debate tactics. Some of the participants said the activity could be supplementary material in secondary schools, as it was so well grounded in both history and civic education. We are happy to conclude that the workshop was a great success!

You might now wish you could have joined Zsotl’s workshop. And if you do, we have good news for you! While COVID-19 might prevent us from meeting face-to-face in most situations, it hasn’t stopped us from meeting online. You can join Zsolts’ workshop, which he will host with Juraj, online on November 16, at 16:30 at EuroClio’s Annual Conference! For more information on the workshop and how to register, please click here.

Besides registering for Zsolts’ workshop, do check out the other workshops that are part of EuroClio’s Annual Conference as well. EuroClio’s (first!) Online Annual Conference and Professional Development Training Course: Controversy and Disagreement in the Classroom will present 20 different workshops that will give you hands-on, ready-to- use lesson plans that will help you teach your students to articulate and substantiate their arguments in a debate.

To see the full, ambitious programme of our conference, please click here.

Can’t wait to use the learning activity? Check out the learning activity on Historiana here!

Public Report Potsdam Training December 2019

EuroClio Project Updates, Report

The fifth Learning to Disagree training took place in in Potsdam, Germany from 13 to 15 December 2019. It was organized by EuroClio in cooperation with the Georg Eckert Institute and the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam. Nineteen history and citizenship educators were present from the following 17 countries: Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. During the training, they continued to work on the project results, especially on familiarizing themselves with the Training Package that has been created to support the organisation of the National Trainings. The National Trainings will be organised between February and July 2020 to disseminate the final products to the wider community of history educators.

This meeting was conducted within the framework of the EuroClio Erasmus+ project “Learning to Disagree” (L2D) which runs from September 2017 - August 2020.

The 3-day training consisted of a variety of activities that were relevant to the project topic and functioning, including multiple “Train the trainer” sessions, a sharing round on the lessons learned from the piloting of the developed material, and the collaborative creation of three source collections on controversial cultural heritage. Two active workshops were also held, using materials developed by the project team, and an active training session on contested memories in Potsdam.

The main aims of this meeting were:

● To design the National Trainings
● To share experiences, tips and tricks on training on formative assessment and teaching strategies
● To discover the reality of contested memories in Germany
● To design collaboratively the source collections on controversial buildings, monuments, and street names
● To finalise the development of the Variety of Viewpoints by peer reviewing the titles and descriptions of every viewpoint
● To share the results of the external piloting and peer reviewing of the lesson plans


The training in Potsdam resulted in a further exchange between educators from across Europe, on experiences and methods related to Learning to Disagree. The participants discussed their experiences and different approaches from piloting of the materials developed during the project. They reviewed and finalized the Varieties of Viewpoints and lesson plans on the topics of ‘People on the Move’, ‘Borders, Secession, Annexation’, ‘Surviving under pressure’, and ‘Cultural Heritage’. Furthermore, it results in 12 draft programme for National Trainings, including tentative budget and tentative dates, and in the finalisation of 3 source collections on controversial cultural heritage.


Read the Full Report Here:


Teacher’s Guide – Learning to Disagree

This teachers’ guide has been written as part of the EuroClio Erasmus+ funded project ‘Learning to Disagree’.

It has been produced to support the teaching and assessment of dialogue, debate and discussion in the classroom where the subject matter may, or may not be, sensitive and controversial. This Guide is structured into three parts. Part A introduces the project and contextualises why dialogue, discussion and debate (DDD) should be taking place in classrooms. Definitions relevant to the project are set out along with a clear indication of how they come to be used in this project. Definitions include dialogue, discussion, debate, viewpoints and competence with particular emphasis on social and civic competences. Part B is the Teaching Guide and Part C is the Assessment Guide. These two parts have been written to complement each other and should be used together.

They both accompany the content and teaching materials of the Learning to Disagree project that can be found at www.historiana.eu and they consist of:
• Twelve sets of ‘Varieties of Viewpoints’
• Learning plans for lessons using some of the Viewpoints
• E-Learning activities using the ‘Variety of Viewpoints’ material.

The guide has been written with history and civics teachers and researchers from across Europe using multi-perspective materials from a wider variety of communities. This guide is not written for policy makers. While we hope it will be of interest to see how practising teachers work, please turn to the needs’ assessment document of this project for more detail about the theory that underpins this work, including a review of some of the relevant literature.

The full teacher's guide is available in:

Learning to Disagree – Professional Training for History teachers

EuroClio Opportunities

Are you a History teacher in secondary education? Do you see controversial topics as a challenge, and are you eager to tackle them with your students?

Or, have you found yourself avoiding a controversial historical issue in the classroom because of the lack of educational resources to teach it properly? Then, the Learning to Disagree training will be an ideal opportunity for you to be introduced to new pedagogical techniques and teaching styles.

Learning to Disagree is a Professional Training and Development Course for history teachers, which will take place during the upcoming months in the following countries:


Bulgaria date and location to be confirmed

Croatia date and location to be confirmed

Estonia date and location to be confirmed

France date and location to be confirmed

Greece date and location to be confirmed

Hungary 07/03/2020 (Budapest). A second training will take place in Miskolc in Fall 2020.

Italy Online, 08 July 2020.

Slovakia date and location to be confirmed

Slovenia date and location to be confirmed

Spain date and location to be confirmed

Turkey date and location to be confirmed

United Kingdom date and location to be confirmed

Contents of the training

A set of specifically designed educational material dealing with difficult historical and political topics. It is divided into four thematics: Borders (including Separatism and Annexation), Surviving Under Pressure (including Famine and War), People on the Move, and Cultural Heritage. The selection of the material that will be used in the training will vary in each training. The lessons are designed based on a concept called Variety of Viewpoints; a collection of contrasting quotes from politicians, journalists, and locals, on which the students are asked to comment.

A series of engaging educational activities structured around debate and dialogue. A prominent example is the fishbowl method, in which a circle of students discusses in the center of the classroom and the rest of the students act as observers and journalists, who later comment on the quality of the discussion. You will learn how to facilitate these activities in the classroom, according to your students' needs.

Innovative lessons require innovative assessment too. In this training you will learn how to assess the results of the activities that are focused on debate and dialogue, both for each student individually, and as a group experience. You will learn how to monitor students' civic competences.

A presentation of the Learning to Disagree project findings regarding what is needed in policy to further promote democratic values and mutual respect in education.

You can join

All trainings will be in the national language of each country.

Participation is free but a registration to the training is needed. Stay tuned for the announcement of exact dates and places. Please keep in mind that the amount of participants may be limited.



The Learning to Disagree trainings are part of the Learning to Disagree Project

Public Report Utrecht Training August 2019

Charlotte Pontifell Report

Public Report Utrecht Training August 2019

The fourth training of the Learning to Disagree project took place in Utrecht (The Netherlands) from 19 to 21 August 2019 and was organised by EUROCLIO and Utrecht University. For the training 23 history and citizenship educators were present from the following 16 countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey and United Kingdom. This includes staff of the project partners, and a core team of Historiana volunteers that was formed during the previous short-term training that took place in 2018 Serbia. During this training, they continued to work more intensively on the project results, especially on  the historical content that will be featured on Historiana[1], lesson plans that will accompany the content, and National Trainings that will be organised between February and July 2020 to disseminate the final products to the wider community of history educators.


This meeting was conducted within the framework of the EUROCLIO-led Erasmus+ project “Learning to Disagree” (L2D) which runs from September 2017 – August 2020.


The 3-day training consisted of a variety of activities that were relevant to the project topic, including the visualisation of the online environment where the final results will be published. In addition, participants received an active training session on multiperspectivity in history education. There were also 11 active workshops on the leasson plans developed by the core team, and an interactive session (World Café) on controversial buildings, monuments, and changing street names in the countries represented at the training. Further work was done on the Variety of Viewpoints, one of the key project outputs, and finally the participants learned more about the controversy around street names related to the colonial past of the Netherlands.


The main aims of this meeting were:

  • To work together on designing source collections and learning ideas related to Cultural Heritage.
  • To enhance knowledge on the controversies and sensitivities related to Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands.
  • To peer-review the developed lesson plans and provide inputs for finalisation for piloting process.
  • To be trained in the use of dialogue, debate and discussion in relation to the topics 1) People on the Move, 2) Changing Borders and 3) Surviving under Pressure.
  • To agree on the piloting procedure including what inputs to collect, how to integrate this, and timing.
  • To co-design the framework for the training package that will be used to organise the 13 national training events in Spring 2020.

[1] Historiana is a webplatform build by EUROCLIO that Historiana offers free historical content, ready to use learning activities, and innovative digital tools made by and for history educators across Europe. For more information see: https://www.historiana.eu


Full Report: Public Report Utrecht Training August 2019

Call for Workshops at the 27th EuroClio Annual Conference

Alice Modena Opportunities

Do you know a teaching method on how to deal with controversies and disagreement in the classroom? Do you teach about People on the Move, Borders, Surviving under Pressure, or (controversial) Cultural Heritage? Then, we invite you to apply to become a workshop host at our upcoming Annual Conference!

We are looking for workshops that are interactive, innovative, and that deal with the conference theme or with the sub-topics. Each workshop should last no more than 90 minutes, and present ready to use teaching methods that participants could apply in their classroom. More information can be found at this link. The deadline for application is Sunday 01 December 2019.

If you have any question on the Call for Workshops, please contact us at alice@euroclio.eu.

If you would like to apply, please fill in the application form below.

Step 1 of 2

Please specify the relation of the workshop to the theme of the conference, as described in the Conference description available on the EuroClio website (Max. 200 words)

Will your workshop present (an) interactive element(s)? If yes, which one?

Learning to disagree: How?

Maayke De Vries Articles

Student populations are no longer homogenous in our globalized classrooms, therefore there is an increased likelihood of spontaneous disagreements in the classroom. In light of the project “Learning to Disagree”, EuroClio aims to support educators in discussing controversial topics by developing teaching materials and guidelines. This blog post focuses on preparatory work for educators before bringing controversial topics into the classroom. The emphasis is on the importance of awareness about the role of teachers’ beliefs and values, creating a classroom community, and explicit teaching of civic competences.

Why teaching to disagree?

The Council of Europe reaffirmed its worries about big topics as exclusion, discrimination and polarization in European societies during their conference in 2017. The teaching of civic competences is seen as a way to counteract those serious problems (Council of Europe Report 2017, 13). One of those competences is a willingness to accept other viewpoints as equally valid as one’s own (Stradling 2003, 14). The subject of history is characterised as the field in which students should acquire civic competences to develop a more democratic, inclusive, and harmonious society (Navarro and Howard 2017,  227).  The question rises how history educators can cater for a classroom atmosphere that recognizes and appreciates multiple perspectives, especially regarding controversial topics? The first important factor to consider is the teachers' beliefs and values.

Teacher Identity

Example of a classroom contract

Teachers should be aware of their sense of purpose, which is determined by their beliefs, values, and experiences. Important decisions related to pedagogy and academics are affected by teachers’ understanding of their role as educators and their understanding of the purpose of their subject (Ho 2017, 326). Therefore, it would be advisable for teachers to reflect on their teaching philosophy and consider how this is influenced by factors such as race, gender, and social class. This is called a sociocultural consciousness in North-American literature related to multicultural education (Villegas and Lucas 2002, 21). Teachers with a sociocultural consciousness also realize that there is not something like “neutral” or “a-political” (Villegas and Lucas 2002, 23).

Like the US, European societies are characterized by social stratification due to factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, social states, ability and sexual orientation. Teachers should reflect on this reality before discussing sensitive topics, like ethnic diversity, dealing with the totalitarian past, racism, or colonialism, with students in order to distinguish informed opinions from opinionated information. This reflection can be stimulated by readings that engage teachers with different ideological perspectives or structured reflective writings based onwriting prompts (Sleeter and Flores Carmona 2017, 39). Before discussing sensitive matters, it is desired that teachers reflect on their sociocultural consciousness and realize that their sense of purpose determines their approach in teaching sensitive issues (Ho 2017, 326).

Classroom Community

Example of a brainstorm about the concept Identity

Another important step is the creation of a safe space, in order to allow students to express their thinking while examining the topic (Ho 2017, 330). A safe space, however, is not the same as a comfortable one. A classroom can be a dignity safe classroom, while being intellectually unsafe by challenging students’ opinion (Flensner and Von der Lippe 2019, 278). Therefore, there should be something like ‘classroom civility’; expectations regarding values and basic norms to treat others with dignity (Flensner and Von der Lippe 2019, 279). To establish such dignity safe classroom, the examination of the concept of identity is a starting point. This allows for an understanding of the existence of multiple perspectives, due to unique identities that experience and view the world differently.

These are a few suggested activities that help to explore the concept of identity with students. An exercise about names and the meaning behind names set students on a path to explore their cultural background (Christensen 2017, 9). Another way is working with an identity chart, which helps students to think about the factors that make up their identity. The Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appropriately titled” The Danger of a Single Story”  is another way that allows a conversation to take place talk about identities and stereotypes (Christensen 2017, 71).

Eventually, it would be encouraged to create some kind of classroom contract. This can be done by an initial brainstorm on treating others with dignity, which can be translated into expectations or norms. For lower levels, the home advantage for sports team is a suitable idea to use for designing classroom expectations (Daniels and Ahmed 2015, 94). The document/chart created after such a session should have a prominent place in the classroom, so it can be consulted regularly, especially when engaging in activities that allow for multiperspectivity. Needless to say, these activities require a positive relationship between teacher and student, which is essential throughout the year.

Explicit Teaching of Civic Competences

Six-words memoirs created by students based on their identity chart

There are different methods that a teacher can use to employ multiperspectivity while teaching a sensitive topic. Discussion-based approaches are effective in developing civic skills, like developing an informed opinion, discussing with others, and respecting opposite viewpoints (Ho 2017, 328). However, this should go along with explicit teaching of discussion, self-reflection, and inquiry skills (Kello 2016, 37). It is important to distinguish a discussion from a debate, as the latter has the opposite effect (Ho 2017, 329). Thus, a teacher can utilize several teaching methods to conduct a discussion, e.g: world cafe, socratic seminar, or fishbowl. Suggestion

s for teaching methods focused on debate, dialogue or discussion and practical examples can be found in the Teacher's Guide produced in the framework of the Learning to Disagree project, that will be publicly available early 2020.There should be explicit teaching of necessary skills when conducting such discussions. A teacher could refer to the classroom contract and establish together with the students some behavioural expectations for the discussion. The focus can be on active listening or respectfully disagreeing. Students can first think for themselves what this means and how one can show this, whereafter their suggestions can be compiled on the board. After the activity, students reflect on their behaviours and set goals for themselves for the next time.


There is some preparatory work required before teachers can utilize content that addresses multiperspectivity in controversial issues. It is important that teachers first become aware of their own biases, which affect their pedagogical strategies. Secondly, students should have a feeling of civility safety in the classroom before engaging in a discussion about something sensitive. This can be done by focusing on the existence of different identities and thus different world views. In order to ensure everyone’s dignity, certain expectations can be written down on a classroom contract. Finally, there is a need to explicitly teach civic competences when it concerns a sensitive topic. The described steps allow educators to anticipate different viewpoints in our hyper-diverse classrooms nowadays.


This blogpost is written by Maayke de Vries (History teacher at International School Almere and Prospective PhD Student at the University College London), who joined the project meeting of the Learning to Disagree project in Utrecht in August 2019. In the project we are developing educational materials that you can implement in your classroom dealing with controversial and sensitive issues such as migration, living under totalitarian regimes and dealing with the history of this, and disputed cultural heritage. We also provide teachers guides on how you can use the techniques of debate, dialogue and discussion in the classroom with concrete examples, and on how to assess social and civic competences in that process. This blogpost was written as a supplemental resource looking at preparations before you can apply these resources in your classroom practice.

More from Maayke on www.mizsdafreeze.com


Christenesen, Linda. 2017. Reading, Writing, and Rising up. Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd.

Daniels, Harvey “Smokey” and Sara K. Ahmed. 2015. Upstanders. How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Flensner, Karin K. and Marie Von der Lippe. 2019. “‘Being safe from what and safe for whom? A critical discussion of the conceptual metaphor of ‘safe space’.” Intercultural Education 30 (3):275-288. DOI: 10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102

Ho, Li‐Ching, Paula McAvoy, Diana Hess, and Brian Gibbs. 2017. “Teaching and Learning

about Controversial Issues and Topics in the Social Studies: A Review of the Research.” In The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research, edited by Manfra, Meghan McGlinn, and Cheryl Mason Blick, 321-335. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Kello, Katrin. 2016. “Sensitive and Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Teaching History in a Divided Society.” Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 22 (1): 35–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2015.1023027.

Navarro, Oscar and Tyrone C. Howard. 2017. “A Critical Race Theory Analysis of Social

Studies Research, Theory and Practice.” In The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research, edited by Manfra, Meghan McGlinn, and Cheryl Mason Blick, 209-226. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Sleeter, Christine and Judith Flores Carmona. 2017. UnStandardizing Curriculum. Multicultural Teaching in Standardized Classrooms. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Villegas, Ana Maria and Tamara Lucas. 2002. “Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers:

Controversy and Polarization in European Contexts: Sharing insights from a research meeting in Brussels

Lexi Oudman Articles

One of a teacher’s worst nightmares is when a classroom explodes into a heated argument that gets out of control. This is possible in all contexts and for various reasons; some instances are predicable, while others are completely unexpected. EuroClio has been exploring these issues with the ongoing Learning to Disagree project, with resources available in March 2020.

The Evens Foundation and The Flemish Peace Institute called a research meeting May 23-24 2019 to dig into the difficulties surrounding controversy and polarization. As part of my research traineeship at EuroClio, I was asked to present the Learning to Disagree project and parts of my master’s research at Erasmus University on controversial and sensitive history in a Dutch context. Here I will discuss some of the most important findings from that meeting.

Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the classroom

Initiator of the meeting and driven by his role as senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute, Maarten Van Alstein, wrote Omgaan met Controversie en Polarisatie in de Klas (Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the Classroom). Based on his research in the Flemish educational context, Van Alstein has developed a “scenario based approach” that may help teachers to deal with emotive and sensitive topics in the classroom. He discusses how in Belgium, and across the globe, students are being pulled to more extreme views with more strongly held positions that makes it more difficult to teach or predict when controversy may occur in the classroom. He distinguishes three different scenarios:

Scenario one: “A Classroom in Turmoil” describes a situation where a classroom explodes due to insensitive or inflammatory remarks. In this situation, depending on the teachers and students present in the classroom, a teacher must decide what to do quickly. There are pros and cons to removing a student from the class, cutting-off discussions, encouraging further discussion or probe a student for a particular response. Removing a student from the classroom may cease the undesired comments from the discussion, but it also limits that student’s ability to engage in more perspectives. There may be a fear of allowing a student to remain will only amplify the insensitive or undesired remarks, although probing a student for why they hold a particular viewpoint can allow for debasing their comments. Van Alstein states that in a polarized classroom teachers should aim for the middle, less vocal students by providing arguments based upon reason and evidence. These are the students who do not have cemented beliefs and may potentially be persuaded by the more radical classmates.

Scenario two: “Controversial Topics in the Curriculum” focusses on topics from within the curriculum that are perceived as controversial. Van Alstein highlights that, first, teachers need to estimate if the controversy is an open or a settled controversy. A “settled controversy”, for instance, is evolution, which some students may still consider to be  controversial. Van Alstein encourages teachers to use correct terminology and to avoid presenting topics in absolutist terms. Instead, it is important to allow  students to inquire and learn how to ask disciplinary questions in order to evaluate the topics like a scientist or a historian would. An “open controversy” is a topic that still has unanswered questions within the field. For example, in science classes students may evaluate evidence on effectiveness of different modern vaccines. Dealing with “open controversies” may be more effective for student to engage with once they are accustomed to using the disciplinary methods and weighing viewpoints.

Scenario three: “Controversy as Pedagogy” is where teachers use controversial issues to introduce students to different perspectives and engage students in democratic discussions in the classroom. Prior to using this pedagogy, teachers should plan their goals and preferably have a longer project based time period to work with students. This should be done in an established democratic classroom and it may be better to start with less controversial issues. This way, students would slowly become accustomed to engage with talking about such topics, allowing the classes to be built up to more recent issues or topics closer to their identity. An example from history education could be having students engage in a dialogue or debate on a particular event and look at different historical interpretations. This allows for students to weigh each position and explore why those particular theories may have been held.

In all three scenarios, Van Alstein encourages teachers to use the classroom as a means for democratic engagement by creating a safe classroom with an “open-class climate” in which students and teachers are able to participate in a democratic way. This encourages students to use critical thinking and ask inquiry questions. Such an open class climate can be established if teachers first recognize biases in their own practice and reflect on what their position will be in potential situations. Second, by setting up rules with students to create a democratic, safe classroom. As a teacher, this means some of the classroom authority will shift to students; this encourages self-direction and ownership. Finally, teachers need to help students work through and engage in dialogue around potential controversial or sensitive topics. This may include having students first research or journal their thoughts to ensure a discussion has academic foundation. This may also help students to recognize their own biases and influences of outside narratives.

Expanding into a Broader European Context

The meeting moved forward into each individual or organization sharing their experiences with controversy and polarisation. Participants came from Belgium, Croatia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. Cross-disciplinary discussions between English, science and history teachers along with teacher trainers. It provided rich discussions and best practices to emerge from each context.

Thea, an English teacher from Croatia, described how her school worked to integrate students from Serbian and Croatian backgrounds. The school provides opportunities for students to participate in classes together, in a school system that allows for segregation based upon language. She explained that students have the choice to join in classes or go on trips with classmates from opposite regional identity. This helps in countering stereotypes that each group has about the other.

Olivier, from France, provided intriguing methods using multi-perspectivity in science classes. France has a rigid prescribed syllabi and he has found ways to engage with using the content as controversy, or in Van Alstein’s terms “controversy as pedagogy.” He provided the example of having students research the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, which is an open controversy with no firm scientific conclusions. Each student group had to present, with evidence, on their recommendations for the vaccine. In one class, three groups, reading the same evidence provided three different answers—one said to get vaccinated, one said do not get vaccinated and the third group said they did not know what to do. The teachers do not force students to select an answer, rather, provide the evidence and allow for students to choose for themselves what they want to believe.

Representatives from Poland and Barcelona discussed the difficulties that teachers, NGOs, and educational professionals are facing in these contexts. In Poland, the discourse is quite bleak around education, with the government vilifying teachers after the month long teacher’s strike. In Barcelona, some teachers are facing the risk of prosecution for discussing the 2017 Catalan conflict after the unsanctioned independence referendum. In both scenarios there is increased fear from teachers and significant blocks for engaging in controversy or polarization in their classrooms.

Despite push back from government and communities there are teachers who encourage students to engage with difficult topics in these contexts. They have created Good Conversation Clubs, Forum Theatre’s and encouraged students to engage with social campaigns. These groups are reaching out to engage with the whole community to initiate whole community change to help restore the loss of trust between teachers and the community. There also is hope in the amount of students that are voluntary participating.

I have done integrated research for my master’s degree and EuroClio. My Master’s research centres on how international school teachers in the Netherlands deal with sensitive and controversial history. I used research and literature to help write a working document for EuroClio on what factors teachers need to consider prior to engaging with sensitive or controversial history. I will share these results via another article that will be published later. EuroClio is working to develop further resources with the Learning to Disagree Project with the March 31 to April 4 2020 annual conference centred on this topic.

Discussions raised question for how controversy and polarization appear in broader European contexts with each organization presenting individuals initiatives and plans. Each country has unique challenges. Despite all of the differences, there are similarities in the ways to go about engaging in difficult conversations or innovative methods using multiperspectivey. The most hopeful result of all is that there are organisations and individuals that are stepping up to the challenges of controversy and polarization in education.

Written By Lexi Oudman, Former Euroclio Trainee