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
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
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
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
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