Handling controversial issues in the classroom
Teachers are increasingly asked to teach about controversial issues which cut across traditional subject boundaries. Of particular interest to humanists are issues where science, ethics and religion meet: topics such as the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth, advances in genetics and medicine, and environmental issues.
This kind of topic is most likely to come up in Science or Religious Education lessons, but may also emerge in subjects like English, Geography, Citizenship and PSHE. Controversial issues are an aspect of National Curriculum Science, though there is little advice about how to deal with them. RE teachers are used to dealing with differences in matters of personal belief, and some of this advice is based on good practice in RE.
The Teacher’s dilemma
Teachers are committed to a respect for truth and evidence, and to developing their pupils’ critical thinking and analytical skills.
Teachers want to discriminate between fact or well established theories (matters for which there is good evidence, matters on which there is a scientific consensus) on the one hand, and stories or opinion (or matters of personal belief) on the other. Often there is no conflict between the two, but, for example, creationists do claim as fact what most people consider to be myth or opinion, and they often claim that scientific evolutionary theory is no better than their “theory”.
Teachers are also committed to respecting diversity and to dealing with pupils’ beliefs tactfully and diplomatically. Religious beliefs are often sincerely and strongly held, and are often aspects of a pupil’s cultural and family background. To criticise those beliefs can seem to the pupil like belittling their family and culture.
Teachers might be concerned that they will seem insensitive and biased if they adhere to the facts, but that if they are too receptive and tactful, their own integrity will be undermined or a strong-minded pupil will confuse or subvert the class.
Ground rules and guidance
Teachers do need to establish ground rules about discussion: students should learn to listen politely to each other, and to agree to differ on occasion. Teachers can model calm and polite behaviour, without giving in to irrationality. It is important to make clear to children the nature of evidence, what counts as evidence, and how evidence helps us to understand nature. It is equally important not to be contemptuous or dismissive of deeply held beliefs.
General advice often encourages the use of “owning and grounding” language, such as “in my opinion…” or “scientists say…” You may not feel this is strong enough for some scientific knowledge, but it is one way of dealing with disagreements diplomatically. Although some advice on teaching controversial issues suggests that the teacher should adopt a neutral or balanced stance, in Science lessons it would be more appropriate to take the alternative “stated commitment role”, and to say “As a scientist, with a commitment to scientific method and ways of thinking, this is what I think…”
It is important that students understand what scientific method is and how it differs from taking authority as one’s source of knowledge. Umberto Eco, writing in The Guardian on 4/9/04 gave a clear account: “Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is based on the principle of ‘ fallibilism ‘ (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists themselves) according to which science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes – and by considering that an experiment that doesn’t work our is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or start over from scratch… This way of thinking is opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, to all literal interpretations of holy writ – which are also open to continuous reinterpretation – and to all dogmatic certainty in one ‘ s own ideas. That is good ‘philosophy’ in the everyday and Socratic sense of the term, which ought to be taught in schools.”
There are topics where “balance” or equal treatment is not called for. You can value both story and science if everyone acknowledges the differences and values them for different reasons – myths, legends and stories can be very beautiful and pleasing and may even tell us much about ourselves and our emotions – while science explains how the world works.
In Science lessons, it is important to be clear and confident about what is “controversial” among scientists and what is not. For example, the fact that life on Earth evolved is not controversial amongst biologists, though they may differ about time scales, the origins of life and the processes driving change. See BHA’s Countering Creationism for further arguments.
In Science lessons it is reasonable to ask for reasons and evidence for any hypothesis put forward, and to differentiate between strong and weak evidence.
You can say things like: “How interesting that you believe that…” and use it as an opportunity to demonstrate that different people believe different things for different kinds of reason, and to demonstrate the kinds of reason that are considered scientific, or appropriate in Science lessons, assignments and exams.
Correct factual misinformation, wherever possible without confrontation and citing supporting evidence.
In RE lessons, empirical evidence is less called for, though reasons and explanations for beliefs and opinions should still be required.
Controversial issues such as cloning are a good opportunity in RE to demonstrate the diversity of views within religions as well as between them. For example, pupils may be aware that some religious groups oppose human cloning, but may be less aware of liberal thinkers such as the Bishop of Oxford, who supports therapeutic cloning and who joined Richard Dawkins in opposing creationist schools (click here to read an article on creationism by this unlikely team). The Church of Scotland has produced a number of discussion papers dealing with controversy in the development of biomedicine. See their website.
Many religious groups, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church, do not think that the creation stories in Genesis are literally true, and accept the evidence for evolution – they simply believe that God plays a part in evolution. Science can demonstrate that there is no real necessity for divine intervention in evolution, but not conclusively that it did not or cannot happen – and at that point the religious and the non-religious have to agree to differ.
Religion and Science are not necessarily in competition. Science has little or nothing to say about ethics, although science can provide the evidence base for ethical reasoning, and religion a great deal – though it is not the only source of moral ideas. Both subjects would benefit from drawing on, for example, philosophy and medical ethics, and teachers from different departments would gain from working together on some topics.
As a last resort, teachers can fall back on the requirements of exams, internal and external, and universities: “Of course you can believe that if you like, but for GCSE / A Level you will have to stick to what the scientific community / theological scholars agree on and the examiner expects.” This is not ideal, as it tends to put an end to discussion by an appeal to authority. You won’t change beliefs, but at least if pupils listen they will get the message that the rest of the world does not share this particular belief and they may pass their exams.
Guidance on the teaching of controversial issues in Citizenship (with an emphasis on balance when discussing political and social issues) can be found in Appendix 2 of Citizenship at KSs 3 and 4, Initial guidance for schools (QCA, 2000) and in the Final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship, DfEE / QCA, 22 September 1998)
More advice on dealing with difficult questions in RE can be found in Non-statutory guidance on RE(QCA, 2000, PDF).
Statement of Shared Values, Appendix to the National Curriculum.
How science should affect the teaching of RE by BHA Education Officer Marilyn Mason – talk given to the Science and Religion Forum in 2003
Below are some useful websites on controversial socio-scientific issues, offering helpful information, ideas and pedagogic strategies for science teachers.
‘Why Creation Science must be taught in schools‘ an excellent article by Tom Stafford and Andrew Brown (first published in The Skeptic magazine, Summer 2005)
The Association for Science Education
School Science http://www.schoolscience.co.uk/
The Nuffield Foundation - Science for Public Understanding
Teaching about religion is a US website advising teachers how to teach about religions and worldviews in an objective and academic way. Although firmly based in the US context, it has some guidance useful for teachers anywhere.
And below are some links to scientific and philosophical arguments against creationism:
“15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” by John Rennie Scientific American ’s defence of evolution.
PBS’s Evolution Website
Talk.Origins “Exploring the creation/evolution controversy.”
National Center for Science Education (American)
Understanding Evolution An evolution website for teachers, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology
Design yes, Intelligent no. A critique of intelligent design “theory” by Massimo Pigliucci of the University of Tennessee
www.corante.com In The Accidental Tumour on this blog, science writer Karl Zimmer wonders why creationists never mention malignant tumours as evidence of God’s creativity.
A review of “Intelligent Design” and its supporters
Panda’s Thumb is an American academics’ blog discussing evolutionary theory and defending science and science education against anti-evolutionists. Essays, reviews, work in progress, etc.