Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom


The curriculum is an inextricable part of what prolific author and cultural critic Raymond Williams refers to as the “selective tradition” of schooling (Williams, 1977). What this means is that through the very selection of what is taught in school, only certain knowledge and perspectives will become official and legitimised, while others end up minimised or excluded (Luke, 1994; Versfeld, 2005). Against this backdrop, all educators invariably end up selecting for or against the various competing beliefs and interest groups situated within society.

Yet, the rise of new technologies in today’s global landscape has disrupted the status quo, providing many students unfettered access to alternative views across a spectrum of controversies that surround us – climate change, economic inequality, immigration, racism and how best to address them. It is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals, groups and especially schools to assert that they have sole custody and guardianship of the truth (Apple, 2009).

Given this context, there are pertinent questions that all Social Studies educators should consider. What role should schools play in addressing these powerful concerns of today’s youth? What type of controversial issues should teachers introduce in the classroom? Should teachers act as neutral facilitators or share their personal stance on these matters? Last but not least, what and whose knowledge should teachers teach?

Definition of Controversial Issues

Controversial or sensitive educational issues have been defined in various ways over the years. In one understanding, Crick (1998) highlights controversy as “an issue about which there is no one fixed universally held point of view" (p. 56). The discussion of such issues serve to "arouse strong feelings and divide communities and society," which would then lead to the creation of explanations and solutions steeped in these alternative beliefs and values (Kerr & Huddleston, 2015, p. 13). This definition of controversial issues presumes that the discussion of divisive ideas benefits society (e.g., enhances democratic thinking, promotes tolerance for diverse perspectives and prepares students to engage in civil discourse) even if it could invite suspicion, scrutiny or even anger from parents, school administrators and the wider public (Hess, 2004).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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