Channel 4 Learning

Teaching Controversial Issues
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Teaching Controversial Issues


From September 2002, Citizenship education has been a statutory entitlement to learning for students aged 11-16 (Key Stages 3-4) in England. Citizenship is intended to be thought-provoking, inspiring and aims to engage students with the topical, political, social and moral issues of the day. Taught well, Citizenship often involves teachers delivering sensitive, political and controversial issues.

The video features teachers from three different schools and focuses on the different approaches they take when delivering lessons on controversial issues. The video should be seen as a starting point for creating awareness and is best used as a way of engaging colleagues in discussion and critical evaluation of what they are viewing from an individual and school perspective.

Teaching Controversial Issues aims to assist teachers in the delivery of lessons on controversial issues by highlighting and disseminating best practice in this area.

The programme sets out to illustrate some of the teaching methods being used:

  1. Teacher roles: Examples of teachers employing different facilitation roles, eg playing devil's advocate, being a neutral chair, acting as a committed participant.
  2. Displacement activities: Methods of defusing tricky situations.
  3. Managing classroom debate: Strategies for establishing ground rules that facilitate open and respectful debate and discussion.
  4. Avoiding bias: Ways in which bias can be unwittingly present in lessons and strategies for avoiding this.

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The programme opens with Jeremy Hayward, (lecturer in Citizenship Education at London's Institute of Education) outlining the advantages of teaching controversial issues in schools.

From this point on, the programme is organised into the following sections, interspersed with advice from Jeremy Hayward:

  • Patcham High School, Brighton: Interviews with teachers and clips from a Year 10 lesson on asylum.
  • East Bergholt High School, Suffolk: Interviews with teachers and clips from a Year 9 lesson on asylum and a Year 7 lesson on animal rights.
  • Cherwell School, Oxford: Interviews with teachers, clips from a Year 10 lesson on gay rights and a look at the way that school councils can also be involved in the delivery of controversial issues.

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Curriculum Relevance

The programme of study for Citizenship at Key Stage 3 (Key Stage 4 is very similar) requires that:

Pupils should be taught to:

  • think about topical political, spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues, problems and events by analysing information and its sources, including ICT-based sources
  • justify orally and in writing a personal opinion about such issues, problems or events
  • contribute to group and exploratory class discussions, and take part in debates

Although the word controversial is not mentioned explicitly in the above programme of study, it would be difficult to find a topical political, spiritual, moral, social or cultural issue that was not in some way controversial. Individual schools and teachers can decide which controversial issues are raised and how often.

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The Teaching Controversial Issues video and supporting guidance was funded by the DfES and 4Learning. It is intended as a training package for teachers in schools to use in developing staff confidence when teaching controversial issues generally, and specifically as part of Citizenship.

The programme was filmed over three days (one day in each school) and none of the lessons featured were created especially for the programme. The lessons were not rehearsed and students were not aware of the content of the lesson to be filmed.

The content of the lessons was discussed with the teachers prior to the filming, to establish the topics that they felt were difficult to teach in their school. The three schools that appear in the programme are very different and thus have very different issues to deal with.

East Bergholt School is a mixed rural comprehensive in Suffolk, with over 800 students on roll. Its catchment area is stable and predominately middle class; the majority of students are white and all come from homes where English is spoken as the first language. GCSE results are higher than the national average, with 81% achieving grades A-C in 2002. The school holds beacon status in a number of areas.

Teachers at East Bergholt School considered the issue of refugees and asylum seekers to be appropriate, as it was likely that many students would base their opinions on what they had read or seen in the media and few would have had much contact with people from other ethnic groups. The teachers also felt that there might be a tendency within the school to ignore this issue because it did not experience any visible problems that could be directly linked to refugees or asylum seekers. Ultimately, the issue of animal rights was chosen, as it is an issue of local relevance, with many of the students coming from farming families.

Patcham School is a mixed comprehensive in Brighton, with nearly 1000 students on roll. There are few students from ethnic minority backgrounds. A relatively high number of students join and leave the school other than at the normal times for entry or leaving. GCSE results are lower than the national average.

Teachers at Patcham School also felt that the issue of refugees and asylum seekers needed to be tackled, as not only is it a subject of national controversy but there are local issues, with many asylum seekers housed in and around Brighton. They felt that the majority of students had very negative views about refugees and asylum seekers, again based mainly on media coverage.

Cherwell School is a mixed 13-18 comprehensive school in Oxford, with over 1000 pupils on roll. The student cohort is mainly white, with nearly 10% coming from homes where English is spoken as an additional language. The school's intake comes from a wide social mix and ability range. GCSE results are higher than the national average, with 66% achieving grades A-C in 2002.

At Cherwell School, the teacher felt that gay rights should be the focus of the lesson. Issues surrounding homosexuality seem to be largely ignored in schools for a number of reasons, including a lack of understanding of section 28 and that schools are not seen as safe environment for discussing such issues. One school actually had to pull out of the project because the chair of Governors was uncomfortable about gay rights being discussed and filmed for television at that particular school and felt that it could damage the school's image in the local community.

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Teaching controversial issues well usually requires careful planning and forethought. Teachers need to be aware of a variety of teaching and learning issues such as: the need for balance, the avoidance of bias, managing opinions both overheated and under heated and strategies for encouraging debate and discussion.

Before watching the video you might find it useful to begin the work with some discussion of what a controversial issue is. This could lead on to a quick session where colleagues suggest some contemporary controversial issues, such as: euthanasia, asylum seekers, foreign policy and gay rights.

It is also worth discussing with colleagues the advantages and disadvantages of teaching controversial issues in schools and even narrow the discussion down to your school. Some prompts for the discussion are outlined below:

  • they are topical
  • they can be directly related to students' lives
  • it can assist students to develop their ethical and moral reasoning
  • it is interfering with the role of the parent
  • there is no right or wrong and therefore difficult to teach

(a) Managing classroom debate

Unlike some other subjects, there is often no wrong or right answer when teaching controversial issues. Therefore teachers must use less traditional techniques in the classroom such as:

  • a shift from closed questions to open questions
  • a shift from the teacher being the expert
  • a shift from teacher focused activities to student focused enquiry, discussion and debate

These shifts within the classroom environment can be difficult for teacher and student to get used to. It is important to create a psychologically safe environment when teaching controversial issues, as students need to feel secure in discussing their opinions.

One way is to establish ground rules that facilitate open and respectful debate and discussion. Ground rules are needed to enable the free flow of ideas in a safe, non-threatening environment with the goal of having students think about and question their opinions and listen to others.

Check that students think that the subject content and subsequent activities are relevant and meaningful to their lives. Set out to establish the 'tone' of the classes from the very beginning, perhaps the classes will be less formal with groups sitting on their desks or in a circle.

When watching the video ask colleagues to list methods the teachers use to manage the classroom debate, enable and encourage students to express themselves. Which lesson do you think had the most psychologically safe environment? Why do you think this was?

Ask colleagues to list other techniques they have used in the classroom and their effectiveness.

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(b) Teacher roles

Extract from Jerome L et al. 'The Citizenship Co-ordinators' Handbook' (Nelson Thornes Ltd, 2003), pp. 73-74

There are various teaching strategies for addressing controversial issues. These have been classified into three groups based on how the teacher presents / deals with their opinion.

Neutral chair: The 'David Dimbleby' approach. Here, the teacher is a facilitator acting to encourage informed debate. The teacher does not present any opinion except to 'play devil's advocate' but facilitates the discussion between different opinions.

Balanced approach: The teacher may present a range of opinions (not necessarily their own) but in doing so try to present the different opinions in a balanced way. Such an approach may involve arguing passionately for two different opinions, and again may involve an even-handed use of a devil's advocate approach.

Committed participant: The teacher makes their position known. This is suitable for some issues but less so for others, and it is also less appropriate for younger students. Ideally, a teacher should only make their opinion known in a lesson where opinions are being developed and the exchange of opinions among students encouraged. It is worth noting that many teachers would not want their positions on certain issues to be public knowledge, particularly in a school context. For example, a liberal teacher's position on the legalising of cannabis may be something they would prefer to keep private. Either way, it is worthwhile for teachers to think about whether to reveal an opinion before entering the classroom, as students are often very interested in the teacher's opinion and the teacher may be put on the spot.

Teachers often slip between these different roles when teaching, perhaps reverting to devil's advocate if students seem uninterested in expressing their opinions. However, as long as students are aware of the role the teacher is playing then unintended bias can be greatly reduced.

Using the video as a starting point, ask colleagues of examples in the video of teachers using the three techniques outlined above. Can any new techniques be added to the list from their own experiences of facilitating discussion?

Going back to the video ask small groups to look at which technique they think worked most effectively and why?

Discuss the techniques that colleagues feel most comfortable with and the reasons behind this. Try to consider this within the context of your school.

Discussion points:

  • What should teachers do with their own opinions during a lesson?
  • How should teachers present opinions with which they disagree?

(c) Displacement activities – How can a teacher defuse tricky situations through depersonalising them in class.

Extract from Jerome L et al. 'The Citizenship Co-ordinators' Handbook' (Nelson Thornes Ltd, 2003), pp. 75-76

Sometimes having students get 'worked up' over an issue is no bad thing and to some extent is part of the purpose of examining controversial issues. However, what is not desirable is that students feel hurt or offended or psychologically bullied, and this may happen if the issue becomes too personal and the lesson results in an unwanted student versus student confrontation. There are several strategies that can help to avoid such scenarios.

Displacement activities

These can be used to switch the focus away from a particular students' belief and onto something else. Such activities could involve something as simple as a card sorting exercise. Having ideas written on cards makes it much easier to depersonalise the issue and can make students more likely to feel that they are discussing / considering the abstract idea rather than a particular student's belief.

Using case studies, either written or audiovisual, is another way of shifting the focus from an individual students' belief to a 'third person' belief whilst still retaining a concrete, personal feel.

Role-play can also be a useful displacement activity. By assigning them roles with particular beliefs to defend, students do not feel their own beliefs are on the line and hence there is less loss of face and personalising of the issue.

Ultimately, focusing on fact-finding and research rather than on debate and discussion will always help to take the heat out of an issue whilst still achieving the important learning objectives.

Under-heated opinions

A far more common teaching experience is a class full of students with under-heated opinions. Earlier, we suggested that one way of taking the 'heat' out of an issue is to make the focus more abstract or less personal. The reverse is true when dealing with under-heated students. Issues need to be made more concrete and to some extent more personal, which will help encourage the students to become more emotionally involved. Strategies for doing this include:

  • letting students choose the topic
  • role play
  • using audiovisual stimuli
  • looking at specific case studies
  • using a devil's advocate approach to challenge students' existing beliefs

Looking at the video ask colleagues to pick out situations where they feel a teacher was using one of the above methods or needed to be and wasn't. Discuss what difference you think it did or would have made to the lesson.

Discussion points:

  • From your experience what are the best ways to handle student opinions when they get overheated?
  • If controversial issues often touch upon deeply held personal beliefs:
    – are all opinions valid?
    – which topics, if any, are off limit?
  • How could the school policy be amended to include the teaching of controversial issues - should pupils be involved in the discussion and the board of governors?

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(d) Avoiding teacher bias

Extract from Jerome L et al. 'The Citizenship Co-ordinators' Handbook' (Nelson Thornes Ltd, 2003), pp. 72-73

Conscious bias

For obvious reasons, consciously introducing elements of bias into a lesson is not acceptable. That is not to say that teachers cannot air, or even argue for, a personal opinion; approached sensibly, this is perfectly acceptable. However, this is very different from setting out to bias a lesson and there is a range of legislation in place that makes it clear that such an approach would be illegal.

The Education Act 1996 aims to ensure that children are not presented with only one side of political or controversial issues by their teachers. Section 406 of the Act forbids the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in schools, and forbids the pursuit of partisan political activities by pupils under age 12 while in school. Section 407 requires schools to take all reasonable practical steps to ensure that, where political or controversial issues are taught, pupils are offered a balanced presentation or opposing views.

Unconscious bias

The perfectly balanced lesson is unachievable. As journalists know, even the most carefully worded article is likely to be accused of bias from several different perspectives. Most teachers are aware of the ways in which bias could be unconsciously introduced into a lesson - through inappropriate selection of materials, body language, misrepresenting the views of others, or not presenting alternative points of view. However, when teaching a controversial issue, it is still worth considering these to ensure that bias is not unwittingly introduced.

Watch the Year 10 lesson on gay rights at Cherwell School, Oxford. Think about how the teacher handled the subject and the debate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the approach used? Do you think bias was introduced?

Ask colleagues to discuss and list possible ways that bias can infiltrate the classroom. Ask teachers to decide whether these were conscious or unconscious. Finally, get your colleagues to work in small groups and think of ways to counteract each point on the list.

Discussion point:

  • Should teachers have researched all the sides of an issue before entering the classroom?

Lesson plans

This section provides the plans for the four lessons shown in the video. Each lesson plan includes a set of aims and a list of the resources needed to carry out the lesson.

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East Bergholt School – Lesson Plans

Year 9: Asylum Seekers

This is intended to be an introductory lesson but it could be used at any point in a series of lessons.

It should give students a basic understanding of the different terms used when describing asylum seekers and the processes they have to go through to get asylum.


Students will:

  • work productively in groups
  • understand and visualise difficult concepts
  • practice teaching each other these difficult concepts



  • Students are split into groups of three. Each group needs a felt-tip pen and a sheet of A3 paper.
  • Introduction to the lesson – explain the aims. General short discussion on what they think they know about the issue. Answers can be recorded on the board.
  • Hand out one worksheet per group. There will be two or three groups with the same worksheet.
  • Students are given 10 to15 minutes to read through the worksheets and to summarise the main ideas on the A3 paper. They are not allowed more than 15 words.
  • At the end of the allocated time, one member of each group elects to stay behind. The other two members each choose one of the other two worksheets. They then go to find out more about their chosen topic from the groups who have worked on it. Remind students that there will be two or three groups with the same worksheet. Allow approximately 10 minutes for students to discuss with other groups the topics they have been looking at.
  • Students return to their groups and take turns to teach other group members what they have learned (a time limit should be set for this).
  • Suggestions for a concluding activity might be a quick quiz or discussion to find out what students have learned and compare with the introductory discussion. Some possible questions might be: What do you think you have learned this lesson? What is an asylum seeker? What is an economic migrant? What is an illegal immigrant? Why do people want to move to new countries? What were your views on this issue before the lesson? Have your views changed at all?

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Year 7: Animal Rights


Students will:

  • understand what animal rights mean
  • understand the issues relating to the use of animals as food
  • have a greater understanding of their own view on the use of animals as food


  • Information packs on being: a vegan; a vegetarian; a person deciding whether to become a vegetarian; a person who only eats free range and organic meat; and a meat eater who does not think that where meat comes from is an important issue. downloadable Word documentThe Animal Rights worksheet can be used for this activity.

Activity 1

  • Arrange the chairs in two circles, one inside the other, so that the students are facing each other.
  • Explain what the lesson is about and set two rules for them to follow: 'We will give our complete attention to the person who is speaking.' and 'We will respect other people's opinions, even when they are different from our own.'
  • Students spend 30 seconds or so discussing with the person sitting opposite them the different ways that humans use animals.
  • The outside circle moves three places anticlockwise and the inner circle moves three places clockwise.
  • Students are given one minute to talk about their ideas from the previous conversation and to discuss the reasons why they think humans use animals in this way.
  • Students move again as above and are given 90 seconds to talk about their two previous conversations and to discuss whether they think it is right to treat animals in this way.
  • The groups come together for a whole class discussion about the ideas, issues and opinions raised during their discussions. Key points that should be raised are:
    • Animals are used in many different ways
    • People have many different views on how animals should be used, which are influenced by their beliefs. Our own beliefs are shaped by the attitudes of our families, the wider society, our schooling, religion and life experiences.
    • Following the discussions, you will have made judgments about other people's views and other people will have judged your views. The questions we ought to ask are, 'Do we have right to judge each other's views?' and 'How do we know which view is right?'

Activity 2

  • Students are then divided into five groups. Each group will be representing a different character in a role play:
    • a vegan
    • a vegetarian
    • a person deciding whether to become a vegetarian
    • a person who only eats free range and organic meat
    • a meat eater who does not think that where meat comes from is an important issue
  • Each group is handed an information pack about the person they are representing in the role play. This contains relevant pictures, examples of questions and reference material.
  • The groups are given 5 to 10 minutes to discuss the pack contents and gain an understanding of the issues. They may add any additional notes and questions that might concern them.
  • Each group nominates one member to be spokesperson in the role play.
  • At the end of the allocated time, ask the students to sit in a large semicircle. In the middle of the semicircle is a table with five chairs.
  • Set the scene: 'This is a table in the school canteen and the discussion is one that you might have during lunch. Each character has strong views on the issue of using animals as food.'
  • The role play starts with an opening line, eg 'You shouldn't eat meat because ...' Students then improvise, using the questions and information from the packs to help them make their case.
  • Students in the audience can stop the action at any time to suggest specific statements and actions, or to volunteer to take over the role of spokesperson for their group.
  • The spokesperson can also stop the action at any time to ask his / her group for advice.
  • Once it appears that the play has come to an end, bring the whole class together. Finish off the activity with some questions about the different characters' viewpoints about why animals should or should not be used for food.

Activity 3

  • Place one chair at either side of the room. Each side represents extreme viewpoints about whether animals should or should not be used as food, i.e. a meat eater who does not care where meat comes from ('After all, they're only animals.') and a vegan who believes that animals have the right to be treated in the same way as humans.
  • One by one, ask the students to stand on the line between the chairs in the position that they feel best represents their view. Each student should say a few words about why he / she has decided on that position.

Follow-up work

  • Students could use the role play as a stimulus for writing their own script / play about the use of animals as food.
  • Students write a letter to a relevant organisation, explaining their viewpoint on the use of animals as food.
  • Students create leaflets / posters for display around the school, highlighting the issues that they have discussed.

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Patcham School – Lesson Plan

Year 10: Asylum

This is an introductory lesson on asylum seekers. Subsequent lessons would go on to look at media interpretations in more depth.


Students will:

  • understand how the media presents issues in a biased way
  • understand how the media can influence public opinion
  • examine the negative effect that the media can have on a moral issue


  • individual whiteboards / paper
  • different definitions of the word 'asylum'
  • selection of media articles
  • access to the Internet

Activity 1

  • A word association activity to enable students to understand what is meant by 'positive connotations' and 'negative connotations'.
  • Ask the students to describe what type of words come to mind when they hear the words Ferrari and Skoda.
  • Tell the students that they have been invited to a fancy dress party and they have chosen to go as a French person. Ask them to draw the outfits they would wear.
  • It is likely that most of the students will have drawn figures wearing stripy tops and berets. Ask the students what has happened. Hopefully, someone in the class will realise that they are 'stereotyping'.

Activity 2

  • What associations / connotations / perceptions are attached to the word 'asylum'?
  • Ask the students to write down all the words they can think of that are associated with the word 'asylum'. Ask them to stick these up on the board.
  • Sort the words into those with positive and those with negative connotations.
  • Discuss the results of this exercise. Ask students why the majority of words associated with asylum are negative?
  • On five different tables, place a possible meaning of the word 'asylum'.
  • Ask the students to walk around the tables reading the different meanings, and then stand by the one that they think is the 'real' meaning (in actual fact all the meanings are true!)

Activity 3

  • In groups, ask the students to examine a selection of media extracts (one group will use the Internet) to answer the following questions: Where do we get our information about asylum seekers from? What do we learn? Why are they here?
  • Groups feedback their findings to the rest of the class.

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Cherwell School – Lesson Plan

Year 11: Gay Rights



  • To have an open and honest discussion about people's opinions on homosexuality.


Before discussing any controversial issue, such as homosexuality, it is important that the teacher is confident and knows the class well.

  • Set the ground rules: it is essential for everyone to feel that their opinions are respected and listened to, even if others do not agree with them. The important thing is to challenge other people's opinions in a constructive way.
  • Arrange the desks in a horseshoe shape and ask students to sit on their desks.
  • Tell students that you are going to ask them a series of questions and they must move to the part of the classroom that best fits their opinion. It is fine for them not to speak, as they are still 'voicing' their opinion by moving to a particular position.
  • The tables on the left-hand side of the horseshoe mean 'Yes', the tables on the right-hand side mean 'No', and those in the middle mean 'I don't know'.
  • Ask students a range of questions and then ask them to move to the part of the classroom that best fits their opinion, asking them to give reasons why they have taken that position. Other class members can respond to or challenge their opinions, as long as this is done in a constructive way.
  • Students can move from a position or change their minds at any point during the debate.
  • Some suggested questions:
    • If one of your close friends told you they were gay, would you still feel comfortable about being their friend?
    • Should gay couples be allowed to marry?
    • Should gay couples be allowed to adopt children?
    • Have you ever been bullied? How did it make you feel?
    • What do you think about homosexuality?
    The number and nature of questions you ask will depend on the response you receive from students and the length of the lesson.

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QCA's 'Teacher's Guide to Citizenship' can be found in the link below in pdf format. Guidance on the teaching of controversial issues can be found in appendix 9.

The Runnymede Trust website has compiled guidance for teachers with the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. The site includes further website links and sections on hard questions for adults, understanding and handling controversial issues.

This guidance from QCA supports effective practice in antiracist and multicultural education, including introducing critical perspectives into discussion and challenging stereotypes.

The Commission for Racial Equality's website includes their standards for racial equality in schools, 'Learning for All', which provides codes of practice for education in England and Wales and in Scotland, and a summary of an OFSTED report, 'Inspecting schools for racial equality'.

The Citizenship Foundation's website includes guidance on 'Teaching about Iraq and other controversial issues' in pdf format.

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© 4 Ventures 2004