Case Study

The humanities as a vehicle for teaching controversial issues
22 March 2021

The humanities, by their very nature, deal with controversy and conflict. Indeed, controversial issues are the bedrock of humanities as they get to the heart of the contested nature of knowledge in these subjects. They are vital for introducing children to:

- the diversity of meaning and opinions that exist around them;

- the contested nature of values and visions.

- the idea that different opinions are often a mixture of facts, opinions and values.

Whilst this creates numerous opportunities to help children navigate the wonderful and complex world in which they live, it also presents clear challenges to teachers. How do you ensure such lessons are delivered to encourage open dialogue whilst reconciling this with the emotive responses it might evoke? How do you effectively challenge children whilst remaining sensitive to their feelings? As a result of such challenges, it is understandable why teachers might want to avoid such issues, which are risky and unpredictable. However, given that they are at the heart of all humanities subjects, such issues should be embraced rather than avoided.

Opportunities for teaching controversial issues in the classroom are varied. They could be based around exploring different opinions about what should be done in the local area, such as the implementation of the School Streets initiative by many London primary schools for example. Role play can be a powerful tool here, giving children different characters with opposing views and motives, to allow them to really understand the complex arguments about the benefits and drawbacks of such a decision. Alternatively, more complex issues, which are open to interpretation, could be explored. One such example is the Key Stage 2 Unit of work, by the Oak National Academy, which investigates Medieval Monarchs. This includes some thought provoking lessons, such as whether Elizabeth I was a ‘weak and feeble’ queen, which are designed to explore different historical interpretations of the past. Alternatively, teachers can create opportunities to investigate moral or ethical considerations around the shopping habits of children in their classroom. Indeed, even the seemingly mundane purchasing decision of “Should we buy a Valentine’s rose?” (Ellis, 2009) creates the opportunity to delve into a host of ethical issues around fair trade, sustainability or globalisation.

Given the array of these opportunities to build controversy into the school curriculum, the question no doubt still remains about how this is best undertaken. As with all professional pedagogical decisions, which require an intimate knowledge of children’s’ age, experience or background, there is no straightforward answer to this question. However, in my experience there are a number of strategies that could be deployed to ensure such lessons are successful and worthwhile:

- Adopt an enquiry based approach to learning- this will allow children to develop their criticality and questioning skills.

- Explore a wide range of views, perspectives or interpretations on controversial questions. This will give them a sense of the genuine debate that exists around such questions.

- Gradually build challenge by starting with issues that you think the children will be relatively familiar with or are less controversial. This can then become a stepping stone towards addressing more controversial and sensitive topics once the children have got used to these ways of working.

- Develop argumentation skills and encourage children to formulate evidence based judgements. This can be developed through their literacy, so that they gain a clear grasp of the need to fully explain and provide evidence for the points they make.

- Use Modelling to show children how to set up or present a rational and dispassionate argument. This includes you being a role-model for the behaviour you expect of children, such as having empathy and seeing things from others’ point of view.

- Encourage children to identify, and challenge, false arguments by distinguishing between assertions or opinions and arguments or judgements.

- Consider your position in advance, for example you will need to think about the ‘dilemma of disclosure’ and when it is or isn’t appropriate to share your views with the class.

The humanities provide a unique opportunity to enrich the curriculum with controversial issues and topics. Though undoubtedly a challenge, such issues should be welcomed in the classroom, as they “help pupils to attain the ability of critical reflection and argument, not take a position too quickly, to question claims of neutrality, to develop a desire for more information and to be tolerant of uncertainty” (Kello, 2016).


Ellis, L, (2009) Geography Teachers’ Toolkit: A Thorny Issue: Should we buy a Valentine’s rose? Sheffield: The GA

Kello, K, (2016) Sensitive and controversial issues in the classroom: teaching history in a divided society, Teachers and Teaching, 22:1, 35-53

Oak National Academy- The Medieval Monarchs unit of work can be found at:

School Streets initiative, further information can be found at:

Tremaine Baker

Secondary Humanities PGCE Lead, Middlesex University

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