Pedagogical Utility of Controversial Content

Contrary to what you may have heard, there isn’t a crisis of free speech on campuses in North America. The evidence, as analyzed by the Niskanen Center, demonstrates otherwise.

This hasn’t prevented numerous states from introducing legislation around these concerns, or even the American President from signing an Executive Order around these concerns earlier this year.

That doesn’t mean that universities are free from controversy. There is pedagogical benefit to introducing conflicting viewpoints, but challenges in doing so effectively, as described in The Atlantic,

Schools teach many things. For the most part, though, they have not taught students how to engage in reasoned, informed debates across society’s myriad differences. Simply put, the rhetorical commitment to “teaching controversial issues” in American schools has not been reflected in day-to-day classroom practices. Thanks to poor preparation, some teachers have not acquired the background knowledge or the pedagogical skills—or both—to lead in-depth discussions of hot-button political questions. Most of all, though, teachers have often lacked the professional autonomy and freedom to do so. That is particularly the case during wartime, when schools have sharply curtailed discussions of America’s military conduct. But throughout America’s history—and into the present—teachers have faced formal and informal restrictions on political discussions of every kind. Rising education levels have probably increased this pressure, emboldening citizen challengers who formerly might have deferred to teachers’ superior knowledge and credentials. “The high-school teacher has in fact lost relative status in recent years as more and more parents are themselves high-school graduates,” the eminent sociologist David Riesman observed in 1958. “And while the kindergarten teacher gains admiration because she can control several dozen preliterates whose mothers cannot always manage even one, the high-school social-studies teacher has a harder time being one-up on American-born parents who can claim to know as much as she does.”

A recent controversy out of University of Toronto Law School lead to the dean offering an apology, because a case scenario relied on stereotypes of Indigenous people. The Globe described it as follows,

…a hypothetical scenario in which Indigenous parents, struggling with drug and alcohol issues, had placed their three children in care. A non-Indigenous family looked after the children for two years and was prepared to adopt them.

But the father, who had stopped drinking and remade his life, wanted to maintain access to the children. The students were asked to write a memo about the case, taking into account a 2017 Ontario law that gives priority to maintaining familial and cultural links for Indigenous children.

The scenario itself did not appear to perpetuate stereotypes, and many lawyers who work in these areas would identify the challenges as accurate. Similarly, the application of the facts in the context of new legislation, Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act, would appear to provide an appropriate venue to apply critical thinking skills.

Although some commentators treated the students’ response with ridicule, it was difficult to ascertain the precise nature of their objections as they would not identify themselves publicly or speak on the record. One could hardly blame them, given the only frenzy that greeted the faceless students. Universities, and the media generally, have certainly contributed for centuries to the solidification and pervasiveness of stereotypes towards Indigenous people in Canada.

Controversial content, even when delivered by different faculty members, can have vastly different effects from an educational perspective. The distinction often manifests in the context in which controversy is presented, and how any conflict or discomfort is managed.

The Yale Centre for Teaching and Learning module on teaching controversial topics suggests grounding controversial subjects into one of three prominent educational paradigms:

  • Liberation Pedagogy.The teacher should seek to develop a “critical consciousness” among students. She should allow the students to bring their own experiences and perspectives to the problems investigated in class, with the aim of having students come to a new understanding of their place in the world. In this view, the classroom should not be seen as a world separate from wider society, but as enmeshed and invested in the problems of the social and political world. (See, for example, Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed(link is external) for the pdf or check out the Wikipedia page(link is external))
  • Civic Humanism. Teaching should prepare students for the responsibilities of active citizenship. Teaching should be concerned, in part, with developing moral virtues, such as religious and cultural tolerance, a sense of social responsibility, etc. (e.g. Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges(link is external))
  • Academic Detachment. Teachers should discuss all subjects in a detached fashion. Rather than discussing head-on what should be done, the point of academia and teaching is to inquire as to the origins of the controversy and the structures of competing arguments. The teacher should make controversial topics into objects of academic investigation and analysis. (e.g. Stanley Fish, “Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job”(link is external))

The paradigm itself is not enough, and needs to be supported by a planned pedagogical framework that includes clear ground rules, which should include linking claims to evidence and encouraging students to explore beyond fixed ideas or prejudices, while embracing confusion and uncertainty. We often call this fostering a “tolerance for ambiguity.”

Mark A. Runco explores this concept in Chapter 9 of Creativity – Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice.

Although tolerance for ambiguity is still not fully defined, it may allow a person to deal with problems that are themselves ill-defined, postpone judgment, and consider a wide range of options. In other words, it is specifically the skill that law schools claim to generally develop.

In contrast, an intolerance for ambiguity has been associated with the following traits:

  1. Need for categorization
  2. Need for certainty
  3. Inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person
  4. Acceptance of attitude statements representing a white-black view of life
  5. A preference for familiar over unfamiliar
  6. Rejection of the unusual or different
  7. Resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli
  8. Early selection and maintenance of one solution in an ambiguous situation
  9. Premature closure

Other descriptors include: authoritarian, dogmatic, rigid, closed minded, ethnically prejudiced, uncreative, anxious, extra-punitive, and aggressive. Perhaps it is not surprising that the trait is also linked to views on races and sexual orientation.

In addition to the ground rules, the Yale Center suggests modeling civil behaviour through the professor’s own actions, and ensuring that the discussion is tied to the material. An instructor can be particularly helpful in modelling for students how to reframe stong feelings into productive dialogue when responding to controversial statements from students. Instructors can teach how to disagree with an idea without resulting in personal attacks.

For these reasons, managing controversy in the classroom is as important as the framework for introducing it.

The Alberta Teachers Association presents content from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s Teaching Controversial Issues—Without Becoming Part of the Controversy, which includes 4 steps:

  1. What is the issue about?
  2. What are the arguments?
  3. What is assumed?
  4. How are the arguments manipulated?

They suggest that every controversial issue in 1. can be grouped into one of three categories:

  1. Questions relating to values: What should be? What is best?
  2. Questions relating to information: What is the truth? What is the case?
  3. Questions relating to concepts: What does this mean? How should this be defined?

In every one of these steps and categories, the existence of pervasive or dangerous stereotypes can be identified and dismantled as part of the pedagogical exercise. The existence of controversy in a fact scenario alone does not preclude this in the appropriate educational environment, but may require the potential for prejudicial thinking for the exercise to be fully effective. Academic detachment in this context specifically might be inappropriate.

In other words, the shortcomings of the pedagogical approach employed at UofT may not just have been one of lack of familiarity around Indigenous issues (which may or may not be correct, but was a sentiment expressed by some students), but rather lack of rigorous pedagogical preparation. What might be necessary is also greater skills for the instructors.

A far more comprehensive teaching package on controversial subjects for teachers, developed by the Council of Europe, provides a broad theoretical framework, justifications for introducing controversy, and challenges in navigating this effectively. They recognize though that controversy is essential to developing analytical and critical thinking skills, specifically for the recognition of bias and language development,

There is a growing consensus across Europe that learning to engage with controversial issues is a
vital element in education for democracy and human rights. It develops independent thinking and fosters intercultural dialogue and tolerance and respect for others, as well as a critical approach to the media and the ability to resolve differences democratically without resort to violence.

Can controversial topics that appear on their face to perpetuate harmful stereotypes themselves be used to address those stereotypes, and even understand the history and biases that create them? Can this be done to further the goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action?

I think they can, but it’s not always easy to execute. But then nobody said developing critical thinking and analytics skills was going to be easy.

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