Teaching Controversial Issues and Teacher Education in England and South Africa

Feb. 01, 2011

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 37, No. 1, February 2011, 5–19.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article outlines research on teaching controversial issues in initial teacher education in England and South Africa. The researchers were interested to better understand what is done, and why, in both the ‘other’ country and their own in order to develop theory and understanding with an eye to possible reform and improvement (Phillips and Schweisfurth 2006, 14–21).

The sample

The qualitative study reported here used semi-structured interviews with teacher educators/tutors and student teachers in four universities in England and South Africa.
The interviews in both countries were carried out by one researcher from each of the institutions.
In South Africa individual interviews took place with 13 teacher educators and group interviews took place with 23 students. In England, individual interviews took place with six teacher educators and group interviews with 20 students.

Controversial issues and the curriculum

Interviewees were asked what they understood by the term ‘a controversial issue’ in relation to teaching in schools.

Teacher educators and student teachers mainly answered by giving concrete examples.
In South Africa frequently these were HIV/AIDS, sex education, sexuality, rape, race/ethnicity, xenophobia, religion, evolution/creationism, corporal punishment and even the outcomes-based approach itself.

In England examples mentioned were climate change, drugs, divorce, the Iraq war and the Middle East, immigration, racism, religion, poverty, gender, sexuality, population migration, crime, racism and bullying in school.
Finally, religion was mentioned as an increasingly salient and sensitive issue in England, possibly because of its increasingly diverse and multicultural society and the reactions to the way English society is changing

In terms of where controversial issues arise in the curriculum, there was an awareness among South African tutors that they could arise anywhere in the curriculum (biology, life orientation (social skills), religion, history, science, drama were all cited as pertinent examples).

Furthermore, Students in South Africa also had a broad understanding of where controversial issues can arise in the curriculum. Language was mentioned as an example, as it can be another way of enforcing racist ideology. The students also mentioned what they termed the ‘hierarchy of knowledge’, i.e., that some subjects are accorded more importance than others, with specific mention being made of too much time being allocated to maths.

However, in the case of both the students and tutors in England, a narrower range of subjects (geography, history and citizenship) was mentioned as potentially containing controversial issues.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study suggested that obstacles to teaching controversial issues in schools and teacher education (for example, a contentheavy curriculum; assessment; shortage of time; lack of training; authoritarian school climate; and a fear of negative reaction from both learners and parents) persist in schools in England and South Africa. Within teacher education, while controversial issues arise in discussions of education, there appears to be little preparation of students to teach controversial issues in the classroom.

The overall challenge for both societies that are the focus of this study is to ensure that all their teachers and teacher educators have the necessary skills, knowledge and confidence to handle controversial issues in their classrooms.

Phillips, D., and M. Schweisfurth. 2007. Comparative and international education: An introduction to theory, method and practice. London: Continuum.

Updated: May. 22, 2012