In the article, “Controversial Issues and Democratic Discourse”, Hess (2011) explored the implications of incorporating Controversial Issues (CI) into Social Studies lesson. She included multifarious research findings from studies conducted in Social Studies classrooms in US and delved further to discuss its implications on teachers and students. This review aims to summarize the main research findings and contextualise its implication on the teaching and learning of Social Studies in Singapore.
According to studies carried out in US schools, research findings showed that CI discussions were actively carried out in Social Studies classrooms where students claimed to have discussed about their differing opinions on political and social issues as part of adopting an ‘open classroom climate’ and teachers do allocate time for discussion. However, Hess also surfaced contrasting research findings that reported on the lack of inclusion of CI as minimal time is allocated and in some cases, no discussion are carried out at all. An observational study was conducted to explain the disparity of both findings and the problem identified was definitional, in which students are unable to distinguish regular classroom talks about recent events from a proper discussion due to the varied definitions of ‘discussion’. This definitional problem resulted in both teachers and students conflating regular classroom talks with discussions and further study explained that this problem accounted for the initial findings of schools that report the inclusion of CI in their classrooms.
CI discussions may pose as a problem in classrooms but it did not hinder teachers from including it in their curriculum. Investigations from studies reported that teachers agreed to incorporate CI discussions into lessons as it led to participative engagement in democracy. Despite some concerns raised about teachers’ personal beliefs, studies have reported that most teachers opted for a neutral view in discussions so as to avoid indoctrinating their personal beliefs and values on students. Another concern raised was that teachers have to invest more effort in discerning issues that are controversial yet suitable for the teaching curriculum therefore, the sole criteria emplaced by teachers when deciding on a discussion issue would be that it must be largely acceptable to students and community.
On one hand, Hess explained that the discerning process in selecting appropriate issues is critically important as another main research finding has shown that there are evidence of students being disengaged from the discussion because the issue has personal relevance that are deemed as sensitive to them. Research studies surfaced the various personal reasons such as being wary of the judgment of their peers, issues that evoked anger and anxiety and also subliminal segregations in class that teachers need to be aware of. Nevertheless, studies provided alternatives such as online participation; and it...