Teaching With Conflict and Controversial Issues in Diverse and Multicultural Classrooms

Friday, February 10, 2012

Christina Parker, OISE/University of Toronto Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the collaborative series on education and equity between the CFHSS’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Society for the Study of Education.

At its core, multicultural education is about facilitating inclusion among diverse students. It equitably engages diverse students in its content and pedagogy and it is reflective of students’ own perspectives, histories, and identities. Multicultural education critically acknowledges race, gender, sexuality, and power. Thus, in diverse and multicultural schools, the process of engaging different perspectives and beliefs must be complex.

The ways in which students interpret subject matter are shaped by their diverse experiences. Facilitating inclusion among all students can be strongly supported by engaging in constructive conflicts that provide learning opportunities: to think critically, explore and dialogue about alternative perspectives and histories, and practise democracy. To do this  hegemonic beliefs must be confronted. Equity issues embedded in curriculum (e.g., experiences of historically marginalized or oppressed groups) are often skimmed over or not mentioned at all. In contrast, the infusion and inclusion of controversial issues provides opportunities to voice multiple, contesting perspectives – many of them relevant to diverse students.

All children are aware of controversial issues, whether local or global. How these controversies are understood by students in public school depends on how the content is presented and how the pedagogy supports the inclusion of diverse perspectives on these issues. Teaching as though all students were the same avoids controversy, but misses the possibilities for learning through the differential perspectives that controversy invites, and does nothing to create equitable social relations. Inviting students to explore conflicting perspectives facilitates education for democratization.

What kinds of curriculum and pedagogy create inclusive spaces for diverse young Canadians to find their places in the curriculum and in their world? The ways potentially controversial topics are addressed in diverse and multicultural classrooms can influence how children interpret and subsequently respond to these and other conflicts in their lives. Therefore, paying attention to how such issues are infused into the classrooms is an important step in planning for a critical pedagogical process that can engage and include all students in the curricula content. Teachers in public, urban, and diverse classrooms are encouraged by policy documents and guidelines (e.g., Toronto District School Board,’s A Teaching Resource for Dealing With Controversial and Sensitive Issues in TDSB Classrooms) to engage in discussions about controversial issues in the classroom. When teachers are supported and encouraged by their colleagues, administration, and community they may be even better equipped to handle and respond to controversial issues embedded in the curriculum.

Diana E. Hess’s Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion has categorized controversial public issues into two kinds: settled issues (including prejudice, racism, and bullying), for which teachers believe there is one acceptable answer; and unsettled issues (including the death penalty, abortion, and immigration laws), where public opinion is still widely split and teachers can accept the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints. Hess argues that unsettled issues are the best topics for discussion, because they provide more space for exploring conflicting or alternative perspectives. However, many curriculum documents and board guidelines overwhelmingly cite settled issues as examples for discussion, thereby limiting the amount of perspective sharing students can engage in when learning about controversial issues.

Part of understanding how equity-infused lessons are incorporated into the classroom involves paying attention to what kinds of topics are suggested for discussion about conflict and diversity. Guidelines and teaching resources developed to support teaching with conflict and controversial issues to facilitate learning opportunities for students can serve at least two purposes: they are a reminder of the importance of addressing controversial issues as a way of inviting equity-oriented discussion about diversity into the classroom, and they can function as a guideline on topics and issues that should or should not be discussed in the classroom. Such guidelines and policies can simultaneously enforce censorship and provide a safety net for teachers who want to open their classroom to discussions of contentious issues.

Prescriptive approaches to conflict education that do not reflect the experiences and identities of diverse students in the classroom often reflect dominant norms and behaviours by teaching a package of “how-to’s” assumed to be neutral. This leaves little room for diversity of experiences and the perspectives of participants. Teachers use many pedagogical tools (e.g., issues discussions, circles, class meetings, role play, simulations, and community-building activities) to guide and invite students to participate in discussions of conflicting perspectives, but such inclusive pedagogy may be difficult to measure. Some pedagogies prescribe specific, correct ways of handling conflict, while others rely on the diverse experiences of the participants to guide the dialogue process.

Controversial issues can be raised in a way to teach narratives that generally ignore conflicting perspectives on history and social structures. For example, Canadian history is typically and traditionally presented as glorious and peaceful, which also translates into a dominant and exclusionary discourse. Dominant constructions of Canadian history are based largely on ignoring the history of peoples regarded as Other. Citizenship education inevitably addresses national identity, but does not always address how cultures such as those of indigenous peoples, for instance, have been marginalized through that history.

Controversial and sensitive issues can be embedded in the planned curriculum in ways that prepare both teachers and students to engage in and feel comfortable raising and asking questions that might not otherwise arise. Current events can be used to relate to a particular historical moment being studied in the history curriculum. And some historical moments can be used to relate to different students’ identities and experiences. With that being said, who has considered or thought about how different issues may be raised with different students? Obviously, discussing the history of the internment of Japanese Canadians will be interpreted differently by – and have very different meanings for – Japanese Canadians than non-Japanese Canadians. While we, as Canadians, were all affected by this racist policy, some experienced it more directly than others.

Canadian students bring diverse histories, experiences, and cultures to the classroom, and it is therefore important to pay attention to how controversial issues can be addressed and positioned, and how they may be interpreted and experienced by different students. My current doctoral research explores this phenomenon. By studying ways in which issues related to conflict and diversity are taken up and discussed in the classroom, we may be able to better understand how to engage all students in inclusive, equitable, and democratic learning communities through both the curricula content and the pedagogical possibilities associated with constructive, conflict-infused education.

Christina Parker is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and a lecturer at Ryerson University in Toronto.


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