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Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates

reviewed by Jennifer Barnett - December 14, 2012

coverTitle: Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates
Author(s): Paula Cowan & Henry Maitles (eds.)
Publisher: Continuum, New York
ISBN: 1441124845, Pages: 200, Year: 2012
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The text Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates edited by Cowan and Maitles (2012) would be an excellent resource for purchase by a university library or by a school board resource centre. The text would also be a welcomed inclusion in a teacher’s personal library of resource texts. It provides a general overview of a variety of specific topics that could be deemed controversial for discussion within an elementary or secondary school classroom. Covering such topics as Democracy, Gangs, Citizenship, War, Genocide, the Holocaust, and Migration, as well as selected phobias (e.g., Islamophobia, Homophobia, Roma-phobia, and Anti-Semitism), it is designed to be an initial reference text when preparing for classroom discussion or learning on any of these topics. It is important to note that while the title includes the phrase Key Issues there are many key issues of a controversial nature not included in the text.  Controversial issues such as death, sex, global warming, gender, equity vs. equality, piracy, and human trafficking have not been included.  Though there is cause to wonder why these issues were omitted when six chapters on genocide were included, one text cannot cover everything and thus it is understandable that not all key issues are present. As such, the text provides starting points for teachers, consultants, or learners who are about to embark on a lesson or a unit on a topic covered within its pages.  Its design is very reader-friendly.

Each chapter provides an outline for easy perusal of content. Chapters are not overly long or difficult to comprehend.  Each chapter ends with suggested questions, further readings, and a list of references. Some chapters contain examples of dealing with the topic in elementary or secondary classrooms, while other chapters contain suggestions regarding the teacher’s task/role in the classroom. A teacher, consultant or student could easily acquire a sense of the issues and considerations surrounding the topic through this text. The individual could then move forward to further investigate the topic prior to preparing the lesson or unit.

Given the text is more practical then theoretical in nature, it lacks the necessary depth to be a useful primary text for instructional purposes in the university milieu. It would be a good supporting secondary text in an undergraduate or graduate class on teaching issues of diversity, citizenship, or inclusivity as it could be used to introduce topics for further investigation. If used in this capacity, the professor may wish to consider re-ordering the sequence in which chapters are reviewed. The current ordering of the text does not lend itself easily to scaffolding between each chapter’s topics unless the instructor uses sound pedagogy to create linkages. A simple reordering of the text’s chapters would allow for easier transitions between topics in a university classroom setting. For example, Chapters Four, Five, and Seven all strongly include issues of citizenship.   If Chapter Two on democracy were reviewed next, it would provide one possible link to the chapters dealing with discrimination. By situating the discrimination Chapter Seventeen on anti-Semitism at the end, a scaffold to deal with any chapter on the Holocaust or Genocide would be created. Though not all of the chapters on Genocide need to be covered, it is recommended that Chapter Nine be used as the introduction as it isolates and explains the difference between unique and universal aspects of genocide, thus explaining why it is important not only to look at the Holocaust, but also to consider other situations such as Rwanda. This in turn could lead into the two chapters on war.  

Issues of citizenship, war, and human rights are concerns in many classrooms throughout the world. Though the vast majority of examples in the text are from the United Kingdom and the United States, there are the occasional Canadian, European Union and Oceanic reference.  While venturing into the data from Canada, the European Union and Oceania would have provided better examples in some instances, having a primary focus on data from the UK and US is understandable.  It is in these two locales that the majority of English classrooms exist and it is within these two locales that the majority of book sales will occur. In fact, including Canadian, EU and Oceanic data gives this text an advantage over its competitors. Too often texts of this nature, which deal with issues of international concern, only use data from one locale.  The editors should be commended for their partial inclusion of data from other sources.

Another strength of the text is its inclusion of both elementary and secondary examples. Too often texts of this nature primarily focus on the secondary school system.  The authors do an excellent job in chapter 1 of explaining why these issues should not be solely relegated to the high school setting. It is in the elementary panel that students first encounter bullying and prejudice. They learn about citizenship in elementary school and begin to develop their own opinions regarding diversity before they enter the high school setting. Controversial issues may arise at any grade level, and this text is a wonderful resource to aid the elementary teacher, as well as the secondary school teacher, in answering questions and planning lessons that build off of teachable moments.

The text Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates edited by Cowan and Maitles would be a welcome inclusion in a variety of situations. As a resource it provides a starting place that points towards additional avenues for investigation or discussion. It includes data from other states besides the UK or US and does not limit the discussion or learning opportunities to secondary school classrooms.  While it may be somewhat limited as an instructional text in a university setting, it would lend itself well as a discussion prompter or as an introduction to the chapter topic. While informative, it is a very clear and easy read.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 14, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16971, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:19:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Barnett
    Nipissing University
    E-mail Author
    Dr. JENNIFER BARNETT works in the Faculty of Education at Nipissing University, in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include examining the political, social and cultural education of identity and difference. Recent publications have focused on whether consistency is possible or desired when using performance appraisals in the assessment and evaluation of experienced teachers. Currently she is working on how cultural interpretations of gender are reinforced by the creation of laws or the silence of laws.
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