When a controversial issue that involves the larger society is discussed in a classroom, would teachers know how to handle it? Should they voice their own opinions? If so, how should they go about it?
Link what you are teaching in the classroom to what is happening in the real world today, teachers are often told. This helps students see that what they learn in school is relevant to their daily life.
But this approach can potentially create a dilemma for teachers: When a contentious societal issue is raised in the classroom, how should it be addressed? Does a teacher’s personal opinion matter if it differs from the official stand?
These questions were raised by a conference delegate, Mr Kamaludin Bahadin, the Head of Department (Humanities) of Shuqun Secondary School at the 11th International CitizED Conference on 4 June.
During the panel discussion “What is the Ideal 21st Century Citizen? Perspectives from Different National Contexts”, he posed those questions to the following panelists:
- Professor S. Gopinathan, Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore;
- Dr Thavamalar Kanagaratnam, Senior Curriculum Specialist for Character and Citizenship Education, Ministry of Education, Singapore; and
- Professor Kathy Bickmore, Professor at the University of Toronto.
Mr Kamaludin said that he agreed with Prof Gopi’s observation in an earlier presentation that schools are no longer neutral learning spaces, and teachers are no longer dispassionate dispensers of the curriculum.
“All of us are now taking a position. Even inaction is a form of position, in the form of what we say or not say in the classroom,” says Mr Kamaludin.
“Instead of being mere gatekeepers, teachers are now in the forefront. It’s sometimes very challenging even for teachers to have an honest conversation with adults. In the Singapore education context, there are out-of-bounds (OB) markers, syllabuses and curricula to consider.”
Should teachers put forth their personal position on matters such as radicalization and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues?
Below are edited excerpts of the panelists’ responses:
We are role models; we are modeling what we would like our students to be. And if we are short on any values, certainly the students would “catch” it.
– Prof Gopi on the teacher as a role model
Professor S. Gopinathan
I think that’s a very important and interesting question and there is obviously no glib answer to that. I think the point you made is about co-construction (of discourse in the classroom).
If it’s real and authentic, the participants in this co-construction will see that they are constructing and sharing. What would effective co-construction need or require? It would require a real openness. Depending on the age of the students, how much of a debate, argument, contestation would you have in a primary school? The opportunities for that at the junior college level, for example, will be much greater. So there’s the appropriate-ness of the context that we ought to keep in mind.
But I think the core principles ought to be that we’re true to our beliefs, that we’re fair, and we’re conscious that we need to be fair. In the way that we act out our beliefs, we have to mediate between what is required from the Ministry of Education (MOE), and what is required by our own conscience. We are role models; we are modelling what we would like our students to be. And if we are short on any values, certainly the students would “catch” it.
Apart from those general principles, there is no answer for every situation. But I think increasingly, there will be a greater degree of openness. It will be the case that the OB markers will become more porous, and I think that will provide an opportunity.
But I also think you have to take into account the notion of the “strong state” and the strong agenda-building view of the state. That’s not going to go away. In my view, the national narrative will be key, that narrative will remain, and those of us who work in schools as teachers will have to be aware of that.
It will call for a lot more reflective teaching and thinking, and I suggest it will also require a lot more thinking in teacher preparation and professional development. We cannot just think that during times of changes, teachers will somehow be able to respond to it.
We need to be open, we need to see where things go; these are interesting times we are living in. There are no simple answers; but I don’t think there ever were.
– Dr Kanagaratnam on the teacher as a role model
Dr Thavamalar Kanagaratnam
When we work with teachers, this is a question that keeps coming up.
How would you facilitate a discussion in class if you’re not so sure what the “official stand” is, or if you don’t agree with the “official stand”? This is where we say, exactly as what Prof Gopi said, it is important to be authentic.
At the same time, we also acknowledge that there is a tension. One thing I tell teachers is, “Imagine that all the kids’ parents are in your classroom. What would you do? What would you say?”
This is because you’re not just a teacher here by yourself, teaching these kids. There’s the whole society out there which we need to bear in mind. However, we are also pushing boundaries, and when we talk about co-construction, we talk about open dialogue in the classrooms and allowing multiple perspectives.
This can sometimes cause discomfort for teachers. They would like to know the “right” answers and be able to give the “right” answers. But really, there is no “right” answer. So it’s something we all have to work out together. And there are no experts with the “right” answer either!
But we have to bear in mind the nation’s shared goals. For those issues that may fundamentally rock the foundation of the nation, you may want to think twice before starting a discussion in the classroom (if you are not sure how to approach them). But at the same time, we need to be open, we need to see where things go; these are interesting times we are living in. There are no simple answers, but I don’t think there ever were.
Let’s think about teaching as listening to students for a change.
– Prof Bickmore on listening to students’ concerns
Professor Kathy Bickmore
I certainly resonate with the idea that conflict education is worth the risk, and that it can be done well. People need support in various ways to do that.
Two things: One, let’s think about teaching as listening to students for a change. Not only what we as teachers deliver or create, as if we were the kings and queens in the classrooms, but as listening to their concerns, and responding. There will always be conflicts, as long as we’re alive. We can practise dialogue in the classroom with “real” conflicts in the young people’s lives. We would not begin with the most polarized issues, but with issues that lend themselves to genuine inquiry about multiple perspectives – where students can develop capacities for thinking through and responding to alternate perspectives, without harming one another in the process. That helps us choose which of these difficult issues are worth airing.
The other thing is the how? For me, the critical thing is not so much whether we should address conflicts, as how, which ones, and so forth. The important question is how to do it, in ways that all the students have voices but at the same time, no one is damaged, or that damages are repaired as part of the community process. We can think about how to address the real world better in our classroom.