According to Barratt (1998), learners within the age of 10-15 years are referred to as middle years learners. However, for Australia the age bracket is 5-10 years. They are specifically early adolescents. Educating this group to become effective citizens poses the biggest challenge for teachers. The learners in this category have just started experiencing the world that is full of complexity and confusion in terms of social, cultural, political, environmental, and economic factors (Farris & Copper, 1994). There is also increased change in values because of advancement in technology. These issues are current and controversial to learners and the society as a whole (Farris & Copper, 1994). Three challenges then a rise:
- How can these youngsters be educated in order to participate effectively in matters pertaining to civic public life?
- How can they be made to respect life values and become good decision makers?
- What activities can be incorporated in school to enable them to appreciate the rewards and responsibilities of citizenship?
Educating this group to become effective citizens has been a challenge for teachers, adults and other authorities. Addressing the unique needs of these learners is a challenge, too (Farris & Copper, 1994). According to Chadbourne (2002), the following principles will help in addressing the issues:
Controversial issues refer to concerns, topics, or events that raise public debate. In most cases, they cause much disagreement or argument among people (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1987).The people who are involved normally take a long time debating on these issues. Controversy is part and parcel of schools (Molnar, 1984-85), and is regarded as a child of political and social struggle. School curriculum and teaching are full of controversial issues, and, therefore, schools should not avoid teaching middle years learners these controversial issues. If schools are democratic, they should help students develop the capacity of reasoning in a principle way. They should, therefore, provide opportunities for exploring, debating, and discussing contemporary issues (European Journal of Educational Studies, 2009). Examples of controversial issues include abortions rights, affirmative action, sex education, human rights, child abuse, among others (Farris & Copper, 1994).
Young people are often involved in making decisions on issues with different views. Issues, such as religion, sexuality, war, and bullying, can evoke emotions and lead to intensive discussions in and out of the classroom. It is, therefore, important for young people to develop skills that can help them form their own views and discuss these important issues. Having an opportunity to engage with controversial issues in such a constructive environment (school) will enable learners to develop as global citizens. It is, therefore, important for teachers to help their students in this development (Farris & Copper, 1994).
Oxford Review of Education
According to Vanessa Day, Christopher Oulton, Marcus Grace and Justin Dillon, young people should be aware of any controversy and see how arguments are constructed in order to sway people’s opinions if they are to be scientifically literate. Literature has shown that the methods and principles involved in teaching controversial issues are in themselves controversial. If good citizenship is to be instilled in middle years learners, education should be framed to address issues of sustainable development, as well as nature of the controversy. There are many reasons why middle years learners should be engaged in discussing controversial issues. The world is now democratic, and, therefore, the society should value freedom of expression. Compared to other subjects, geography has for a long time been rated low, due to being less appealing to learners. If learners are exposed to controversial issues during studies, they will develop their own capacity for moral and ethical reasoning, which will enable them to become critical and reflective thinkers (Farris & Copper, 1994).
According to Parker (2001), it is the responsibility of a geography teacher to incorporate controversial issues in current events and geography curriculum. Parker saw the need for students to study issues with elements of disagreement, be able to gather and organize facts, discuss different viewpoints, and discriminate between facts and opinions. They must be in a position to analyze situations and be knowledgeable to arrive at tentative conclusions. To students, geography is irrelevant and boring (Kahne and Westheimer, 2006; Garcia and Michaelis, 2001). However, if geography teachers make use of student interest, the subject will become more appealing. Controversial issues and events provide a golden opportunity for geography students to be exposed to the world (White and Walker, 2000). Geography should, therefore, be taught in such a way as to address current and controversial issues of everyday life instead of teaching only the basics. Without alternative interpretations, students will have nothing to think and learn because nothing worth knowing (especially in geography) is an absolute (Farris & Copper, 1994).
Study of controversial issues, as well as study of current affairs, should be incorporated in geography programmes in such a way as to reflect the purposes, goals and definition of the program. This exposure will enable middle years learners to be critical thinkers and not just perpetuate political ideas of teachers, parents, or peers (Farris & Copper, 1994).
Teaching of controversial issues
There are several methods and strategies applicable to teaching of controversial issues. Since the issues touch upon personal beliefs that trigger emotional reactions, it is difficult to conduct the methods in an orderly fashion. However, general rules are provided that will help teachers control the situation during those discussions for a perfect lesson (Farris & Copper, 1994).
- Generally, legitimacy of the controversy should be recognized. Students must learn how to discuss the problems and issues presented as controversy is part and parcel of the society.
- Proceeding should be well-ordered. For example, it can start with discussions, followed by debates, then taking a stand, continuum, and finally mediation. Effective rules should be created and agreed upon.
- Evidence and valid information should be focused on.
- Opposition should be represented fairly.
- There should be clarity on the issue, in order to bring out areas of disagreement and agreement.
- Core issues should be identified.
- Slogans should not be used.
- Proceed by talking on concrete issues before raising the discussion to an abstraction level.
- The teacher should allow students to challenge his/her position.
- The teacher should admit difficulties, weaknesses, and doubts in his/her position.
- Teaching of understanding should be emphasized by re-stating others’ perspective .The participants should be given a chance to paraphrase what they hear in order to gain this skill.
- All opinions should be respected.
- At the end, examine consequences and consider alternatives.
However, this should be dealt within the context of the goals and purposes of geography (Garcia and Michaelis, 2000).
A research-based strategy in which students are actively involved in exploration of issues, content and a question surrounding an area or concept of curricular is called inquiry-based learning. In this type of learning, classroom activities are designed to enable students to work either individually or as a group to solve problems involving classwork and fieldwork (Alvarado & Herr, 2003).
This method of learning increases student motivation. Students are actively involved in the learning process. By being given an opportunity to explore a question, students will be able to reflect on learning and gain deeper understanding by themselves. This will help them become critical thinkers (Alvarado & Herr, 2003).
Queensland Studies Authority (QSA), Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) Syllabus, and the Draft Australian Curriculum of Geography supports inquiry-based learning. There has been reform in schools to focus on changes in nature and to align with message system of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. These productive pedagogies have improved intellectual as well as social outcomes of all students. The productive pedagogies present dimensions that are necessary for improved outcomes (Istance, 2003). These include:
- Intellectual quality,
- Recognition of difference,
- Supportive classroom environment.
These dimensions are in line with the aim of inquiry-based learning. They bring out learning as a full life cycle, rather than front-loading it into compulsory years of schooling. The diversity of learners is also taken into account. There is also motivation in learning, as there is much individualized and self-directed learning. The objectives of education are multiple and include social, economic, and personal (Selby et al., 2002).