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Teaching challenging histories: Strategies for approaching controversial topics in social studies

By Dale Martelli, President, BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association, and teacher


A key component of social studies curriculum at any grade level is world events, both current and historical. Sometimes world events can be polarizing and controversial, leading teachers to shy away from bringing these discussions into the classroom. It can be intimidating to broach challenging histories and controversial current events with students, but it can also be rewarding to see students grow their capacity for understanding, empathy, and curiosity through the process of discussing challenging topics.


Here are some strategies I use to approach controversial topics in my social studies classroom:


Develop media literacy and understand news bias

Students are very familiar with the concept of “fake news” but are often surprised when we investigate the ways “fake news” has been documented and in existence since the mid-seventeenth century. I try to provide students with the tools they need to critically question and analyze claims and stories they read on social media and through news outlets.


Identifying bias and fallacies in news stories tends to be a bit more difficult for students compared to finding inaccuracies in social media claims. I encourage students to look beyond the lens of “fake news” and critically compare news stories with different perspectives (for example, comparing coverage of a specific topic by BBC and Al Jazeera). I emphasize using any media, first and foremost, as sources of information, not as sources of truth, so students can formulate their own understanding.


Some of the skills that are useful for building media literacy include understanding essential fallacies such as “slippery slope” or “circular reasoning,” and questioning the positionality and context of the author of the article.


Lean into inquiry

My doctoral research began with exploring contested narratives in historiography, in particular the treatment of bias or, more accurately, prejudgement in historical inquiry. We often ask students to keep bias out of inquiry, but I questioned whether prejudgement could ever be discarded. Over the years, I’ve evolved my teaching practice to focus on exploring prejudgements rather than discarding them when engaging in inquiry.


Inquiry-based teaching in my classroom is guided and shaped by compassion, understanding, and rational empathy. Students are encouraged to lean into their curiosities and find their own way to present their understanding. I hope this encourages ownership of learning and ideas in ways that worksheets do not. The only limitations I set for inquiry in my classroom is that the objective of the inquiry is relevant to the topic at hand, and that the conclusion is supported by evidence and/or reasons and demonstrates some element of empathetic understanding.

I don’t present empathetic understanding in historical inquiry as affective. Peter Lee and Denis Shemilt describe empathetic explanation as “…the elucidation of connections between goals, beliefs and values so that we can see how a course of action or a social practice was reasonable in its own terms even when judged unreasonable in ours.”(1) Thus, Lee and Shemilt argue that empathy is a rational operation that should be guided by the student’s prejudgements (including goals, beliefs, and values) in order to have any real impact on historical understanding.

...students have the opportunity to discuss differing perspectives on controversial world events, but we do so with the goal of understanding one another’s points of view, not winning an argument.  

Understand historical contexts

I believe that in order to understand historical contexts, we need to place ourselves in front of the event or text in a way that allows for the development of our own informed interpretation, and this includes having reasons and evidence for our views.


A significant influence on my practice and research was a text I came across from the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East in 2009, called Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis. This resource is grounded in teaching historical narratives as contrasting perspectives and trying to understand and humanize the “other.” The pages in the text are three-columned: one column describes the Israeli narrative, one column for the Palestinian narrative, and a third column that is left blank for students to make personal notes: additions, questions, new insights, and conclusions.


In many cases, I expand the narrative beyond just two stories to teach students that the challenge of history is that there are multiple understandings of past events. I try to encourage students to rationally unpack differing narratives of the past without inserting our own values from the onset.


Focus on compassion and respect when engaging in dialogue

In my classroom, I avoid traditional debate, which is about winning or losing. Instead, I focus on what I have termed a “collaborative learning encounter.” In a collaborative learning encounter, students have the opportunity to discuss differing perspectives on controversial world events, but we do so with the goal of understanding one another’s points of view, not winning an argument. In cases of disagreement, we acknowledge the disagreement but focus on bridging each other’s views and moving forward with a shared sense of transformative engagement. All of this is done with compassion and respect at the heart of our dialogue.


Early in the school year, I place a lot of emphasis on what listening means, especially when emotions run high. When we have a classroom discussion that may be polarizing, I always begin by acknowledging with students that our discussion may be emotionally laden, contested, and controversial. It’s important we navigate this together by staying respectful and considerate throughout the discussion and make arguments that rely on reason and evidence rather than emotion. I don’t believe rational discourse should be devoid of emotion, but it should not be undermined by it. We also set clear classroom expectations for respectful dialogue. This includes setting guidelines on what language is acceptable and what assertions are problematic, hyperbolic, or polemical.


Build trust with students, parents, and administrators

Clear communication with parents and administrators before diving into controversial topics is important because it opens space to discuss concerns before the planned learning takes place. I always send an email to families and administrators outlining what will be discussed in class, why and how, and clarify that the class will be making a distinction between personal opinions/views and possible truth claims. This is good practice before classroom discussions or before I introduce a resource, such as a film, to my students that may include a perspective viewed as “wrong” by a parent.


Students are also more likely to honestly express their curiosities and understandings when they know empathy, compassion, and respect are at the centre of all relationships and learning activities in the classroom. Building this trust takes time, but it is an integral part of supportive learning environments, especially related to controversial topics.



Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative: Palestinians and Israelis

by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East:          


Straight A’s for facilitating crucial conversations by Facing History and Ourselves:


1 Peter Lee and Denis Shemilt, “The Concept That Dares Not Speak Its Name: Should Empathy Come out of the Closet?” Teaching History, 143, 2011, p. 40.


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