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Values and controversial issues

“A geography curriculum that disregards values and controversy would not only be very dull (and also very thin in terms of content), but more importantly would fail to educate.”

Biddulph et al., 2015

Topics on this page:

  • Introduction to controversial issues
  • Why and what controversial issues should we teach about in geography?
  • Values and attitudes
  • Teaching approaches for controversial issues
  • Morally careless or morally careful teaching
  • Teaching and learning strategies
  • Planning topics involving controversial issues
  • Reading

Introduction to controversial issues

In the modern world, we are confronted with many complex issues and dilemmas: from famine and refugee crises to pollution and uneven economic development. Nick Hopwood exemplifies this dilemma,

‘We are encouraged to buy Fair Trade produce but at the same time urged to reduce food mileage by eating locally grown foodstuffs. We want to enjoy spectacular landscapes but by visiting them can be implicated in their demise.’ (Think Piece – ‘Values and controversial issues’, 2007)

School geography has an important part to play in helping students to understand dilemmas such as these which are part and parcel of many topics in the subject. Geography presents students with real issues, globally and locally, and encourages them to discuss these and give opinions. Good geography teaching needs to embrace controversial issues that exist in our changing world because it will affect students’ lives, now and in the future.

A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI (2009) on behalf of the Geographical Association found, from interviews with 11–14 year olds, that the great majority (93%) thought it was important to learn about issues affecting different parts of the world and about how the world could change.

Issues are ‘controversial’ because there is no fixed or universally held point of view about them. Roberts (2023) discusses a variety of reasons for this. There may be insufficient evidence, which was the case until recently with climate change, or evidence may be interpreted differently. Different values or ideologies that are held might cause an issue to be controversial; NIMBYism can often influence planning issues or there may be ethical reasons for different viewpoints.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 109-11 ‘What makes an issue controversial?’ to find out what is meant by the precautionary principle.
Through studying geography, students need to understand that people have different perceptions and opinions about controversial issues and ‘wicked’ problems.

The study of ‘real world’ contemporary issues is a requirement for GCSE and A level in England. The DfE requirements for geography GCSE examination refer to issues in that students are required to:

  • ‘Apply knowledge, understanding and skills and approaches … to contemporary situations and issues’
  • ’Draw well-evidences and informed conclusions about geographical questions and issues’
  • ‘Apply knowledge and understanding to evaluate issues and to make judgements’
  • ‘Use skills … to investigate issues’.

Controversial issues are not confined to GCSE geography. Read Dawson et al. (2022) and the discussion about ‘dangerous’ geography in both primary and secondary geography.

Why and what controversial issues should we teach about in geography?

Roberts (2023) makes a strong case for including controversial issues in the geography curriculum. She argues that geography is inherently a political and value-laden subject concerned with current issues that are often controversial. She also points out that young people have a vested interest in their own futures, and geography teachers should help them to understand the complexity of issues. Above all, exploring controversial topics provides an excellent vehicle for the development of generic geographical skills, including identifying and analysing evidence used to support different viewpoints.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 102-14 for her justification of including controversial issues in the geography curriculum.

Many aspects of common topics taught in geography are controversial and give students the opportunities to examine, appreciate and begin to develop their own perspectives on issues which have no single or straightforward answer.

Think carefully about an issue or dilemma you introduce in your teaching. It should be one in which geography has a distinctive contribution to make to its understanding and you can clearly identify the geographical content and concepts to be taught. 

Issues where there is a conflict of interest between different groups are commonly used; these can range from local planning issues, to national projects such as HS2 or the Three Gorges Dam in China. Many of the big issues we study in geography such as globalisation, climate change and sustainability can be approached through an investigation of a specific controversial issue.

Margaret Roberts (2023) p 114 suggests that you consider:

  • Topical issues – local, national or global – that are in the news.
  • Local issues where you might find easy access to information from local newspapers or the planning department and you could involve local people as visitors or through questionnaire surveys.
  • Issues you know about through study or travel.
  • Issues of particular interest to the students.

Controversial issues are invariably complex and it can require a breadth of geographical understanding to grapple with them. Beware of dealing with issues superficially. This can be a particular problem at key stage 3 where an issue may be over-simplified in an attempt to make the topic accessible for all students.

  • Look at the examples of questions raising ethical issues in Roberts (2023) p 111. Discuss with your mentor how such issues could be approached with some of the classes you teach,
  • Read Gillman (2019) which raises some issues and questions about population growth.
  • Refer to WorldWise Week 2017: Inclusive geographies p 19 Teaching Controversial Issues.

As Hesslewood (2021) argues, school geography has found it difficult to tackle critical geography as taught in universities and perhaps it should do so. Read his Teaching Geography article and consider your own stance. Think about the issues that are pertinent to your students’ lives; should they be part of the knowledge and curriculum taught in geography?

Values and attitudes

In teaching controversial topics, a teacher’s role extends beyond teaching cognitive understanding and into the affective (or emotional) domain. The values and attitudes we live by affect how we relate to other people and to all our activities in the environment. Values are the moral principles or standards by which we evaluate and judge issues. Attitudes predispose us to respond in particular ways to people and situations.

Empathy enables an appreciation of the ideas and feelings of others. As a skill it develops co-operation and improves critical thinking. It helps students understand ideas of identity and diversity, and instils values and attitudes for social justice and equality.

One topic area where geography teachers should consider how to develop empathy in students is when studying the effect of natural hazards on people and places. Almost weekly there is an ‘event’ you could study in geography and, as Reilly (2022) points out, ‘it is easy to be caught up in the spectacle and awe of natural hazards in order to motivate students, sometimes not fully appreciating that behind every single statistic is a personal tragedy‘. In his article he describes some teaching ideas he has used to develop the skill of empathy in students. Try out some of these methods in your lessons.

Values very much reflect the world we live in, and new controversial issues are always emerging. In 2017 President Trump put forward forthright views on many topical issues in today’s world from climate change to immigration and global economics.

Read this article on Teaching values in the Age of Trump that promotes the importance of students knowing how to question and evaluate information in today’s world. Mary Biddulph, in her 2017 Teaching Geography article reiterates this view when she writes:

‘We could be forgiven for thinking that careful thinking and rational debate are now marginal to more dominant discourses of national sovereignty, protected borders and social and cultural exclusion, leaving teachers at the forefront of an unprecedented challenge regarding the role of education in what seems to be an increasingly post-truth, evidence-light, ‘fake-news’ world. I would contend now more than ever that all children and young people (not just some) have the right to access geographical knowledge that will help them to make sense of, engage with and where necessary challenge a post-truth discourse.’

Martin (2022) provides an overview of key points from a selection of Teaching Geography articles so teachers of geography can reflect on, clarify and implement the values they believe to be important for their students’ education in geography.

Before you teach about a controversial issue you should reflect on, and clarify, your own values. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be isolated from what you teach. There is no such thing as a totally impartial view. Consider how you are going to approach teaching about the topic as fairly and honestly as you can. 

The DfE Frameworks for ITT and ECT set out what new teachers should know about and know how to teach in this context. It is also important to bear in mind when you select teaching resources that these are not value free.

Students will bring their own opinions and ideas to geography lessons and this is to be encouraged. But they will also bring with them ideas from parents, peers, social media and other lessons, which sometimes display prejudice and stereotypes. 

Teachers in English schools have responsibilities to promote the ‘fundamental British values’ which were defined in 2014 by the DfE as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs’.

In September 2017 Amanda Spielman (Ofsted’s Chief Inspector) said in a speech in Birmingham:

‘A strong civic education includes a rich and deep curriculum in subjects such as history, English and geography – to name just a few……. And while we don’t necessarily teach these subjects with promoting British Values in mind done well they should encourage those very debates. Through them, pupils should learn how we became the country we are today and how our values make us a beacon of liberalism, tolerance and fairness to the rest of the world. They should emerge as educated adults with a broad, informed perspective on the world.’

  • Download Moving stories and think about how you could teach about identity.

Key Reading

  • Biddulph, M. (2017) ‘Inclusive geographies: the illusion of inclusion’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Biddulph et al (2021) pp 253-260.
  • Values in geography teaching. This discusses values objectives in geography teaching, different approaches to values education and clarifies what is meant by ‘moral geography teaching’.
  • Hopwood, N. (2007) Think Piece – Values and controversial issuesGeographical Association on-line.
  • Download Values analysis which outlines four steps in values analysis and discusses teaching strategies.

 Teaching approaches for controversial issues

The approach followed is usually described as a critical pedagogy, which is defined by Roberts (2023) as being ‘concerned with probing beneath the surface, taking into account how political, economic and cultural contexts and systems of belief influence knowledge and impact on people‘ (p 121).

  • Read Roberts (2023) p 121 for more details on critical pedagogy.

Teaching about controversial issues requires carefully selected resources and should involve a substantial element of student discussion, so they can discuss ideas with others, clarify values and form opinions. It is important that the teacher does not ‘impose’ their own values and knowledge on students, as this is ‘indoctrination’ rather than education.

Four approaches that can help you to avoid imposing your views are to:

  • adopt a neutral role by being an impartial chairperson for a discussion
  • state your own position openly so that students know where you stand
  • take a balanced approach presenting a wide range of alternative views
  • be a devil’s advocate – which can enliven discussion.
  • Refer to Biddulph et al (2021) Table 9.1 for a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these four approaches. 
  • Refer to Roberts (2023) pp. 119-21, who draws on educational research to discuss the different roles a teacher can adopt (balanced; neutral; committed) and the notion of a ‘spectrum of advocacy’.
  • Refer to Hopwood (2008) who discusses Can geography teachers be neutral?

Another approach is to use a moral dilemma, which is an action that has good outcomes for some and bad outcomes for others . This involves creating a narrative or a story around a geographical theme with the dilemma embedded within it. This ‘case study’ is presented to students for discussion and they debate to resolve the dilemma (see Roberts (2013) p 115).

  • Download the case study of ‘Pilgrim at Topanga Creek‘ by McPartland (2001) which focuses on the topic of international migration from different perspectives. It is accompanied with a description of how the dilemma was managed in the classroom and an analysis of the students’ responses. Bustin (2007) has another example of a dilemma on the topic of water as a resource.
Other possible topics for moral dilemmas include:
  • Should we buy a Valentine’s Day rose from Kenya?
  • Should we go on a ‘responsible tourism’ holiday?
  • Should we buy clothes that are made using child labour?

Morgan and Lambert (2005) remind teachers of the need to avoid ‘morally careless’ geography teaching. New teachers must be careful not to ‘preach’ about values and should be encouraged to avoid this danger by presenting a balanced view of controversial issues and giving students the opportunity for discussion to form and present their own views. See the new teacher support sheet What is moral geography teaching and how to achieve it?

Read what Morgan and Lambert say and read McPartland (2006) about strategies for approaching values education. Then discuss with your mentor:

  • Do you agree with ‘morally careless’ and ‘morally careful’ teaching?
  • How might these ideas influence your lesson planning and your classroom practice?
  • What strategies can you use for teaching values education?
  • What are the implications for assessment?

Teaching and learning strategies

The teaching focus when teaching controversial issues will be on the development of a range of geographical and generic skills, such as to:

  • research, collect and analyse data to explore different viewpoints on the issue
  • identify values explicit or implicit in different viewpoints
  • evaluate evidence for reliability and bias
  • make judgements on the evidence
  • present evidence in support of a conclusion.
Teaching values and controversial issues uses active learning strategies, and involves critical thinking. It is essential for students to focus on finding out the evidence about an issue and explore different viewpoints. Students need to distinguish fact from opinion and be able to justify their views and conclusions.

Give students plenty of opportunity to discuss different opinions without demanding they give clear cut answers. Choose strategies that encourage students to think critically about the issues and allow plenty of time for individual reflection and writing after group discussions. It is important to include a thorough debriefing at the conclusion of the lesson(s). 

Activities which use photos are a good basis for generating group discussion as students with varying levels of knowledge of a subject can respond to the same stimulus material. Thinking skills activities, such as mysteries, or diamond ranking can develop reasoned argument and organisation of ideas.

Decision-making activities help students to analyse situations, and role playing allows students to act out the views of different groups where there are conflicts of opinions. Geographical enquiries can have a controversial issue as the key question. The Route for enquiry, designed for 16-19 year olds, includes values clarification for students to consider what they thought about an issue and take action.

Using empathy is another approach that is used in teaching about matters that deal with values. For an example of a development game used by a ECT in geography teaching see Morgan (2019).

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) p 122 Figure 12.7: Some activities to support the investigation of controversial issues.
  • Refer to Teaching Controversial Issues: A guide for teacher (2018) from Oxfam Education. This looks at why controversial issues should be taught and how they should be handled in the classroom. There is good advice within this paper on ‘ground rules’ for discussions and the ‘role of the teacher’ and suggested activities to try in the classroom.
  • See Six Thinking Hats. In this learning activity, different perspectives are represented by hats of different colours.
  • Refer to Values in geography teaching which includes teaching strategies.
  • Refer to Task 9.1 in Biddulph et al (2021) p. 260 and complete (1) to reflect on the issues you learned about in your geographical education and (3) to review a scheme of work in your school.
  • Observe some lessons involving values education and teaching controversial issues to see which approaches the teachers use – these lesson observations could be RE, PSHE or history lessons, as well as geography. Discuss your observations with your geography tutor or mentor.
  • Based on Michael McPartland (2006) p. 175, create a moral dilemma scenario that you can use in your teaching. Explore different discussion strategies as outlined on p. 177 when you teach these lessons.
  • Identify with your mentor a controversial issue from your school’s geography curriculum that you can teach. Use the advice from the readings to select resources and your teaching approach. Bear in mind the considerations set out above. Discuss your plans with your geography mentor and ask them to observe and evaluate your lesson.

Planning topics involving controversial issues

Look at Teaching Geography, Autumn 2018 for an example of ‘Teaching controversial issues’ to year 9 and year 13 students, as described by Will Fry who was awarded The Rex Walford Student Teacher award in 2018.

Points to consider are:

  • Clarify your own values and decide what stance you will take on the issue.
  • Consider the complexity of the issues and how you will approach this appropriately for the class you are teaching.
  • Identify clear aims and learning outcomes for the unit of work.
  • Decide what teaching approach will be most appropriate with this class and topic.
  • Select active learning strategies that give plenty of opportunity for discussion of different opinions.
  • How will you encourage students to think critically about the issues?
  • How will you deal with individual students/groups who may present challenges?

Reading

  • Biddulph, M. (2017) ‘Inclusive geographies: the illusion of inclusion’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) ‘ Values Education’ and ‘Controversial Issues’ in Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Bustin, R. (2007) ‘Whose right? Moral issues in geography’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Bustin, R. (2011) ‘Thirdspace: exploring the ‘lived space’ of cultural ‘others’’, Teaching Geography, Summer. (About homeless people in Las Vegas)
  • Dawson, G., Finch Noyes, H., Hunt, P. and Norman, M. (2022) ‘The danger in primary geography’ by Simon Catling – a response’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Digby, B. and Warn, S. (2012) Top Spec Geography: Contemporary Conflicts and Challenges: Sheffield: GA (for post-16)
  • Ellis, L. (2009) A Thorny Issue: Should I buy a Valentine’s rose? Sheffield: The Geographical Association.
  • Geographical Association: Tiggy you’re dead. This disturbing image, of a child soldier in the Congo, can be used as an introduction to investigating the geography of conflict.
  • Gillman, R. (2019) ‘Raising Issues: Questions about population growth’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Hatt, C. (2001) ‘Teaching the Holocaust through geography’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hesslewood, A. (2021) ‘Where is critical geography in the school curriculum?’ Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hopwood, N. (2008) Think Piece – Values and controversial issuesGeographical Association on-line.
  • Martin, F. (2022) ‘From the archive: Values visions and viewpoints’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • McPartland, M (2001) Theory into Practice: Moral Dilemmas, Geographical Association.
  • McPartland, M. (2006) ‘Strategies for approaching values education‘, Chapter 15 in D. Balderstone (ed.) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: The Geographical Association. (includes The Blue Jeans story p 171 and Nestor’s moral dilemma p 175).
  • Mitchell, D. (2018) ‘Handling controversial issues in geography’ in M. Jones and D. Lambert (eds), Debates in Geography Education. London: Taylor and Francis.
  • Morgan, M. (2019) ‘Emotional enquiry: accessing a new level of engagement in the classroom?’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 12.
  • Royal Geographical Society: Teaching conflict (part of the Geography Action Plan materials).
  • Sloggett, G. (2016) ‘The silent debate’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Warn, S. (2012) ‘Teaching about conflicts at post–16’, Teaching Geography, Summer.