The demands of a fast changing modern world require that we support students in developing the skills for a reasoned and balanced discussion on sensitive topics that may challenge some of their most deeply ingrained beliefs. In this article, Shahrezad Samiuddin explore the issues surrounding introducing sensitive topics in the classroom.

Change is the only constant
In a world where the only constant is change, young people will soon be faced with decisions on several issues, on which people have differing views. Thus our job as teachers involves going a step beyond imparting knowledge and equipping our students with the ability to learn and adapt in an ever changing world. This includes equipping our students – global citizens of tomorrow – with the skills required to engage with sensitive issues.

A classroom is probably one of the safest environments for dealing with controversial or sensitive issues. If handled properly, discussions about these topics can help students develop critical thinking skills about complex global and personal issues. They can also allow our students to explore issues from various angles, cultivate the self confidence required to express their values and opinions, and at the same time develop respect and tolerance for other people’s point of view.Nobis

Now that’s controversial
So what counts as a sensitive or a controversial issue? Almost anything can become a sensitive issue if two groups of people offer different explanations for it, or give differing solutions for it. An issue can also become sensitive if a group of people react emotionally to the way it is presented by another group. Thus issues that have a political, social or personal impact are likely to become sensitive ones.

Turn on your TV, the internet or read your newspaper and you are not likely to get very far before you come across something sensitive or controversial, whether it is a story about child abuse, or a documentary about children’s growing addiction to fast food, footage of a famous person behaving badly, or a televised debate on who should be ruling the country. These issues are usually complicated and have no easy answers. And people usually have very strong opinions on them.

Controversy in the classroom? Why?
The natural question that arises is, why, if sensitive issues are so complicated to deal with, would you risk hurting your student’s sentiments by bringing them up in the classroom? Why should teachers bother discussing and teaching sensitive issues?

ControWell mainly because with the plethora of information bombarding them every day, the world frequently seems like a difficult place to handle to students. If young people are to grow up and lead fulfilling lives, they should be equipped to deal with instead of being sheltered from the complex issues of the world. In fact when children learn to think for themselves, instead of sweeping issues under the carpet, can they clarify their emotions and values and get a better sense of who they are.

When you teach young children to deal with sensitive issues, it helps them to develop critical thinking and analytical skills, which in turn enables them to develop healthy perspectives. Apart from developing an understanding of the topic, when we talk about sensitive issues children end up learning much, much more, such as:

1. To respect the opinions of others
2. To use their imagination to generate solutions
3. To participate in healthy arguments and debates (using appropriate language)
4. To evaluate everything and make reasoned judgments based on it
5. To resolve conflicts
6. To have confidence in their own opinion

If as a teacher you need more convincing regarding whether to discuss a hot button topic, try looking at things from the perspective of your average student. He was most likely born during the media explosion and possibly cannot imagine life before the internet or 24-hour TV. And even though he has more information and images filling up his head than you or his parents did at his age, he is also being influenced in ways he may not realise. You as the teacher are perfectly placed to help students develop awareness about how the media and the people around them are influencing their worldview.

Generally adults, who are involved with children, feel (not too happily) that young people today are exposed to far too many sensitive issues, too early in life. Perhaps the most positive outcome of this is that they are also interested in learning about them.

Setting ground rules
If you are like most people, you probably want to avoid the strong feelings and opinions that may be triggered in your classroom because of a sensitive topic. Here’s how to handle these issues in a positive and thoughtful way in a class full of varying feelings, values, and opinions.

1. Create a supportive environment in the classroom

Start your discussion by laying down a few classroom rules such as:

a. One person will speak at a time and there will be no interruption.
b. You will respect other people’s point of view
c. If you disagree, understand that you are disagreeing with an idea and not the person.
d. When talking about communities or a group of people, say ‘some people from Timbuktu’ and avoid lumping everyone under ‘all’.
e. You will use appropriate and respectful language.
f. You have the right to pass or leave the classroom
g. You will back up your point of view with reasons.

2. Consider dividing the class
With some topics, you might find that it is easier to divide the class into groups instead of asking individuals to participate in a discussion. This will allow less confident individuals to express themselves.

3. Do your homework
Whether it is Karachi’s law and order situation, the disparity of income in Pakistan, racism or the rise of divorce in society, as the teacher you should arm yourself with background knowledge and research on the topic. And while you do so, begin to form your own opinion about the subject so that you will be prepared, should the students ask for your point of view. This is also the time to decide whether you want to or don’t want to share your opinion (this will depend on the topic being discussed).

Also before you jump into a topic think about your students and how a topic could affect them. If you are discussing the topic of death, has there has there been a recent close death in a child’s family? Are there students from minority communities in your class (and there inevitably are), whose sentiments can be hurt by what someone might say during a discussion on religion or ethnicity?

While some students may feel that they are relieved by a discussion that hits close to home, it is also likely that others are embarrassed by it. During a discussion refrain from highlighting a student’s situation and should strong feelings arise, have a plan about how you will handle tricky situations in advance.

4. Make a list of questions that the students already have
Ask children to share what they already know about a topic. If the topic is particularly sensitive you may want them to write out their questions anonymously and hand them in. This exercise will allow you an insight into whatever the students already know or think they know and where they may ‘know’ the wrong facts.

5. Ask students to conduct their own research
Students should be given the chance to conduct research and talk to people in order to find answers to the questions they have. At this point it is important that they are told how to differentiate between facts and opinions. For instance, if you are discussing the relief efforts that were carried out after a natural disaster, the students could look up newspaper articles for the facts about the event, then they could read an opinion piece on the same. Even better would be if they could read a contrasting opinion on the same topic.

6. Encourage students to form an opinion
Once they have researched a topic thoroughly, students should be encouraged to form an opinion and also be open to other points of view.
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Because of the nature of a sensitive topic, there are likely to be students who will not participate because they think their opinion will be ridiculed or because a topic is close to their heart, hence establishing a safe atmosphere in the classroom is the most critical aspect of dealing effectively with these issues. Done effectively and perceptively, exploring a sensitive issue in the classroom is an important exercise in free expression that will provide valuable life lessons for students.

Shahrezad Samiuddin is part of the TRC Team.


March 2014