The relationship between politics and education has always been a bit uneasy. Keeping neutrality in the classroom by maintaining objectivity is especially difficult when the current nationwide discussion has become as polarized as it seems to be today.
Educators want to provide a safe environment for students to learn and become better thinkers without the confusion, fear, or animosity that may develop when controversial topics enter the classroom.
With recent polarized opinions on immigration policy and President Trump's various recent executive orders, educators have expressed concerns about discussing current topics in the classroom. Recently it has been a particular challenge to teach objectively when political topics arise.
Daniel Osborn, a teacher at a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts, told Education Week, "This is the challenge of teaching today: not allowing one narrative to dominate, while also not allowing hatred to infiltrate the classroom and inform perceptions of others."
Based on the discourse, students may develop a worldview without using critical thinking to develop their own ideas. While this is not a new challenge, educators are learning—now more than ever—that they need to cultivate values of inclusion and empathy in the classroom in order to give students a safe and intellectually rigorous learning environment.
How can teachers maintain neutrality in the classroom?
Is it possible to maintain neutrality, and is that necessary? If so, how can it be done well? These are questions that educators have often considered throughout the history of education. With the recent political scene, various opinions on keeping neutrality in the classroom have developed and we can expect that these views will continue to evolve.
Here are a few ideas that can help teachers encourage students to learn and develop critical thinking skills in a noisy world, while still maintaining a safe learning environment.
Consider how you share information
Students often look to their teachers for moral guidance to better understand what is occurring in the world around them. Teachers need to be consciously aware of how personal biases can overshadow classroom curriculum. It is incredibly difficult to maintain neutral authority. Yet, by sharing information objectively to help students understand current controversial topics, teachers can help them gain greater understanding and develop their opinions.
This doesn't mean that teachers need to be passive about controversial topics, but rather that they need to make a conscious effort to cultivate the learning process in obligation to the student to provide all facts and figures surrounding any given topic.
Share all sides of the story
Today's news environment requires critical thinking to look beyond what is presented. Teachers can help students see past the headlines to discern how journalists spin a story to cater a particular viewpoint. Students can learn about fact-checking and look behind the news story to determine whether it is fact or fiction.
One way to do this is to figure out which are the best fact-checking sources for any given topic. This can include peer-reviewed case studies, research papers, and sources that come from valid, credible sites. Determining this may sometimes be additional work in itself, but it will educate students on the long process that goes into determining credibility—a skill that will carry on with them throughout their educational career.
Teach students to be critical thinkers
Controversial topics will continue to circulate throughout our society, and teachers can take on the important role of helping their students develop critical thinking skills to analyze and process their understanding of a subject. Through review, reflection, and analysis of confusing topics, students can gain more understanding of the world around them and cultivate values to carry into the future.
An additional way this is possible, besides the obvious approach of research into particular topics that may arise, is to maintain an inclusive classroom approach. When discussing subjects, including student's feedback is crucial. Like the CER (claim-evidence-reasoning) approach that transforms STEM lessons, this process can be used for other projects.
Prepare for the future
Students need to be prepared to express and defend their values, civic duty, and responsibilities as the sociopolitical landscape continues to polarize. As future leaders and professionals, they need to develop the skills to navigate through controversial discourse and viewpoints.
It isn't easy to objectively discuss controversial topics in the classroom. In fact, this is probably the greatest challenge for teachers. Yet, through a continued effort to recognize personal biases and clearly explain viewpoints on a topic, teachers can help students develop the skills they need for any polarized situation in education and beyond.