1.2 Approaches to planning for emotive and controversial issues in the classroom.

a) The importance of story   

Story is central to the development of young children's understanding of history.  Stories permit children to engage with ideas and concepts outside their own immediate experience and to explore ways  in which the past was different/similar to the present.  They introduce children  to people's  different beliefs and values; what people in the past thought was important and what motivated them to act as they did.  In doing so, stories enable children to reflect on their own understandings and things which are important to them as well as to appreciate other people's points of view.   Egan (1991:103) reminds us that story is of crucial importance for making sense of the world by introducing learners to emotions such as joy, sorrow, anger, love, hate, fear and security  and to concepts such as good and bad.

Stories are central in developing understanding of human values. Key characteristics of stories can be summarised as follows::

  • the use of story in making sense of human experience
  • the construction of meaning and purpose for our lives
  • stories giving us reason for action
  • stories are built on an underlying structure of beliefs and commitments
  • the use and abuse of story in building community identity
  • the importance of our own story in rendering self-identity
  • hearing the stories of others is a means of negotiating truth and right
  • hearing the stories of others is a means of negotiating the values that others hold .'

In the early years  traditional  tales may be used  to explore human emotions and different beliefs and values. In the story of Goldilocks, was it right for her to steal the porridge, break all the furniture and then run off? Surely the giant was right to become angry with Jack for stealing the golden goose? These are initial questions which introduce young children to some of the processes and thinking skills which are needed in addressing learning about controversial and emotive issues in history. Stories which provide alternative explanations of well known stories are also important here eg; the story of the 3 Little Pigs from the Wolf's point of view (Scieska:1989), the wolf's version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Fisher (1996 and 1999) identifies a range of stories for developing thinking. His ‘stories for thinking' identify key emotions which are explored within specific stories. Such an approach indicates the importance of identifying the key purposes of the story. Discussion questions which may promote thinking are suggested and their links with cognitive development identified. The cognitive functions of the questions which he suggests are all key for developing children's abilities to deal with controversial and emotive issues.

Stories for Thinking: discussion questions


Cognitive function of questions

*What do you think.....

What is your view/opinion/idea about this?


*Why do you say that?

Can you give me a reason?


*What do you mean by...?

Can anyone explain that to us?


* Has anyone got another thought/idea/example?

Who else can say something about it?


*How could we tell if it was true?

How do you/we know?


*Who agrees/disagrees with....? Why?

Can you say who/what you agree or disagree with?


*Who can remember what we have said?

What are the ideas/arguments we have come up with?

Focusing attention









Generating alternative views




Testing for truth



Sustaining dialogue/argument





(From Fisher:1996)

Research investigating young children's responses to stories indicates some developing complexity in their thinking and their ability to draw inferences. Initially, children may demonstrate a capacity linked with the Piagetian view of ‘immanent justice'. For example, in traditional  stories children may say  the bridge broke because it knew the boy crossing it had stolen the apple - at this stage children expect  good characters in stories to be successful and stories  are constructed around what they believe to be true. However stories provide opportunities to question motives and why things happen even for very young children.   For example, young children could reason that the 3 Little Pigs recognized the wolf because of his gruff voice  (Cooper: 2002).  There is also a half way stage; for example did Cinderella exist?  - (Applebee: 1978) argues that most 6 year olds said yes, but that she couldn't be visited since she lived too long away.  Another example of this intermediate stage concerns a 5 year old's response to Jack and the Beanstalk; he knew  the story was  not real since he knew there  are no such things as giants, but thought Jack's mum was real, ‘because my mum talks to me like that' (Cooper 2002:69). Cooper discusses how 5 and 6 year olds coped with different interpretations of the same story and their search for meaning. Farmer and Heeley (2004) have evidence of similar reasoning by young children on whether a story is true or not. Such research provides useful insights into children's potential approaches to dealing with controversial and emotive issues.

Through story young children learn to sequence events and to explain their order. The ability to reason, identify reasons for particular events and the consequences of them are fundamental in helping children get to grips with understanding of controversy and recognition of emotive issues.  Vass (2004) argues that historical skills integrated through stories make the past more intelligible to children and he identifies a range of different approaches to telling stories.

Children often confuse fact and fantasy; they are not always aware that a story or event is true. The horrific nature of some stories told about the past has less relevance/fear for children than a story which they could actually imagine happening to them. For example, all children are fascinated by the ancient Egyptian mummification process but it is unlikely that they are able to connect that such procedures were conducted on real people. 

Stories which represent histories from a range of cultures develop young children's awareness of  diversity, alternative viewpoints and ways of life - all of which are important in helping children begin to grasp the nature of controversy in studying history. In selecting history books therefore which reflect a range of cultures and societies it important to ensure that different communities are represented accurately and that stereotypes are not being perpetuated. In evaluating the appropriateness of certain stories it is useful to note whether the customs and lifestyles of different peoples and societies are explained together with the   values which underpin them.

Sherwood and Spafford (1998) in their teachers' pack on Whose Freedom were Africans, Caribbean's and Indians defending in WW2?  make the observation which is relevant for all age ranges. ‘

Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

If pupils are not taught about these diversities, the result will be a (perhaps unintended) view of the world as composed exclusively of people of European ethnicity. This must inevitably result in a sense of superiority in those pupils who are European and a sense of inferiority in those who are not. This is equally damaging to both groups- those who have been taught that only they have history and those who have been taught  that they have none.'


Applebee, A. (1978) The Child's Concept of Story; Ages 2-17, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Cooper, H. ( 2002) 2nd edition. History in the early years. London, Routledge/Falmer.

Egan, K. (1991) Primary Understanding; Education in Early childhood. London, Routledge.

Farmer. A. and Heeley, A. ( 2004)  Moving between fantasy and reality: sustained, shared thinking about the past. in Cooper, H. (ed)  Exploring Time and Place through Play.  London, David Fulton.

Fisher, R. ( 1996) Stories for Thinking. York, Nash Pollock.

Fisher, R. (1999) First Stories for Thinking. York, Nash Pollock

Scieszka, J. (1989)The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. London, Viking.

Sherwood, M. and Spafford, M. (1998) Whose freedom were Africans, Caribbeans and Indians defending in WW2?  Teachers' Pack for secondary schools, Savannah Press in association with the Black and Asian Studies Association.

Vass, P. (2004) Thinking Skills and Learning of Primary History: Thinking Historically through Stories.  International Journal of History Learning, Teaching and Research.  Volv 4, no 2. Available from History Resource Site - University of Exeter

Useful picture books - personal and family histories.

These books provide opportunities for children to sequence events in individual lives and to grasp some understanding of a past which is different from the present.  Recognition that people experience different lives and that different things are important to them are early opportunities for children to engage with alternative viewpoints and interpretations which are at the heart of controversial history. 

Ahlberg, J and A. (1982) The Baby's Catalogue. London, Puffin.

Ahlberg, J. and A. ( 1988) Starting School. London, Puffin.

Burningham ( 1984)  Grandpa, London, Jonathan Cape.

Bradman, T (1989) The Sandal. London, Anderson Press.

Fox, M.  (1987) Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, London, Picture Puffins.

Paton Walsh, J and Williams, S. ( 1993) When Grandma Came. London, Picture Puffins.

Williams, M. ( 1989) When I was little. London, Walker Books.

Waddell, M. (1989) Once there were giants. London, Walker books.

Flournoy, J. (1985) The Patchwork Quilt. Oxford, Bodley Head.

Paton Walsh, J, (1997) When I was little like you. London, Puffin.

Rogers, P. (1995) From Me You to You. A family history through three generations.  London, Orchard Books,

Humphrey, P. (2000) When Grandma was Young. London, Evans.

Ives, P. (1995) Granny's Quilt. London, Puffin.

Phillips Mitchell, R. ( 1997)   Hue Boy.  London.Puffin.

Waddell, M. (1992) Grandma's Bill. Hove, McDonald.

Baker, J. ( 1992) Window.  London, Random House.

Other resources providing information for teachers about family histories

Refugees: A Resource Book for Primary Schools. Contains activities, personal testimonies and background information. The Refugee Council.

Kosovan Journeys. Two refugee children tell their stories in this A3 book for Literacy Hour Reading. The Refugee Council

Why do they have  to fight?

Refugee children's stories from Bosnia, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. A source book of refugee children's stories and paintings. Although planned for KS2 and KS3 - some of the information may be useful for KS1 teachers. The Refugee Council

Rowe, D and Newton, J.  (1994) You! Me! Us!  Citizenship Foundation.  The full story of Farouk and activities linked to the story may be found at The Citizenship Foundation website.

Selected biographies

Bridges, S.Y. (2002) Ruby's Wish. San Francisco, Chronicle Books. Biography of little Chinese girl who was one of the first girls to attend a Chinese university.

Coles, R. (1995) The Story of Ruby Bridges. Leamington Spa, Scholastic

Hoffman, M.(2002) The Colour of Home. London, Frances Lincoln. Story of little boy from Somalia during his first days in an English school. Hassan paints pictures of his old home in Somalia and of the night when the soldiers came and set fire to his house. He tells his story to his teacher through a translator.

Joseph, L. (1998) Fly Bessie, Fly.  London, Simon and Schuster.

Keenan, S. (1995) Frederick Douglass: Portrait of a Freedom Fighter. Leamington Spa, Scholastic.

Walvoord Girard, L (1994) Young Frederick Douglass: The Slave who Learned to Read.  Albert Whitman and Co.

Picture books which provide alternative viewpoints

Willis, J  and Ross, T. (1988) Dr Xargle's Book of Earthlets. London, Andersen Press. Provides an alternative view of babies through the eyes of Dr Xargle. Useful for encouraging children to recognize alternative viewpoints and to question their own understandings.

Scieszka, J. (1989)The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. London, Viking.

Trivizas, E (1995) The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.

Other history stories

Gerrard, R. (1998) Wagons West! London, Puffin Books. Story about travelling across the US, describing the dangers which they encountered.

Brill, M.T. (1993) Allen Jay and the Underground Railroad. Minneapolis, Lerner Publishing Group. Recounts story of a young Quaker boy who helps a fleeing slave escape on the Underground Railway.

Oppenheim S.L. (1992) The Lily Cupboard. A story of the holocaust. London, HarperCollins. The story describes how a young Jewish girl is hidden in the countryside away from her parents.

Waddell, M (1985)  Going West. London, Puffin.  A family head west across America to begin to a new life. Includes observations on the relationships between the pioneers and native Americans.    

b) Play based activities

Play based activities are important for developing and re-inforcing children's knowledge and understanding of the past and  offer ways for children to explore potentially emotive and controversial issues ( Cooper: 2005, Claire: 2005a, woodhouse:2005). A classroom play area provides opportunities for children to act out their developing historical understanding; to try out what they have learned and to modify it within their existing understanding. Play provides opportunities for children to explore alternative occurrences and outcomes as they introduce their own interpretations and viewpoints into their play. Through play children may explore stereotypes which may be controversial eg; different gender roles within the home; attitudes to child rearing and they may develop awareness of different lifestyles and values.

Potentially controversial and emotive issues may be addressed through play. For example, a museum educator uses puppets to talk about  sensitive issues which might effect children whom she is working with. The puppet ‘did this', or ‘thought this' or' this happened to the puppet' are all possible ways to enable children to distance themselves from the events and emotions being expressed. Using puppets may also encourage children to offer advice - what would you have done?  and suggest resolutions to conflict. This approach to teaching about sensitive issues has also been adopted by persona dolls (Claire:2005b). .

Children may be encouraged to act out situations in a story which they have heard. Freeze framing enables them to reflect on particular events within a story.  Children could re-tell the story in their own words and may be helped to do this by props from a story sack. ‘I'd like to ask' and hot seating are valuable ways to develop children's questioning skills.  Hot seating provides opportunities for children to acquire information concerning questions which genuinely interest them and also enables teachers to assess their understanding of  key historical issues.  The device of a conscience alley provides opportunities for children to explore what decisions they might have taken when confronted with controversy in the past.

c) Promoting the teaching of emotive and controversial issues within the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1. 

Teaching approaches

Developing techniques to enable children to explore controversial issues include approaches which support children's questioning  and investigations.  Such approaches include:

*  Helping children to make links and connections between what they already know and new information about the past

*  Making  distinctions between different answers to enable children to learn about different ways in which questions may be answered;

* Encouraging  children to explore different points of view and to explain the points of view which they have;

* Discussing  with children any disagreements or inconsistencies which they find in the answers which they have given;

* Modelling talk including specific phrases and vocabulary  and responses to different sorts of questions;

* Creating an environment where children feel safe to express their views

* Widening children's experiences to help them to become aware of alternative viewpoints and lifestyles.

Curriculum organization

Planning for opportunities for children to explore controversial and emotive issues  needs careful consideration.  Questions which might influence planning include:

  • What opportunities are there for linking different subjects or areas of learning which may deepen children's understanding?
  • What opportunities are there for children to explore their understanding of controversial and emotive issues in different ways? ( play, drawing, modelling, talking,).
  • What opportunities are there for children to talk in a variety of contexts and for adults to model different ways of talking about controversial and emotional issues? ((opportunities for questioning and reflecting on puzzling situations, exploring alternatives and drawing conclusions vocabulary and phrases to support children in recognizing different opinions and being able to express their own views sensitively. Use of tentative words such as probably, perhaps, might have).
  • Have a variety of experiences of ordinary people  ( men, women and children) from a range of backgrounds been included?  (including some of their diverse experiences and experiences which have created controversy or conflict;  the voices of different communities and their experiences))
  • Are there opportunities to introduce  issues of justice, fairness, respect and identity? ( rights of people to their land, rights to vote, have an education. Issues of disparity in wealth and opportunities)
  • Do resources challenge or perpetuate stereotypes? ( Native American female chiefs; female explorers, pioneers, social activists; black soldiers in the world wars)


Claire. H. (2005a) Learning and Teaching about citizenship through history in the early years. Leading Primary History,  pp pp24-43 London, Historical Association.

Claire, H. (2005b) Persona dolls in citizenship education

Cooper, H. ( 2005) Learning and Teaching about the past in the foundation stage and key stage 1.  Leading Primary History. Pp14-23. London, Historical Association.

Woodhouse, J. ( 2005)  Learning and Teaching about the past in the foundation stage.  Leading Primary History,  pp6-13. London, Historical Association.

Previous page     Next page