3.1 Introduction: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History at Key Stage 3

What are emotive and controversial issues in the context of key stage 3 history?  

Many aspects of key stage 3 history are emotive and controversial because they involved actual or perceived unfairness to people by another group or individual. Potential examples include the Crusades, the Partition of India, the Holocaust, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Irish Famine and Commonwealth Migration to Britain. In contemporary Britain, learning about the legacy of Britain's colonial past, and about the relationship between the West and Islam, are perhaps the most controversial and challenging aspects of the Key Stage 3 history curriculum.

How does the key stage 3 programme of study support the teaching emotive and controversial issues in history?  

The requirement that pupils should understand history both as a body of knowledge and as a form of knowledge forms the basis history at key stage 3. The integration of historical knowledge, concepts and processes is widely recognized as the essential framework for school history in a democratic and pluralist society; it provides a firm foundation for the teaching of emotive and controversial issues.

Particularly important is the inclusion of interpretations as a key concept in the history programme of study. By ensuring that pupils are guaranteed a history curriculum that places strong emphasis on studying different and competing views of history, the national curriculum at key stage 3 provides a natural and positive framework for the teaching of emotive and controversial issues

What challenges do history teachers face in teaching emotive and controversial issues?  

The first main challenge is to ‘avoid avoidance'. Teachers who are avoiders might shy away from teaching about such subjects such as immigration, the legacy of empire and issues of racism and intolerance. It is clear that the starting point for successful teaching is a willingness and confidence to be a ‘risk-taking' teacher who allows pupils to study emotive and controversial issues in a safe and supportive context.

The second major challenge is to make our history curriculum diverse and inclusive. One of the reasons that history matters so much is because it is crucial in developing pupils' sense of their own identity. In many English schools the teaching of emotive and controversial issues is at its most challenging when it relates directly to issues of ethnicity and identity. Studies show that that Black and Asian history are ignored in too many schools and that emotive issues such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Crusades can sometimes be taught insensitively. Pupils at Key Stage 3 should have more opportunities to study their shared colonial heritage and to find out about the histories of different cultures and civilizations.

How can we plan for effective learning about emotive and controversial issues?

Plan a key stage 3 history curriculum with ‘bite'

History departments that begin with a desire to link the learning of history to the development of pupils' attitudes and values, that think deeply about the nature of their local communities and about the lives of their pupils, and that plan a curriculum which avoids superficiality and has gravitas, prepare fertile ground for addressing emotive and controversial issues. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the basis for the effective teaching of emotive and controversial issues is a key stage plan based on a clear rationale that has identity, values and diversity at its core.

Carefully craft enquiry questions around emotive and controversial issues

A feature of planning which supports an ‘issues-based' approach to history at Key Stage 3 is the practice of structuring sequences of lessons around substantial enquiry questions. Deciding on a particular focus for the study of controversial issue, defining an academically-rigorous but pupil-friendly enquiry question, and planning a sequence of lessons that gradually builds pupils' understanding of the complexity of issues in the past, have been shown to be effective approaches to teaching about emotive and controversial issues. Particularly helpful are enquiries that focus on interpretations of history. Pupils need to understand that emotive and controversial issues in history are open to various and sometimes competing interpretations. They need to be enthused, fascinated, bemused, amused and outraged by different interpretations of the past.

Plan approaches to learning that encourage our pupils to really care about what happened in the past.

Getting pupils to really care about what happened in the past, or to move beyond the ill-informed and one-sided views they may have developed through their community histories, is a difficult challenge for teachers. In devising learning activities that engage pupils with contentious aspects of history the starting point is the teachers' deep understanding of both history and pedagogy. Without a water-tight connection between learning objectives and learning activities pupils may be motivated as learners, but will find it difficult to engage with real human issues from the past. A critically-important factor in the effective teaching of emotive and controversial issues in history is the teacher's capacity to engage pupils' emotions as well as their intellects. Over the last few years, history educators have developed a range of effective teaching strategies that engage the hearts and minds of pupils. These include:

  • Powerful images, music and drama. Powerful visual sources and interpretations, introduced at the right moment in a sequence of learning and linked to appropriate learning activities, can stir pupils' emotions and engage them in learning.
  • Informed debate and discussion Opportunities for pupils to talk, both tentatively and formally, about emotive and controversial issues are vital for pupils' understanding. Research suggests that structured speaking and listening activities are highly-prized by pupils.
  • Making it personal. Pupils often find it difficult to engage with topics in history that are written or presented as generalities and abstractions. When pupils' learning about controversial issues is focused on the experiences of individual people in the past they are more likely to connect with past events and situations.

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