Review by Matt Beckett

Teacher of philosophy and RS, Churston Ferrers Grammar School

10 Mar 2024, 5:00


Teaching Classroom Controversies: Navigating Complex Teaching Issues in the Age of Fake News and Alternative Facts

By Glenn Bezalel






18 Dec 2023

As teachers, it’s something that could be fear-inducing, but with Glenn Bezalel’s guidance it becomes apparent that controversy (CONtroversy or conTROversy?) actually presents an exciting opportunity for us and our students alike.

Thoughtfully and practically split into two standalone parts (one on theory and one on practice), Teaching Classroom Controversies presents a thorough, detailed discussion of the nature of this particular beast before supplying the reader with valuable, practical guides to how to deal with specific examples.

With sections on debating conspiracy theories, transgenderism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and free speech, this book is a much-needed, up-to-date guide to navigating the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls of teaching in the 21st century.

Part One, ‘Controversy in theory’, is a thoughtful exploration of the nature of controversy and the various pedagogical approaches at our disposal to meet them. To begin with, Bezalel addresses how to define controversy, offering competing criteria and informing the practitioner on how to spot and identify issues of controversy in the curriculum.

Something I loved in this section was Bezalel’s thorough, thoughtful use of some of the key players in the discussion of liberal thought and controversy like Popper, Mill and Arendt. Though I loved this, the amount of references could be overwhelming to a non-specialist who has been asked to teach the subject for the first time.

Following this, once one is comfortable with identifying opportunities to facilitate engagement in controversy, Bezalel proposes potential approaches for how to teach a controversial issue. This section provides solid advice relating to cancel culture and #nodebate that may otherwise intimidate the novice teacher (or indeed an experienced teacher who feels left behind).

Part Two, ‘Controversy in practice’, is thoughtfully written as a standalone section explicitly aimed at the busy teacher. This ideal of a standalone section is achieved here, without too many callbacks but with enough prompts to advise that more lies within the earlier half.

It left me itching to put some of Bezalel’s suggestions to the test

Part Two is full of comprehensive guides to discussing issues on climate change, ‘wokeness’, families and same-sex marriage that will leave the reader feeling confident in addressing such controversies in their lessons.

This section gives some very useful tips to both burgeoning and more experienced practitioners on how to spot issues of controversy, how to approach them and how to plan lessons where students are empowered and informed enough to engage, while maintaining a safe classroom environment.

Though admittedly far from Bezalel’s control, one is left feeling that the issue of how to teach and promote discussion on controversy for the large class sizes many of us face is unresolved. Bezalel suggests a circle of chairs or the Harkness method, but this is not feasible in many classrooms nationwide.

With classroom numbers reaching (and often exceeding) 30 in many schools in the UK, the practicalities of holding a debate that will be meaningful for the whole cohort is something left largely unaddressed here. This dampens some of the excitement generated by the book’s motivating and stimulating subject matter.

Despite this, as stated above, there are many key strengths to Bezalel’s book. Teaching Classroom Controversies is bursting with tips and tricks, lesson ideas, suggested timeframes and thought-provoking activities that fill the reader with excitement at the prospect of applying them in their own setting.

Another key strength is Bezalel’s commitment to a balance between traditional and progressive approaches to education; he is careful to strike an equilibrium between the pursuit of truth and of character when educating our students.

In particular, the book contains lots of useful guidance for teachers of PSHE and religious studies, including same-sex relationships and families. It also provides useful hints as to how to approach our commitment to SMSC through teaching controversy.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It left me itching to put some of his suggestions to the test, challenged my own preconceptions, gave me fresh perspectives on my own practice and made the prospect of teaching controversial issues (CONtroversial or controVERsial?) genuinely exciting.

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