Learning about Issues through Discussion in the Primary Social Studies Classroom: A Shared Inquiry Approach, pp. 3 of 16

Social studies teaching becomes meaningful when it is connected to real world issues. Teaching of issues can promote children’s interest in current events and social problems, and their understanding of a range of views on a topic, and arguments in their support. It can contribute towards their development of citizenship participatory skills such as critical analysis and evaluation of competing and multiple views, evidence and values, management of conflicts or controversies and thoughtful decision-making based on reliable and valid evidence and value evaluation. It can also inculcate in young learners democratic values and dispositions such as open-mindedness, perspective taking, respect for diversity, tolerance and equality. The knowledge, skills and dispositions gained are important for children to make sense of the complex world they live in, a world that is often fraught with threats to peace, social justice and progress, and environmental sustainability. They need to learn how to deal with the inevitable differences and controversies in the world outside school without resorting to violence (Claire & Holden, 2007; Evans, Newmann & Saxe, 1996; Ochoa-Becker, 1996). Hence, it makes sense to start children young by introducing them to an in-depth study of issues in their social studies lessons. 

Selection of issues for teaching

However, the caveat is that not all issues are suitable for primary school students. Some of them may be too complex for their understanding, too harsh for their emotional maturity and may not be age appropriate. Hence, discretion in issue selection is necessary (Skeel, 1970). Evans (1989) and Shaver (1977) note the importance of linking issues to the social studies curriculum and students’ lives, interests and concerns. Engel (1989) suggests that issues should ideally be controversial and promote critical thinking with issues which are more personal as more suitable for young children and abstract issues for upper primary children. Skeel (1996) lists some questions for teachers’ consideration in issue selection and these include: Is the issue of real significance? Is it recurring? Will the study of the issue help students be more informed and thoughtful citizens? Massialas (1996) adds to the list by asking whether the study of the issue can produce some action for change in a desirable manner, whether the emerging content from the study is usable and whether the study can promote or hinder reflection on persistent problems of humankind. Although there are myriad factors for consideration which can make the planning and implementation of issue-centred teaching challenging, one thing is certain – the teaching of issues should be different from the traditional teaching approach (Skeels, 1996). In the former, the teacher’s role is to help students inquire by seeking answers to questions about the issue which they are curious and care about and drawing their own conclusions; whereas in the latter, the teacher dispenses a set of right answers to children who learn them passively. One way to engage children in the inquiry of issues is through discussions.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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