Should we discuss Brexit with young students?
With these things happening in the real world, should teachers intentionally avoid discussing them in schools? Source: AFP/Isabel Infantes

Brexit is reportedly a no-go when it comes to classroom discussions in Scotland. TES reported that teachers deem the topic “too controversial”, based on claims by Daniela Sime, a reader in social policy at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. This, in turn, sparked a series of comments from high-ranking educators about the role of controversial politics in education.

But how right are they?

Politics isn’t exactly granted the same level of importance as mathematics or English in schools. It’s usually left for students to figure out on their own after graduating high school. Otherwise, topics like Brexit are deemed too difficult or “mature” for young people. Then there are the potential accusations that teachers could be unduly influencing students.

The result of withholding such teaching is to wind up with a politically-ignorant youth population. When many democracies have a voting age of 18, this could mean young people vote without much knowledge of what they are really doing. Or, in the case of Brexit, not knowing that missing a referendum regarding whether the UK should leave the EU would have such a tremendous impact on their future.

Only 36 percent of people aged 18-24-years-old voted in the referendum, according to The Independent. Their votes could have tipped the results (51.9 percent to leave versus 48.1 percent to remain).

Teachers who weighed in on the Twitter debate above cited local council intervention, as well as teachers’ personal reluctance to involve controversial issues.

Hesitant teachers may find solutions from this 2015 interview by the authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E Hess and Paula McAvoy. Their study, conducted from 2005 to 2009, involved 21 teachers in 35 schools and their 1,001 students.

Teachers can separate current events from “controversial political issues”. Hess explained:

“In the best-case scenario, teachers are able to take advantage of current events and use them as opportunities to get kids to talk about controversial political issues. There’s a big difference in talking about, “What do you think happened?” and talking about a policy issue like “Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?””

When it comes to sharing personal views, authors found no black and white answer for this conundrum. Both sharing and not sharing worked with different teachers. And there is “no evidence” to show that teachers were “actively and purposely trying to indoctrinate kids”.

“We think that this feeling that the public seems to have that teachers by definition are trying to push their political views on students is just false,” Hess said.

“That being said, we think that there are times when it’s probably better for teachers to share than other times when it’s better for them not to share. That depends in large part on the context — on who’s in their class and what their goals are.”

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