From Brexit to Trump: should teachers talk politics in the classroom?

First published by the Guardian on Wednesday 11 January 2017.

Teaching and politics have an uneasy relationship. The ways that educators work – from the curricula they follow to the budgets they are set – are heavily influenced by the decisions of politicians, yet expressing our views about politics in the classroom remains controversial.

One difficulty, particularly in subjects like citizenship, history, sociology, and government and politics, is maintaining an objective view of the conflicting political perspectives we teach in class. In sociology, for example, I’ve had to keep my own views under wraps in discussions on immigration policy and its effects on demographics, healthcare and education, to avoid bias in how the students view the competing perspectives.

Issues such as these have been all the more difficult to teach over the past year, as political discourse has become increasingly polarised during and after the EU referendum, and with other big changes, such as Donald Trump’s election as US president, taking place. Of course, we now have the a general election coming up that poses many challenging repercussions from the events of the last year.

Thinking for themselves

Although it’s been good to see students engaged with the topics and linking them to current affairs, their arguments about the EU referendum, for example, veered from an evidence-based analysis of facts, figures and research – which they have shown themselves so capable of in essays and assessments – and focused instead on the questionable soundbites from politicians and dubious statistics presented by both the remain and leave campaigns. These included labelling leave voters as ignorant and believing the seemingly concrete assurance that the NHS would be getting an extra £350m a week.

The passionate classroom debates over the referendum were often matched by similar ones in the staffroom and have started again in the run up to this year’s election. But whatever an individual teacher’s views might be, it is important to remember that sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act prohibit the promotion of partisan political views in schools.

Headteachers, governors and education authorities are responsible for ensuring that teachers offer an objective presentation of opposing political views, and teachers need to be aware of their own biases. This is vital – if we expect students to think for themselves, we must teach them to do so rather than depending on the opinions of others.

Ted Huddleston of the Citizenship Foundation offers some practical strategies (pdf), which include giving equal importance to conflicting views; presenting these views as open to interpretation; and avoiding putting forward personal opinions as facts. We should take care not to patronise or dismiss others’ viewpoints, to avoid facial expressions or tones of voice that may prejudice a point of view, and to establish an environment where students are free to express their views.

Where students make assertions that are unsupported but prevalent in the media or political discourse, we need to get them to further their reasoning and find additional evidence without putting them off joining political discussions. And while we may not agree with all of their views, if they can provide reasoned points as to why they hold these opinions, shouldn’t we respect and nurture their interest in the issues being studied?

In class discussions, teachers can employ the “neutral judge” approach, where they merely chair the debate, offering constructive feedback on students’ opinions. Here, political positions are judged purely on the merits of the arguments made for them. Another way of ensuring debate is balanced is to play devil’s advocate by explaining alternative views (stating that they are not necessarily your own).

Finding balance

All this is easier said than done. Students often want to know what we think about topical issues – and as many will see us as a source of authority, our views can be more pervasive than we realise.

There are two ways to respond to this. The first is by keeping your views to yourself and sticking to the content of the lesson; this is a safe bet and adheres fully to the 1996 act. For instance, if a student asked you which way you voted in a general election, you could simply state that you don’t want to bias their opinion, and could even paraphrase the 1996 act. You could also advocate the importance of analysing evidence in relation to forming a reasoned political opinion.

The second, more controversial, response involves telling students what you believe while at the same time emphasising that it’s a personal view. If you choose to do this, you must also be clear that students must make up their own minds on the issues you are discussing. As the act stipulates balance, you should then acknowledge that people disagree with you and that their ideas can be seen to have merit.

Of course, your reaction largely depends on your relationship with students and should reflect their age and maturity. Teachers’ political neutrality in the classroom is likely to be tested throughout 2017 – with Brexit negotiations dividing parliament, Trump’s inauguration splitting public opinion, and populist politicians making headlines across Europe – let alone the snap general election that got most of us off-guard. But we must always be mindful of balance, regardless of our own political sympathies.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons 2.0)

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