Exploring difficult topics in curriculum requires care, planning

Dive Brief:

  • Textbooks used throughout Texas can sometimes showcase a biased and conservative interpretation of historic events, people and other subjects, The 74 reports. For example, the State Board of Education has argued about whether to add creationism to science curriculum for example, and sex education in Texas focuses almost entirely on abstinence.
  • There has been some progress over the years: Slavery’s expansion is now recognized, for example, as the main reason for the Civil War in 5th and 8th grade history standards. But a petition is now in play to revamp the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the state’s educational standards, which critics argue are too focused on a colonialist point of view.
  • The goal is to not just diversify materials, but center key figures, subjects and movements. That way people, from César Chávez to Ruby Bridges would be contextualized, helping students to not just learn about them but better understand their significance and contribution to the world.

Dive Insight:

Texas education standards often find their way into the spotlight in curriculum conversations because of the outsized influence the state has had on the content of textbooks. Due to the size of the state’s market for textbooks, publishers have reportedly often catered to Texas’ standards, which in turn impacts materials used in other states. 

That influence has waned amid the ease in producing customized materials for each state. The amount of information readily available via the internet has also made it necessary for educators to address a variety of difficult topics regardless.

Finding ways to bring up and discuss difficult and often polarizing subjects, from racism to politics, in the classroom requires considerable care and planning. But experts say there are ways to navigate these lessons that can productively engage students while also accounting for their emotions.

Before launching into any discussion, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington suggests first asking students to write their views on a topic. That homework gives them time — prior to a classroom discussion — to “do some more logical thinking in advance, before any emotional barriers get thrown up during a heated discussion,” the center writes.

Next, allow for all voices and points of view to be heard during a discussion, particularly those that come from “an invisible or marginalized perspective,” writes the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. The center suggests using a tactic they refer to as “The Five Minute Rule,” where anyone who feels their idea is not being considered can call on the entire class to pause and spend five minutes discussing and seriously considering that view.

Also, for schools or districts that get pushback from the community on holding these kinds of discussions, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) suggests creating guidelines in advance. This way, parents or other interested parties can see there are steps that will be followed as topics are discussed, including how disagreements will be handled if they arise.

The ADL also says that educators can further guide students to channel discussions into action, helping them see how their ideas and concerns can potentially lead to change.

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