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Page 4 – Teaching emotive and controversial history

Teaching Emotive and Controversial History

Martyn Davison from Pakuranga College has prepared an edited version of a report from the Historical Association in the UK which looked at the challenges and opportunities for teaching emotive and controversial history in secondary schools. The reports contain some interesting parallels for teaching history in New Zealand.

I can recall from my own experience the challenges of teaching topics and themes that were 'close to home'. Race relations in South Africa was often a more comfortable topic with students than race relations in New Zealand. Having to examine your own place and the values and behaviours of your own people can be challenging. Students are often wanting to find out who are the 'good guys' and are quick to judge accordingly. I often wondered if we avoided certain topics that might upset our school community and for that reason chose the safe options that examined other people's history in off shore settings.

This report considers some of the ways that teachers can be supported in making decisions to teach emotive and controversial topics. A question to ask ourselves as teachers is how we can truly make an impact on our students and help them think more critically about the society they are part of. What do we want our students to remember in 25 years from now with regards to their history education?

If you’re currently planning a new module or revising the teaching of an existing topic then the points made below provide some useful markers about student engagement and approaches to history teaching. The executive summary may be particularly helpful if you are wrestling with a topic that in the past you and your students have found emotive.

Teaching Emotive And Controversial History – full report from the Historical Association

 Executive Summary

The working definition that guided the production of this report is:

The study of history can be emotive and controversial where there is actual or perceived unfairness to people by another individual or group in the past. This may also be the case where there are disparities between what is being taught in school history, family / community history and other histories. Such issues and disparities create a strong resonance with students in particular educational settings.

  • there are a number of opportunities to consider emotive and controversial issues:
  • the key to success is systematic planning, particularly as part of an enquiry approach where students have to work independently and where they have time to consider and address matters in sufficient depth;
  • the best opportunities exist ... where students are engaged actively in the processes of history rather than as passive receivers of disjointed information;
  • emotional engagement is a feature of effective teaching of controversial issues. The students have to want to care enough about the issues to arouse both their curiosity and their willingness to engage fully with the questions that are likely to require hard thinking and problem-solving;
  • personal engagement is much more likely when the students are themselves encouraged through history teaching to have a sense of their own personal identity and their place in the world;
  • teaching emotive and controversial history is best done when the students consider their own loyalties, their multiple interests and identities, and recognise the fact that everyone is both an insider or outsider to something and that their values can be conflicting and can change;
  • effective resources that are attractive and stimulating.

A number of constraints currently act as barriers. These include:

  • teaching emotive and controversial history is unlikely to succeed where little attention is paid to learning objectives and ideas associated with similarity and difference, change and continuity, reasons and results, and interpretations and using evidence;
  • the time pressures and ... teachers have been encouraged to play safe with content selection ... there are few incentives to take risks;
  • the tendency of teachers to avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons. Some of which are well intentioned, such as feeling that students lack the maturity to grasp certain issues, or wish to avoid causing offence or insensitivity;
  • many students do not want to see the subject as complicated and problematical, which is an inevitable feature of this type of history;
  • the way that teachers handle emotive and controversial issues can have a negative impact on students so that they feel alienated and disconnected;
  • the tendency to introduce stories of disasters, technological and economic inferiority and brutality to motive students that can result in people in the past being seen as inferior.

Good practice results when:

  • history is taught both as a body and a form of knowledge. The best practice places a high premium on planning, ensuring that the work has the right blend of content and hard thinking appropriate to age and ability;
  • there is a strong emphasis on independent enquiry with its own procedures and conventions, ensuring that emotive and controversial issues are taught within a secure pedagogical and historic framework. The importance of good questioning is paramount;
  • the planning and delivery builds in sufficient time to reflect and to cover the different perspectives and beliefs involved and that the teaching matches clarity with a recognition of the complexity of emotive and controversial history;
  • an emphasis on exploring multiple narratives and the past from different perspectives. The teaching of emotive and controversial history is seriously compromised if students do not see history as a subject that is open to debate and argument as they study different and competing views of the same events;
  • balance is needed across a theme ... and learners are exposed to a rich variety of appropriate and stimulating resources, such as music, film and pictures. Quality resources can be a means of making personal engagement more likely.

Recommendations (some of these I’ve omitted as they were specific to UK schools):

  • planning themes and approaches to ensure coherence;
  • providing teachers with both encouragement and guidance;
  • improving the range and quality of resources;
  • finding better ways to communicate the range and effective use of resources;
  • improving the research and evidence base related to the teaching of emotive and controversial history.

Report authors:

Andrew Wrenn

Alf Wilkinson

Alison Webb

Michael Riley

Penelope Harnett

Richard Harris

Tim Lomas

Helena Gillespie

Alf Wilkinson you may know from his history website which provides materials for history teachers to use in the classroom, many of which are free.

How to cite this page

Teaching emotive and controversial history, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated