High School Teachers' Attitudes and Reported Behaviors Towards Controversial Issues


Source: Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 70, Pages 58-66

Moore (2012) has shown that many teachers hesitate to discuss controversial topics, and several studies have shown that such discussions are seldom held. Bekerman (2016) pointed to teachers' status within the sociopolitical context, e.g., Israeli teachers' lack of agency within the context of the nation-state. The difficulty teachers face around controversial topics is an important issue for teacher training worldwide and particularly in Israel. In this study, we explored high school teachers’ attitudes about conducting class discussions on the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. This study may afford an opportunity to examine the factors that are associated with teachers' willingness to engage in such discussions in the Israeli context and to draw general conclusions regarding teacher training and practices.

Study Highlights

• 30% of teachers know the official policy regarding political discussions in class.

• Teachers who feel supported conduct more discussions of controversial topics.

• Teachers' who view civic education as part of their role report more discussions.

• Teachers' self-efficacy predict more discussions in class.

• Teachers who undergo multicultural training discuss controversial topics more.

Our study revealed five main factors associated with teachers' willingness to engage in discussions: the first two factors were obstacles related to the relationship between the Ministry of Education and the teachers, while the latter three were associated with teacher training, relating to teacher's role perception, self efficacy and multicultural training. When examining each obstacle, it is important to observe the differences between Jewish and Arab teachers. For example, when inspecting the differences between Jewish and Arab teachers regarding pluralism, Arab teachers are significantly more pluralistic than Jewish teachers both with regards to education and in general. This adds to the debate about pluralism within Israeli society, some of which found that Jewish Israelis are more pluralistic than Arab Israelis while others found the opposite. It is important to note that from a methodological perspective, different researchers define and operationalize pluralism differently. Our questionnaire was based partly on Smooha's (2010) Index of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel and the findings were different than his. This can be explained by the fact that the present study investigated teachers while Smooha's population was broader. Thus, the discrepancy can be explained by the training teachers undergo. Multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance are taught as part of the teacher training and for many Arab teachers and teacher-training colleges enable an unmediated encounter with Israeli Jews in a mostly segregated society.

The first obstacle is related to knowledge of the official policy. The study revealed that only 30% of teachers knew the Ministry of Education's policy regarding the limits of freedom of speech in the classroom. This worrying finding indicates the lack of communication between the Israeli Ministry of Education and teachers. This lack of knowledge proved to be an obstacle to discussions in class. Teachers who knew the policy exercised more discussions, endorsed more practices, and were generally more positive toward discussing Arab-Jewish relations in class. While the literature on teachers' knowledge of official policies is scant, there is ample evidence of teachers' discontent with their relationships with officials and in particular when the policies are directed top-down.

The second obstacle to teachers' engagement was their feeling that they would not be supported when in need. Jewish-Arab relationships in Israel is a volatile topic and participants exhibited only modest trust that the system would support them in case there is a complaint about a political discussion held in class. The teachers were especially distrustful of the Ministry of Education in this regard, and felt they would get more support from parents and even greater support from their principal. This means that teachers' lack of trust in the Israeli Ministry of Education overrides their pluralistic attitudes and their political consciousness. This finding related to the previously mentioned teachers' alienation from officials).

The perception that civic education was part of the teacher's role was the main factor related to engagement in discussions. It was the most significant predictor of two of the three dependent variables (reported classroom discussions and endorsed discussions index). Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that when compared with other aspects of the teachers' role, civic education and political awareness received the lowest ratings from the participants. This means that despite the significance placed on civic education and political awareness by educational theorists, this aspect is not well-integrated into the teachers' role concept. This finding has important implications for teacher training.

Teachers' self-efficacy in conducting discussions was the other main factor that contributed to teachers' willingness to conduct discussions on controversial topics in class. Both Arab and Jewish teachers reported high self-efficacy in conducting discussions about Jewish-Arab relations in class. Moreover, self-efficacy was one of the two major factors predicting teachers reported classroom behaviors and the reported frequency of discussions. This finding is surprising and restates the gap between teachers' self-perceptions and their actual behaviors.

Finally, multiculturalism training in the past five years was associated with several benefits and more teacher engagement in discussions. Teachers who went through such training exhibited more pluralism, felt more self-efficacy, considered civic education more part of their role, and reported more discussions. This finding should be considered carefully as there may be a self-selection bias in choosing to attend such trainings. Nonetheless, it does point to the importance of such courses either as part of teacher training or as enrichment courses while working in schools.

Updated: Feb. 13, 2018


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