No Free Speech In School

A high school Biology class is learning about genetics and cell research.  The class has already covered the memorization parts about terms and procedures, and have done punnett squares and other problems to be able to apply their new knowledge.

Their teacher has now had them read articles about bioethics in regard to patient consent in “donating” cells.  The class is scheduled to have an in-depth discussion surrounding the validity of using cells for research without the knowledge of the “donor” when a parent finds out and reports the teacher to the principal for introducing controversial topics in the classroom.

Surprisingly, the teacher is told she cannot hold the discussion because it may result in some students feeling bullied if they do not agree with the majority or it may dip into a territory some families don’t morally believe in and do not want their students exposed to in the classroom.

Sadly, this isn’t just a made up story.  Teachers all over the United States are being told that they need to avoid controversial topics in their classrooms with district-mandated policies.

As an educator, this disturbs me.

How do we teach classes like Current Events or history or literature without asking our students to critically think about controversial subjects?

One of the biggest complaints about secondary education by colleges, universities, and businesses is that students are not arriving with the thinking skills that are acceptable for the higher level thinking that is required of them for furthering their education or handling a career.

State standards call for teachers to teach to the highest levels of learning, which, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, are Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

In the instance of the Biology class, students first have to remember what punnett squares are, understand how they are used by scientists, and then solve some of their own.  If they can do this, they are only halfway up Bloom’s in their learning.  Yet this is where many parents and school boards would like the learning to stop. Not because they don’t want kids to learn critical thinking, but because this is where “safe” learning ends.

In order to achieve the higher learning–the problem solving and critical thinking skills we want our students to bring with them into adulthood–teachers have to push beyond the bottom half of Bloom’s.  They need to get the kids thinking and talking and creating.  They need to push the students to think beyond their own beliefs.

Some school districts, like this one in Minnesota, are trying to create policies that make everyone happy.  The re-do of the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s policy comes after six students committed suicide in two years because teachers could not conduct classroom discussions that included anti-bullying in regards to homosexuals.

But will a reworked policy be enough?

Teachers are constantly told they need to watch what they say in the classroom…to not be too controversial. History has shown educators that if what they say/teach can be construed as trying to push their own agenda?  They could lose their jobs.

So what do we do?

Teach to the standards that we know our students need…

…or play it safe and therefore have unprepared students?