, ,

Providing Neutral Education Woes

“I try to present the information as neutral”, said a friend and colleague of mine as they engaged their History 10 students in a discussion about various forms of government as part of the political decision-making outcomes, to which you could see and hear students respond to the different political ideologies with fervor as it aligned or contrasted with their developing beliefs. It would be ignorant for me to assume that all teachers try to “present the information as neutral” on a consistent basis, but I would propose that many do. The very thought of trying to collect data and transcripts detailing every conversation in every classroom in Saskatchewan is overwhelming. Nonetheless, my colleague’s intent to be neutral is noble, and is a shared, daunting task for many educators worldwide… even though to be completely neutral is impossible for any individual.

Educators regularly tow the line of delivering content in a means that is “as neutral as possible”, and this is lined with fears about accidentally saying the “wrong thing” or “too much” (sometimes this dialogue has the potential to tarnish public perception of education). While it is unfortunate that they have this fear (educators aren’t alone in this), tact and consideration before speaking is a valuable skill, specifically in today’s social climate, as well as considering the implications of your words (but more on this topic another time). However, this means that educators don’t feel the freedom to speak candidly on topics that may be relevant to curriculum or based on the learning interests of the students. That being said, parents and other community members are right to care about their student’s education and advocating for multiple perspectives in education in the classroom. While hopes are that parents and teachers can continue to build trust between one another and develop an open discourse, this is sometimes countered through the proclaimed pursuit of neutral or “politic-free” education which, as I mentioned above, is impossible.

Why is Neutral or Politic-Free Education Impossible?

The sum total of your lived experiences (culture, biology, trauma, etc.) influences your identity and, by extension, your opinions and daily interactions with everyone. One can hold the belief that they can shelter or hide their identity or political beliefs from others, but the reality is that your conservative, liberal, nationalist, or globalist views are an important part of who you are that are reflected in your actions, words and life. This bias is reflected in any communication that occurs with others which includes educator-student, parent-student, or parent-educator. Bias is often used negatively, and while it is a confounding factor in society, it is a reality (even in artificial intelligence design), and taking steps to avoid it promotes self-awareness. When considering this in addressing educational curriculum-writing and the potential political implications of curricular content, it becomes clear the futility in attempting to achieve the neutral or politic-free ideal.

Addressing Neutral (Non-Political) Education Promotion: Climate Change

We’ll get politics out of the classroom” is a phrase that is shared and held by individuals in Saskatchewan and Alberta. While the potential intent is to have teachers be less politically-biased in the instruction of students, acknowledging the potentially manipulative nature of education; education does influence the worldview of students. Completely removing bias is an impossible task academically, professionally and personally, especially when curricula is composed of outcomes related to relevant topics and issues that are inherently political, for example:

Analyze the production, reliability and uses of geoscience data to investigate the effects of a changing climate on society and the environment.

Saskatchewan Curriculum – Environmental Science 20.

This is a climate change outcome, a contentious topic in media. Data can be presented to students regarding the investigation “of the effects of a changing climate”, however, the selection of data provided to students, including the source and amount of evidence provided, is inescapably biased regardless of the educator’s stance. This is exacerbated when students likely are approaching the content biased, having already been exposed via their social networks to topic-relevant information. This climate change outcome also highlights how navigating it as educators is increasingly complicated when you live in a resource-based economy heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry.

It’s important to acknowledge that the fossil fuel industry contributes to the livelihood of many families in Canada and its disruption has the potential to negatively impact these people. However, it’s also important to note that climate science education isn’t meant to belittle the work of fossil fuel-sector employees or undervalue the importance of these resources to energy-production, manufacturing and associated products.

When investigating geoscience data, which can be done through textbooks or a multitude of online sources informed from peer-reviewed articles, most evidence (scientific consensus) points towards anthropogenic climate change and that the Earth’s overall climate is warming. Extending further, when challenging students to analyze sources for reliability, many of the sources fulfill the best practices for evaluating sources for credibility and reliability. As students synthesize this information, it may appear that the educator is pushing their kids to be pro-climate change, even if they attempt to deliver content from opposing viewpoints. However, when applying outcomes and intents of the curriculum including scientific literacy and “engaged citizens”, neutrality on this political topic becomes impossible, but is not presented this way in media and therefore not interpreted this way by members of the community.

Media presentation of topics like climate change may widen generational divides between youth and previous generations or foster distrust between educators and community members concerned about their student’s education. Most media is created and worded to generate a reaction (“likes, shares, and clicks”) and unfortunately, at times, this incites division, in this case between the public and the education system. Division may then be taken advantage of by parties who seek to gain from this, of which guilt can be assigned regardless of an individual’s affiliation. Oddly enough, both sides normally have the same goal, which is “what’s best for the student”, but each side, at times, fail to recognize that reality in the “opposing” party, and may forfeit critical thinking due to their personal, inescapable biases. All of this highlights the complications of promoting “neutral” education as a political tactic, rather than the promotion of critical thinking to create informed citizens.

Not Being Neutral is Important
Paulo Freire 1977

Critical thinking is an imperative in today’s connected world and many resources are available to help promote this, even though many conventions of society sway us to drift away from it, such as advertisements. As curriculum becomes renewed, critical thinking increasingly is a focal point in curricular writing. However, this may result in coming to a definitive conclusion on a topic that may influence political decision-making, a consequence of critical thinking, which is not neutral. To paraphrase Paulo Friere (pictured to the right) from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educators can’t be neutral, and this is exacerbated when promoting critical thinking. Further to this point, to attempt to be neutral is to be complicit in issues, be they about politics, social justice, environment, or others.

This presents the importance of the educator’s role in improving their personal critical thinking skills, addressing curricular topics through this lens in their classroom, and the inherent modelling to students of an informed opinion and generating an open, respectful dialogue on these topics.

To extend this further, it’s what the students want from their teachers. In my experience living and working in education in Saskatchewan (which I acknowledge is an isolated subjective, personal experience), students want to know what their teacher’s opinions are on topics and current issues in society. It builds student-educator relationships, but it puts a lot of pressure on the tact used by the teacher in these scenarios. The teacher is in a unique position, as how they deliver that opinion will undoubtedly influence the student (this is sometimes referred to as hidden curriculum). It becomes important that the teacher still respects opposing viewpoints or individuals (for example, even if you oppose a particular political leader, your rhetoric needs to be respectful and critical). I understand that administrators and some experts may feel that this is best avoided due to the influential role of the teacher, but I, once again, posit that this influence is unavoidable. As educators, this presentation of a (hopefully) respectful and informed opinion is fundamental component of creating engaged citizens. The variations in which this occurs from classroom to classroom helps learners refine their own views, ideally in this critical, intersectional approach. However, this falls short in the absence of additional education from family and community members. “It takes a village” to create more critically literate learners. Through the promotion of an open, respectful dialogue, and a lack of neutrality without forfeiting self-awareness and open-mindedness, society may become more critically literate.

This post was written on Treaty 4 territory, the original lands of the Cree,
Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Dakota, Nakota, Lakota, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. This acknowledgement is made to recognize harm and mistakes of the past, their impact on the present, and an ongoing commitment to the pursuit of reconciliation and partnerships with Indigenous Nations.

The author’s social context is that of a caucasian (predominantly Eastern European ancestry), cisgendered, straight male (pronouns He/Him), born and raised in an English-speaking, middle-class family in Saskatchewan, Canada. These details are included to present potential influences and privileges associated with the author.

Links to sources of content are embedded into document.

Learn about the author here.