Critical ThinkingEducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz – I’m Not Allowed To Tell You What I Think

As a preface to a larger post on the educational implications of the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, this week I’d like to ask about how divisive political issues are handled in your school or college or university.


Next September, Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the UK and become a fully independent country. This referendum is obviously major, all-consuming news over here at the moment and the topic is particularly popular with young people. Our usual voting age is 18 but the age has been lowered to 16 for this specific event. There are many conflicting viewpoints as to why this is the case and I’ll go into some of those in more detail next time. Nevertheless, the lowered age means that a fairly large proportion of high school students will be eligible to vote in one of the most dramatic elections our country has ever seen.


Obviously this topic has been the subject of a great deal of discussion in schools. Pupils have shown a keen interest in the issue, especially if they’re going to be able to take part directly. They’ve also displayed a great deal of curiosity about teachers’ views and the topic of independence has worked its way into many lessons.


A couple of weeks ago, my local authority sent out an interesting email. It essentially banned all teaching staff from promoting one particular side of the debate over the other, regardless of their own personal views. We are still allowed to discuss the topic generally and neutrally, and we have been encouraged to do as much as we can to help pupils understand the processes required to register to vote. Actual discussion of our own views is off the table, however.


While I can understand the point of this decision on one level, it still seems very counter-productive. Students will be asked to vote on a complex and emotive issue and they will need to use all the critical thinking abilities at their disposal to wade through the partisan and exaggerated rhetoric coming from both sides of the debate. Our job is to educate these young people and to help them become successful citizens, and I think we’re doing them a disservice by hiding our own views. I want to be able to speak to my classes about why I hold my views and about how I came to them. I want pupils to challenge me and force me to justify myself. I want to help them to explore both sides of the issue critically. I don’t believe that expressing my own political opinion to curious teenagers will cause them to follow me like sheep. I believe that they will be intelligent and mature enough to decide for themselves.


This is the first time I’ve ever experienced this. Our General Elections are nothing like the US Presidential ones and it’s quite rare that there’s such a clear-cut, two-side political issue of such magnitude over here.


Have you ever experienced a situation like this at your educational establishment?


If you’re from the US or anywhere else which features powerfully divisive political events, how are these events dealt with in schools or colleges?


Have you ever frankly discussed your own political views with students? Do you feel that doing so would influence them? Would it help them to form their own views?


Have you ever debated with a student who holds political views that strongly conflict with your own?


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons (ET).

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Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.


  1. November 30, 2013 at 11:02 am —

    I can only think of a few possible results for this policy, and none of them are particularly heartening:

    1) Teachers who are partisan and dishonest will use the mantle of neutrality to spread misinformation.

    2) Teachers who are partisan and honest but misinformed will spread misinformation thinking it is neutral fact.

    3) Teachers afraid of possible professional consequences will be less likely to correct what they know is misinformation for fear of being seen as partisan.

    I’ve gotten to the point in my own political thinking where I really think the only way to have a neutral discussion is to put everyone’s views, biases, and assumptions out in plain view. These must be dealt with openly before anything resembling productive dialogue can occur.

    As for similar situations, the movement for Quebec independence is basically perpetual political background noise in both provincial and Canadian federal politics. Its most pernicious effect (in my opinion) has been to leave Quebec without a provincial political party that is both leftist and federalist, which also reinforces the view that Quebec values and Canadian values are at odds. This may be changing in the wake of the “orange wave” that saw the left-of-centre NDP surge in Quebec in the latest federal election at the expense of the separatist BQ, and there is talk of establishing a provincial wing of the party in the next few years in order to provide that option (traditionally Quebec has distinct political parties at the provincial level that are not formally affiliated with the federal parties).

    I did not live in Quebec during either of the two secession referenda, and I’m curious to know how these were handled in schools and universities, including the few traditionally English-speaking institutions (non-francophones overwhelmingly voted against secession, and it is rather likely that secession would lead to these institutions’ eventual dissolution or francization).

  2. December 1, 2013 at 8:09 pm —

    I do feel that it’s generally best to avoid openly advocating for one side in a political or religious topic, as a public school teacher. Students are very perceptive about teachers who have agendas. The teachers at my school who have obvious biases and seem to be trying to enlist students in their causes are well known and most students don’t respond well. However, there’s a difference between (essentially) proselytizing for your political side and being honest and authentic.

    In my own classroom, I teach two subjects. One is standard English for high school juniors (16-17 years old). Some of the texts we cover relate to religion and politics. Since I only have the students for a year, I don’t become close to many of them, and I do my best to stay neutral. My other subject is debate, and it’s a different story with those kids. I teach them for three or four years, and we’re constantly researching and discussing politics. I don’t preach, but I don’t make a secret of my beliefs and I do engage with them. Every year we start with a conversation about how it is essential for the class that we all speak up and talk about our beliefs and questions, and that debating about them is accepted and encouraged, but that it’s not fair to target one person and put them down or persistently try to change their beliefs. I tell them what my basic political leanings are because I want them to understand where I’m coming from and where I might have biases. Like Dan said, I think that’s essential for everybody to have a truly neutral discussion. I try to be fairly objective and present different sides of whatever we are studying, but if they are aware of my perspective, they can check me and don’t feel like I have a hidden agenda.

    In terms of the gag order, I think the idea is good, and I think all teachers should want students to think critically and come to their own decisions and so should avoid intentionally presenting a one-sided view. However, telling teachers they aren’t allowed to even express their viewpoint under any circumstances isn’t necessary or helpful. It’s more likely to shut down dialogue and frustrate both students and teachers. It would be better to trust teachers’ judgment, or perhaps just remind them shout their duty to avoid actively persuading students.

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