What strategies do teachers use, in classroom practice, to handle issues highly contested in society? This article focuses on how the various Middle Eastern conflicts and related topics, theoretically framed as controversial issues, are dealt with in religious education and social studies classes. The aim is to analyse pedagogical approaches teachers applied in situations where topics associated with regional, cultural, and/or religious conflicts (e.g., migration, terrorism, radicalisation, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia) were part of the teaching. What approaches were distinguishable in classroom practice? How did teachers reflect on this teaching? To examine these issues, ethnographic observations were made of religious education and civics classes at upper secondary schools in Sweden; follow-up interviews with teachers and students were also conducted to discuss the classroom situations.
The approaches to teaching such difficult subject matter, as distinguishable in the classroom, were avoidance, denial of the controversy, provocation, representing/considering various perspectives, and eliciting empathy. There was a division between approaches that endeavoured to tone down the controversy versus those aimed at making the controversy more apparent. This difference can be understood as dealing with controversial issues as opposed to teaching controversial issues, which is a fundamental difference in pedagogic approaches.