Situationality in teaching controversial topics: (When) does controversial equal difficult?




controversial topics, teacher experiences, teachers’ background characteristics, contextual factors, self-efficacy


  • Most teachers in the Netherlands do not report difficulty in discussing the most controversial topics. Anti-muslimism, COVID vaccination, and integration of ethnic minorities are perceived as relatively difficult topics to discuss.
  • High teacher self-efficacy and school support are related to reported ease in discussing all controversial topics.
  • Specific controversial topics are considered more challenging to discuss in diverse classrooms in terms of SES and ethnicity.
  • Controversial topics are perceived as more difficult to discuss in vocational educational tracks.

Purpose: This study examines what controversial topics teachers in the Netherlands perceive as difficult to discuss and if and how this difficulty is related to teachers’ background characteristics and context characteristics.

Methodology: 1034 secondary school teachers filled in an online questionnaire, and structural equation modelling (SEM) was used to explore the relationships among variables.

Findings: The findings indicate that recent topics with a direct large impact on students’ lives and society, like COVID vaccination, are perceived as most difficult to discuss. With more perceived school support and high self-efficacy teachers report more ease to discuss controversial topics. Yet, reported difficulty to discussing controversial topics is also partially context- and person-specific, involving (among others) classroom composition, school subject and teacher’s age.

Practical implications: This study can inform the development of subject and context-specific teaching materials and training programs in civic and democratic education.

Author Biographies

Bjorn Gert-Jan Wansink, Utrecht University, Dpt. of Education and Pedagogy

Bjorn Wansink is associate professor at educational science at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His research interests center on civics and history education, multicultural education, critical thinking, sensitive topics and peace education. He is also a teacher trainer for the European Association of History Educators in (post)-conflict countries.

Mikhail Mogutov, Utrecht University

Mikhail Mogutov, MSc, is a master alumnus of educational science at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is currently involved in teacher consultancy and teaching quality development at Narva Estonian State High School. Also, he is a trainer and developer of educational materials related to peace education, youth participation, critical thinking and media literacy for the Department of Education and Youth and several NGOs in Estonia.

Koen Damhuis, Utrecht University, School of Governance

Koen Damhuis is Assistant Professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance. His research interests include intergroup conflict in society and schools, political polarization, and the electoral appeal of radical right-wing parties.

Larike Henriette Bronkhorst , Utrecht University, Dpt. of Education and Pedagogy

Larike Bronkhorst is an associate professor at the Department of Education at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her research interests include learning and collaborating across contexts, connecting in and out-of-school learning, and learning from (climate) activism.


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How to Cite

Wansink, B., Mogutov, M., Damhuis, K., & Bronkhorst , L. (2024). Situationality in teaching controversial topics: (When) does controversial equal difficult? . JSSE - Journal of Social Science Education, 23(2).