The Fine Line Between Education and Indoctrination

Incident at Alberta school a good opportunity to reflect on teachers’ roles when it comes controversial issues
December 16, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2020


Teach students how to think rather than what to think. We educate students when we help them think for themselves, but we indoctrinate them if we make them think like us.

Teachers have long had to walk this fine line, but a recent incident at an Alberta school shows us that it is easier said than done.

During a social studies lesson about sustainable development, a grade 4 teacher in Iron Ridge Elementary School in Blackfalds, Alberta, used two videos to provide students with contrasting points of view regarding the oilsands. One video, produced by Greenpeace, was critical of the oilpatch while the other, produced by the Alberta government, was supportive. Students watched both videos, took notes, and formed their own opinions.

By all accounts, it was an excellent lesson. The teacher exposed students to multiple perspectives, provided them with different sources, and avoided leading the students to the “correct” conclusion. Unfortunately, some parents didn’t appreciate the teacher exposing students to an anti-oilsands perspective and made threats against the school on social media. These threats ultimately led to the cancellation of the school’s annual Christmas dance.

Obviously, threats against any school are always unacceptable. While some parents may not want their children exposed to alternative perspectives, school is the best place to think through these issues. Teachers do students a great service when they challenge their assumptions and make them think.

Unfortunately, not all teachers take as balanced an approach to controversial issues as this teacher did. For example, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange recently tweeted out several questions from a social studies test in Calgary. The test questions were obviously biased against Alberta’s energy sector since students had to identify “valid” arguments against oilsands development. Imagine the uproar if students had been asked to identify “valid” arguments against abortion.

Sadly, indoctrination goes far beyond biased test questions. Last year, CBC featured a Regina public school teacher who spent time at an intensive training session led by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. This teacher, who was designated a “climate-reality leader” by Gore’s training institute, had his grade 6 and 7 students spend an entire month working on a variety of climate-change projects. This unit culminated with a public event where students made presentations about how to stop climate change.

The CBC story made it clear that this teacher went far beyond informing students about climate change. His climate-change unit was designed to make his students take action that conformed to what he learned at the Gore training session. That isn’t education, it’s indoctrination.

Unfortunately, far too many other teachers cross the line into political advocacy in their classrooms. Earlier this year, I was one of three teachers who participated in a panel discussion on environmental activism on The Current, a popular CBC Radio show. Incredibly, the other two teachers on the panel saw no problem with taking their students to protest rallies and thought it was fully appropriate to push their perspectives on students.

To make matters worse, many teachers’ unions make no effort to hide their political biases. Last year, Tzeporah Berman, an environmental studies adjunct professor and former Greenpeace director, was the keynote speaker at an Alberta Teachers’ Association conference. Berman is a well-known oilsands opponent who once compared oilsands development to the fictional wasteland of Mordor. When teachers’ unions use their union dues to bring in one-sided speakers, they make it harder for their members to remain politically neutral in the classroom.

Some teachers go so far as to give up all pretence of neutrality. For example, Alberta teacher Brianna Sharpe recently wrote an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing that education is always political. While Sharpe made some sensible points in the first part of her op-ed, she torpedoed her credibility when she quoted Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who said “teaching is never a neutral act.”

Not only was Freire a radical social revolutionary, he rejected the importance of providing all students with a common base of knowledge and skills. The ongoing popularity of Freire’s radical ideas in education faculties is much of the reason why teacher training is in such abysmal shape today. By quoting Freire to justify her argument that teaching is inherently political, Sharpe revealed much of what is wrong in public education.

There’s a better option. In order for students to become critical thinkers, they need to master a defined body of knowledge in a variety of subject areas. Teachers need to help their students develop substantial subject-specific content knowledge. This necessarily entails exposing students to multiple perspectives on a variety of issues.

While it is impossible to be completely neutral, all teachers must make an effort to put their own views aside and let students develop their own conclusions about controversial issues.

There is a fine line between education and indoctrination. It should never be crossed.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.