1. Why Teach about the Oil Sands?
It can be argued that learning about the Oil Sands should be an essential part of the education of all Canadian students. The oil sands are a key part of the petroleum industry in Canada and as such an intricate cog in our economic future. As awareness of climate change spreads and the future of fossil fuels is examined scientifically and in the media, the Canadian oil sands particularly are put under the microscope. The students have heard about this topic and the controversy, but probably have few facts and little chance to gain a balanced perspective. Your classroom is this chance.
In many ways the oil sands touch upon many themes within Canada. They are a key part of our economic system and raise questions about our dependence on primary industries. Their impact alerts us to environmental issues and to the lives and rights of indigenous people. If climate change and the issue of sustainable development in the world are vital global issues, the oil sands are key entry points for Canadian study.
2. Where Do I Start?
GreenLearning Canada has created the OSED (Oil Sands Education Dialogue) as a flexible and accessible way to help students explore this key topic. Classrooms can begin with any of the modules and can complete one or more of these modules. These are online, interactive age appropriate modules that are easy to follow and designed for use in Canadian classrooms. They have been teacher tested and reviewed and are absolutely free to use.
The Price of Oil modules helps students understand the ramifications of the volatile price of oil on the Canadian economy, on politics and on their lives and encourages them to respond with their own researched, solutions. In the Hearing from the Oil Sands module, students will increase their understanding of oil sands extraction as they learn about the diverse perspectives involved in oil sands development. Through a role play simulation, students will begin appreciate the enormous complexity involved with the oil sands and develop informed perspectives based on a wide array of information from multiple sources and perspectives. Classes will have a chance to explore the negotiation process that companies enter into with Aboriginal communities when they are planning a project and in the Hearing Simulation they will go through the process that helps them understand the Alberta Energy Regulator hearings.
Our next module, which is in development, will shine a light on the complex role of media in presenting different aspects of the oil sands.
3. Do I Know Enough?
The topic of the oil sands is in some ways a daunting one. The science behind the extraction becomes more complicated as new techniques are developed. There are many stakeholders involved and many points of view – even within stakeholder groups. Even more importantly, the whole information presented about the topic in the popular media is confusing. There are different points of view and all the modern techniques of communication are used. Sometimes it seems like one is dealing propaganda rather than information.
As a teacher, be reassured that just like any other topic, you can tackle this one. Just think of all the topics and issues that we are not experts in. Use the same strategies you use in approaching any new topic: put your bias detector on and look for reliable, classroom-ready sources of information.
We have listed below some websites that will help you learn more, but be reassured. Everything you and your students need is in our online modules including background knowledge, source material and website leads for current, age-appropriate, information. The modules present the student, and the teacher, with a balanced look at this vital topic.
4. Oil Sands Basics
The OSED modules provide key information that you and your students need to understand the basic geology and operation of the oil sands. Even this kind of basic information can be presented in a biased way or with loaded language and emphasis. That is why we have written our modules as carefully as possible and had them reviewed by classroom teachers and expert review panels. We have also brought together this basic information in one place for educators. [insert link]
5. Is This Topic Too Divisive?
Teachers and curriculum developers sometimes run from controversial topics to avoid the pitfalls, but this is of no service to students. The oil sands are certainly potentially very divisive – even the terminology is loaded and the media coverage seems to invariably move to the extremes.
There are big differences between and even among the different stakeholders. Some companies favour almost unfettered development, others say that climate change means we need to proceed cautiously. Some Aboriginal groups support projects because of benefits, others on the whole worry about impact. Some FMNI groups are left out or choose not be involved, on the other hand there is a small oil company that is wholly Aboriginally owned. Some Albertans see direct employment, others involved in conventional oil see too much focus on oil sands. The reality is, however, that different parts of the country all have a different stake in what happens and we need to help students understand this key issue.
This quagmire does not have to be what you deal with in the classroom. Be sure to use teacher-tested materials that emphasize balanced learning and critical thinking. This is the goal of GreenLearning Canada and OSED utilizes multiple sources that open up students to different points of view. Balanced perspectives (but nothing extreme or inflammatory) are presented in age-appropriate language.
6. How Should I Approach Controversial Issues?
There are many documents and articles and websites that can give helpful suggestions for teaching any controversial issue. Your school board might have a policy of their own and this is often the place to start because there may be certain guidelines and procedures that you need to follow.
The modules within GreenLearning’s OSSED program all conform to good classroom pedagogy and model ways to handle controversial topics, but in extending a module or supplementing the learning consider enriching your background in navigating these issues with students. The source list contains a good compilation of sites from BCTF that have helpful tips and suggestions.
Strategies that Help
The following list of tips is modified from Flinders University “Inclusive Practices for Managing Controversial Issues”
Plan for teaching that includes all students in the class
- for the oil sands this could mean being aware of FMNI students or those who have relatives working in the ‘oil patch’
Establish classroom guidelines for fair discussion
- there are many ways that this can be done; be sure to listen to what students want and establish the guidelines collectively – and do it early before controversy happens
Build trust and create a positive classroom climate
- these are strategies that help all class work, but become important preventative measures before engaging in potentially emotional topics
Discuss how no topics are just “black and white”
- students can be helped to understand that knowledge is ‘conditional’ are that there are many valid responses to natural resource development
Encourage critical thinking
- look for accredited materials that use critical thinking techniques. Start small with topics that are familiar to students and relate directly to their lives
- use all the opportunities in these modules for debriefing and personal and class reflection
Use experiential activities
- the activities in these modules help students do more than read and intellectualize about important topics
Moderate classroom incivilities
- go back to visit classroom guidelines and help students understand that they do not need to be permanently and personally attached to their opinions
Roles of the Teacher
Think about your role within the class. This is always shifting no matter what is being studied, but it becomes particularly important for the teacher to reflect upon what role they are talking and the message this sends to the students. These are some of the ways a teacher can be part of the class discussions and activities. The following list is adapted from the Oxfam Global Citizenship Guide: Teaching Controversial Issues.
Teacher is free to propagate their own views. Care needs to be taken with this role, however, as this can lead to a biased discussion. This is not a stance that is advocated by GreenLearning Canada.
Objective or Academic
Teacher transmits an explanation of all possible viewpoints without stating own position.
Teacher adopts provocative and oppositional stances irrespective of own viewpoint. This enables the teacher to ensure that all views are covered and challenged if a consensus view emerges early on. It also helps to challenge young people’s existing beliefs.
Teacher presents all available viewpoints then concludes by stating own position with reasons. The teacher can then make the point that it is important for pupils to evaluate all viewpoints before forming
their own opinions. This is best used with an older class.
Teacher ensures that all viewpoints are represented, through pupil statements or published sources. Teacher facilitates but refrains from stating own position.
Teacher declares own viewpoint so that pupils can judge later bias, then presents all available positions as objectively as possible.