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Content Warnings in Classrooms: Vital or Redundant?

As schools are beginning to reach somewhat of normalcy, previous classroom traditions are being restored. The new routines are not being dismissed, however. One of which is the inclusion of content warnings when teaching new material to students. This practice has been widely disputed as many are unsure of the position they hold.

Content warnings first came into existence to help veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), move through the world after returning from war. Their implementation allowed for veterans, or anyone with PTSD, to prepare for the information they would be encountering. So, how can this apply to students? Well, students may not be veterans, but they are coming into the classroom with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. They are entering a learning environment that is different than anything they encounter outside the walls of their school. Veterans and students are vastly separate, but content warnings can be beneficial to both.

To examine this further, I reached out to two high school English teachers who have been discussing the implementation of this practice into their department for quite some time now. They seem to have an equal proportion of teachers who are either for or against, the practice. The divide, however, has allowed them to develop conversations on the topic to decide whether or not it could be beneficial for their classrooms. Through my discussions with the teachers and a student at the school they teach, we dove into this very question of content warnings in the classroom.

To clarify our discussions, we agreed on a shared definition of what a content/trigger warning was. We decided that it is: “something that prepares a student mentally, physically, and spiritually for what they are going to discuss, read, and encounter in a text”. This definition clarifies content warnings as a guidance tool that allows the student to determine how they want to digest the difficult content they are given. Describing a content warning as a preparation tool changes the perception of content warnings. They are meant to equip students with the skills they need to address the difficult conversation, rather than an exit ticket to ignore the challenges.

Through this conversation, I discovered how teachers are struggling to meet the needs of every student in their classrooms. As I mentioned before, each student walks into a class coming from different experiences and backgrounds, and it can feel impossible to meet the needs of every person. Thus, it is exceptionally difficult to find a strict protocol that every teacher must follow when each class, teacher, student, and environment is different.

Teachers also highlighted that school is meant to prepare students for the real world. Well, in the real world, people are not provided with context statements and warnings when encountering sensitive information. Most information is surprising and unexpected. How can students survive through these difficult, unpredictable experiences if schools constantly coddle them?

To some students, however, content warnings can be extremely beneficial. Entering a classroom without the knowledge of what will be discussed can be daunting to students and can prevent them from learning. Thus, providing a context statement or warning, allows the student to understand how to proceed when encountering difficult information. It provides everyone equal opportunity to learn, as opposed to assumptions on the teacher's part that the student will figure it out without guidance.

When encountering new content, teachers note that it is usually the struggle, and sometimes trigger, that is essential to understanding and analyzing the text. This highlights that schools should not remove the triggering material they teach, or "coddle" students, but rather teachers need to understand that helping their students process these challenging contexts is the key to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment.

We soon discovered that a balance was necessary. A strict content warning protocol was not possible, or beneficial, to the classroom setting. Thus, the teachers chose to include a context statement before each new unit and provide content warnings whenever necessary based on each text. This allowed the teachers to decide, based on their knowledge of each student in their classrooms, where content warnings were needed. The teachers also decided to keep an open discussion policy with students whenever they felt that the material was too difficult. This discussion aspect allowed the teacher to discover what is most difficult for students as well as create a bridge between the teacher and students.

Content warnings need to be used to prepare students for active learning, for the environment they will enter each day, for the challenging material they will be expected to digest, and eventually, for the real world.

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