How to answer: ‘Miss, is World War III about to start?’

Teachers don't have all the answers to major world events – sometimes we just need to learn together, says Sarah Simons

When a student asked teacher Sarah Simons whether Donald Trump's assassination of an Iranian general would lead to World War III, she tore up her lesson plan and learned together with her students

Been a big first week of the new decade, hasn’t it? And the shit icing on the shit cake? Meghan and Harry will no longer be doing whatever it is they do. That was a kick in the clacker. Apart from Princess Anne (who I adore unflinchingly), they seemed like the only ones worth bothering with, and now they’re legging it.

These are difficult times and my students – adults from all walks of life with varying levels of interest in current affairs – are aware of it. Like many colleagues in schools and colleges around the country this week, I’ve been asked a question in class that I haven’t been asked before: “Is World War III about to happen?”

I’ve been honest in my answer. “I don’t know enough, but probably not.”


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I think I’m supposed to reassure them that it’s definitely all OK. It’s a load of drama blown up by the media. Another tactic by Trump to distract from his impeachment, albeit a significant and serious one. But I don’t know. It keeps coming back to me that both the Bush and Obama administrations thought the assassination of Qasem Soleimani too risky in terms of potential retaliation. Either side of the US political divide agreed on something, and yet… here we are.

I watch the news, I’m interested, but I’ve got no insight. I’m not an expert on anything related to the subject, military history or international politics, and I’ve only the most superficial understanding of the conflict between the US and Iran.

Learning about the threat of World War III

Without the required background knowledge on this complex subject, my instinct to say "probably not" comes from a practical assumption. War seems like something that any government of any country, regardless of their competence, would do everything they possibly could to avoid. I dunno. To even be asked the question seemed important.

With a profound lack knowledge on my part and such interest from my students, I decided to shelve my session. We’d find out more on the subject together. It’s entry-level functional skills English, so I could reframe it as a speaking, listening and communications exercise, even though it wasn’t a planned one.

We decided what questions we should research as a team, then students got into pairs, people who were confident on the computer paired with those who were less so, and we got cracking.

I made it clear that it wasn’t a test, there was nothing to be marked: it was a topic on which we all wanted to have better understanding. With this in mind, it was important that we supported each other to learn. If someone doesn’t understand something and you do, explain it to them. If someone has prior knowledge about a topic that is relevant, share it with the group.

It was a brilliant session. Generally, my lessons lurch from bag of rubbish to fantabulous, and back again, with all shades of pedagogical competence in between. But this was a rare one, because it felt so organically led by the learning rather than the teaching, or curriculum or qualification or any outside influence. It was learning for the intrinsic value of learning. I was just there in case there was a fire alarm.

You’ll be pleased to know that we decided there isn’t going to be World War III any time soon. However, we also decided that the person who names wars has a lot to answer for. If they’d have only called the 1939-45 one something else, we wouldn’t be expecting another sequel.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

 

 

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