Critical thinking can quell extreme views

3rd July 2015 at 01:00
To support young people at risk of radicalisation, enable free discussion of ideas in a nurturing, questioning environment

Let's talk about Kamran. He's 15 years old, he's bright and he has the potential to study at a top university. He's from a deprived area of Birmingham, his parents do not speak fluent English and most of his friends share his faith (Islam) and ethnic origin (Pakistani). He thinks "voting is pointless" after "they went to war in Iraq anyway", and one of his teachers says that he spends a lot of time playing Call of Duty: Black Ops II, a violent video game.

Should we be worried about Kamran? Is he at risk of being radicalised? Are his views on democracy against "British values"? Should his teachers be monitoring his behaviour? The decisions we make about supporting his development - or victimising him - will go on to shape him, as well as the way that Britain looks in the future.

For a matter as serious as the radicalisation of young people - and for a demographic as important as our schoolchildren - the temptation in the face of fear is to leave the matter to the government and the supposed experts. But to do this would be to run the risk of misapplying top-down security policies and forgetting that radicalisation is like any discourse, with variation and nuance. There is a need for far more creative, critical and intelligent contribution from teachers, parents and educationalists. The dynamics of our classrooms are known best by those who run them.

The academic theory around radicalisation (which MI5 and CIA experts adhere to) points to a lot more complexity than popular discourse would lead us to believe. Religious observance and ideology have little to do with radicalisation, which has greater links to issues of vulnerability, criminality, adventure, marginalisation and disillusionment.

Teachers and schools are Britain's first line of protection. The way to tackle radicalisation in this context is to support pupils' personal development and build trusting relationships that enable them to discuss ideas. Here's how.

1 Raise aspirations

Pupils often lack role models to emulate in their home environment or local community. Expanding young people's horizons by finding figures they can truly relate to can be a transformative experience.

The next step is to support mentoring initiatives. The charity Mosaic, founded by the Prince of Wales, has set the standard for mentoring young Muslims and provides a model that can be easily replicated and supported.

2 Nurture critical discussion

Interaction between students and teachers should be protected. Efforts must be made to ensure that the classroom is a trusted space in which pupils feel comfortable negotiating social, ethical, moral and political issues (as all young people do at this stage of life), without fear. A climate of suspicion will only drive discussion away from the classroom to arenas where it's less likely to be subject to reasoned feedback and challenge.

Rather than preaching a correct position to take on controversial issues, it is far more effective for teachers to build the skills young people need to intelligently negotiate and develop their own views. It is this critical-mindedness, self-awareness and grasp of literacy that prepares students to evaluate things they stumble across on the internet, as well as other influences.

3 Present engagement opportunities

Let's face it, there is injustice in the world and many young people don't like what they see on television. Instead of castigating students, we should embrace their idealism by providing them with constructive opportunities to do something about it. This could include extracurricular activities - for example, through the Scouts movement or local organisations. Charities such as Islamic Relief, the Muslim advocacy charity Made and the Muslim Scout Fellowship (part of the UK Scout Association) can help.

4 Keep talking

If you are worried about a pupil, you should report your concerns to the school. It is crucial that, from this point onwards, the young person has a safe environment in which to discuss any of their concerns with a non-judgemental adult. Muslim teachers in schools can play a special role: pupils of Muslim faith may be more likely to trust their views on certain matters. In addition, charities such as the Muslim Youth Helpline provide a free, confidential faith and counselling service that is culturally sensitive.

5 Involve parents early

Instead of attempting to resolve a problem on your own, sensitively share your concerns with parents so that a collective solution can be found. Parents may also be worried - the internet, which many children have free access to at home or on their smartphones, is a more typical source of extremist content than schools or other social environments.

6 Don't oversimplify

It is important not to oversimplify the matter of radicalisation, or turn it into a classroom demon that deters our schools from doing one of their most important jobs: developing critically minded and well-rounded pupils, who are ready for the challenges of life and comfortable with themselves. To that end, teachers should take satisfaction in the fact that they are helping to create a more harmonious society.

The author is an educationalist who works with students from deprived communities across the UK

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