Digging deep

25th November 2005 at 00:00
It has been a year of disasters - the tsunami, the starving masses in Darfur, the New Orleans hurricane and the Pakistani earthquake, not to mention the London bombings in July and relentless violence in Iraq.

In the immediate aftermath of an emergency we dig deep in response to appeals for money to fund the recovery effort. But, as media coverage becomes less frequent, so the donations dry up as our attention is distracted by other priorities, or even fresh disasters.

The challenge for teachers is how to turn that interest and desire to help often shown by young people into a level of understanding that has real and lasting educational value.

Doug Bourne, head of the Development Education Association, says this can be achieved more successfully if a disaster is put into a wider social context. He says multiple disasters can have a negative impact on the way young people see themselves in the world. But when a focus on the social impact of tragedies is combined with traditional explanations of the causes it can be more positive.

"Twenty years ago, the curriculum for teaching about an earthquake would have been dry and straightforward. Now it's about adding that global dimension and teaching with a holistic as opposed to a linear approach," he says.

Broadening the scope of teaching provides a range of topics for discussion in subjects including geography, business studies, RE, health studies and even PE.

"Young people can be encouraged to look at solutions for prevention of these catastrophes, to consider the possibilities of and barriers to sustainable development and world interdependence. It's about equipping them with the ability to deal with the complexities of these issues."

Muhammad Imran, education manager at Islamic Relief, says the earthquake has transformed Pakistani communities here. They have not only rallied to the cause but their action has rippled through other communities, uniting them with different faith groups.

He says teachers could do more to make disasters real by inviting relief workers or relatives of those affected into schools to speak about their experiences. "There are too many glossy books in the classroom that desensitise the issues..The emotion and sincerity of people with direct experience will have a profound effect and resonate with young people."

Sam Goonetillake, chief executive of Help Lanka, encourages young people to put themselves in the shoes of affected children. "I ask them to imagine a tsunami happening to them, what they would save and what they would do afterwards to restore faith and hope in their lives."

His charity has twinned 20 UK schools with schools in Sri Lanka. The long-term benefit to the Sri Lankan children will be support to learn English, but the greatest benefit is for British young people, he says:

"They're learning that these are children like them. They may not have computers and Sky TV, but they like football and ice cream too. It helps our children to have an awareness of how fortunate they are and to have appreciation of other nationalities and cultures."

* www.dea.org.uk, Development Education Association website on how to raise awareness and understanding of how global issues affect people's daily lives. Tel: 020 7812 1282.l www.helplanka.co.uk, information on how to join the school twinning project.l www.dec.org.uk, Disasters Emergency Committee's latest information on disasters around the world and how to help l www.islamic-relief.com

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