Sadly, extremism and acts of terror are ever-present in today’s world. It seems hardly a day can go by without reports of another city, country or community recovering from the after-effects of a random attack, threat or loss of life.
Such events serve as a continual reminder that the world is in conflict, people are unhappy and injustice is common. The question is whether it’s right that – on top of worrying about exam results, inspections, parents and pressure – teachers should be required to respond to these complex global issues. The answer, I would argue, is yes.
One of the many ways to demarcate educational paradigms is to think of education as either technical or intellectual. The former deals with certainties and needs: what facts do children need to learn and what skills do they need to acquire to get a job? The latter takes a different view: its focus is on thinking, understanding and, above all, questioning.
Research, policy and practice in the first view assume contexts are largely stable, populations are homogenous, and we can plan and manage the future. The second view, on the other hand, rejects conformity, assumes heterogeneity and positively embraces the anarchic. Ask yourself: which view reflects the world we live in today?
Curious, worried and confused
Without getting too abstract, let’s consider a morning at school following another appalling terrorist incident. Your pupils have seen the news, they follow social media and they can relate some of the words and images they see to people they know or communities they have heard of. They are curious, worried and confused. How do you react when it comes up in class? What if pupils draw naïve conclusions or it affects relations between different ethnic groups in class? What if you try to mediate but inadvertently offend someone? Are you scared of your own prejudice?
One way to react is to take the safe option: you carefully condemn the attack, reiterate the safety of the institutions that protect us and then move on. After all, you’re there to deliver your lesson. You advise children to follow up with their parents if they must, and reprimand anyone who brings it up again. Surely it’s too risky to do anything else, isn’t it?
Alternatively, you put the lesson plan to one side and let the children talk while you facilitate. You reassure them it’s natural to be scared – you are too. When they ask why it happened, tell the truth: you don’t know; or at least, it’s very complex. What do they think? Why might people be driven to murder and violent revolution? What could have happened in their family and cultural life for such extreme actions to seem logical? And if a pupil prejudges, don’t condemn it – introduce another way of seeing things.
Exorcising powerful emotions
This is what could be referred to as a “safe space”, in which pupils can exorcise powerful emotions and confusing feelings, while they try to make sense of the world. Children are innocent and should be reassured, but their reactions should not be supressed – they should be explored. And in their questioning, political decisions will be deconstructed, self-interest uncovered and banal law-breaking revealed for what it is.
This kind of dialogic approach to practice considers the ways of thinking and being that learners bring to class, and it values how they interpret the world. It is open and fair; arguments can be made, discussed, retracted or strengthened, under the guidance of a responsible adult. Herein lies our collective responsibility to young people. But what’s the connection with contributing to our security?
More often than not, terrorist attacks take place in countries we may never visit and affect people we will never meet. But they are even more terrifying when they happen here and, above all else, when the perpetrators are British and grew up in the UK. The path to extremism is always complex but has been linked to various psychological, social and cultural factors. One line of thought from social science suggests that extremist views can develop when individuals’ experience of society does not meet the expectations provided through educational or other institutions.
Simply put, if your experience of the world is frightening and you are told you are safe; if you experience injustice but are told society is fair; and if you empathise with a cause but are told it is wrong, then there is increased risk. The remedy? The same research implores education to be founded on “criticality”. Authority figures cannot answer all questions or reassure us that the world is really fair and just. But they can explore complex and contradictory positions with learners, and facilitate pupils to come to informed and balanced views. This approach increases genuine engagement and is more likely to result in active citizens than isolated outsiders.
Such approaches are not just idealistic or hypothetical: the English national curriculum for citizenship says pupils should learn to explore political and social issues critically. And the Department for Education’s own guidance on the Prevent duty isn’t about closing down controversial issues. On the contrary, it encourages schools to provide safe spaces in which young people can understand the risks associated with terrorism, and develop the knowledge and skills to be able to challenge extremist arguments.
Worryingly, however, recent research by educational charity Think Global shows that many teachers lack confidence or training in how to embed critical approaches that build resilience to radical viewpoints – approaches they refer to as “proactive safeguarding”.
Now is the time for us to act. Let’s prioritise a thoughtful, educational response to current affairs and support teachers to take the lead. This isn’t about ticking boxes or providing training to comply with legislation – it’s about the very essence of membership of society, both locally and globally. Or, to quote Hannah Arendt, it’s deciding you love the world enough to take responsibility for it.
Thoughtful and questioning
In 2015, the UN launched the historic Sustainable Development Goals, which have since been adopted by our government and make specific reference to the promotion of a world of tolerance, peace, global citizenship and combating extremism. This paves the way for an emphasis on a values-based approach, recognising linkages to promoting tolerance, human rights, social justice and respect.
For these reasons, reacting to current affairs as a thoughtful and questioning education community can contribute to society’s broader response to difficult, global issues. The British Council offers free training in the form of its Connecting Classrooms programme, to help teachers work with their pupils to develop a critical understanding of, and responsibility for, the world around them.
These opportunities promote and facilitate genuine dialogue, and enrich pupils’ learning experiences. They could also lead to a safer, more democratic, and more cohesive national and global society. Without doubt, that is an opportunity we cannot afford to ignore.
Stephen Hull is senior project manager at the British Council and manages the Connecting Classrooms programme. He is chair of governors at a primary school in London for children with special educational needs