3 ways to teach tolerance and that it's OK to disagree

To mark International Day for Tolerance, a teacher in the US explains how to teach learners an important life lesson

Tim Tuckley

International Day for Tolerance: How to teach that it's OK to agree to disagree

It is a common sentiment in 2020, to feel that we are living in a history book.

The times we are living in and their lasting impact will most certainly be the subject of study for years to come.

For Americans, or those of us residing in the United States, we have our very own chapter.

Not only have we endured the pandemic like the rest of the world, but we have also seen many social issues, extensively covered by news media, come to a head during a particularly challenging and turbulent election year.

Against this political landscape, how do we talk to our students about current affairs?

While it is our job, as educators, to guide our children emotionally and cognitively through the world they live in, such topics may often seem taboo or fraught with pitfalls. Where do we even begin? Here are some strategies for navigating your children through difficult topics of conversation:

International Day for Tolerance: Lessons for pupils

1. Teach children to think, not what to think

During the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, my high school students in Edinburgh desperately implored me to tell them which way I was voting. I remained tight-lipped.

Honestly, I would have loved to have discussed it with them and would have played devil’s advocate every time. Alas, Beginner’s Spanish was not the time, nor the place. Remaining professional and neutral on sensitive issues allows students to reflect, opine and discuss topics more freely, without the fear that they may be judged by the teacher. It also respects the viewpoints that adults at home may have shared with their children.

In discussing contentious topics, I’ve found it useful to ask more open-ended questions that challenge the children to think and reflect. It can be difficult, but, ultimately, we want our students to form thoughts and opinions of their own accord.

2. Explore values and morality

At the British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park, our Goal Squad are a group of eight characters at the centre of our values curriculum.

After watching the fractious first presidential debate at the beginning of October, I volunteered to lead one of the (virtual) Values Assemblies that have become a staple of our Monday mornings.

In the assembly - which took place in the form of a puppet show – Alex and Xander Cooperation explored how they could continue to cooperate and to be happy and peaceful while, at the same time, disagreeing over an issue of great importance: the size of stickers.

Spoiler alert: in the end, Sir Resilience stepped in and helped them to understand that being "right" wasn’t more important than love and care, and that, with tolerance, resilience and friendship, they could agree to disagree.

The assembly gave staff a springboard from which they could discuss the election based on the values that run through the heart of our school.

3. Talk about feelings

Often, we discuss current affairs with children from an objective point of view, discussing the information and viewing events through a moral lens of "right" or "wrong".  

As well as cognitively, we have a duty to help children process current events emotionally. “How do you feel about that?” is a valid question in any conversation and may reveal hidden fears or worries that we – and maybe the children – never knew were there.

We can also challenge children to think about how people who don’t agree with us are feeling, encouraging empathy. Empathy begets tolerance and the humanisation of the "other", breaking down the mental barriers of "them" and "us".

We all know our pupils, our host countries and individual situations.

Where the culture allows it, our responsibility, as educators, is not only to facilitate discussion and challenge our children to think and reflect, but also to instil core values that will serve as guiding principles as they form their own opinions.

After all, as Aristotle said: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

Tim Tuckley is a primary languages specialist at Nord Anglia British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park

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