Young people are becoming increasingly engaged in protests and mass movements, whether that means activism around climate change or protesting how exam grades have been awarded. Yet, at the same time, many young people are also becoming less able to engage with opposing, mainstream views.
In a world of Netflix and social media, young people are now less exposed to balanced content through daily mainstream news. Instead, they access information about current events primarily through social media – be it through shares from friends with similar interests, or by reading stories which algorithms automatically generate based on saved preferences.
This leads to passionate young people becoming increasingly unaware of divergent opinions, or worse, unable to critically debate their cause, having never had to justify their stances.
This trend can be broken, but it relies on classrooms full of teachers open to debate and with a strong pledge of neutrality. If an educator can have students talk about their passionate views and give equal opportunity to both sides of a mainstream idea, the impact could be massive.
Teachers need to introduce students to alternative viewpoints and humanise “opponents”. Posting insulting messages online or shouting down views in a tweet is quite different from a real-life experience where basic etiquette is expected, and a reassuring group of followers are not available.
Instead, an individual needs to coherently and confidently deliver their ideas based on the information that they have. This stimulates thought, questioning and critical skills. The outcomes of such measures are vital: people can learn to assess their own views and understand why opponents exist.
And this isn’t hard to achieve: teachers simply need to remain neutral. Outside of school, they may be a passionate protestor, but in school, they must offer no opinion; they must sit on the fence for the good of their students.
As a Prevent officer, who deals regularly with teenagers who have been groomed into extremism, my basic message when training teachers is to listen to all opinions in a room and open them for discussion – to expose and to learn.
A number of those who fall into more extreme positions have previously held relatively moderate ideas. Being repeatedly told that they are “wrong” or that they shouldn’t voice their beliefs, pushes them into more extreme views. They seek refuge amongst people who not only agree with, but actively try to harden their views, while at the same time becoming less able to listen to the ideas of others and to ask questions.
We are fortunate to see a generation of astute and confident young people, who are dedicating their time to social change. But these young people still need our support to become critical thinkers who are capable of questioning their own ideas. And that requires safe, open spaces led by cool and, most importantly, neutral, classroom teachers.
Elizabeth Kitto is a Prevent education officer in London