School teaches you all kinds of things besides how to spell photosynthesis. The recent terror attacks in Turkey and Belgium instantly became a global event. As kids across the globe return to their classrooms, teachers are no doubt biting their nails thinking of the difficult conversations that are bound to come up.
Contrary to popular belief, kids do listen to their teachers. OK we can’t back that up, but the point is that many kids will have questions about why all their parents suddenly got very quiet on Friday night, what they’re supposed to be thinking during this minute of silence, and why terror attacks happen.
This will weigh heavily on a lot of teachers, some of whom spend more time with students than their parents do, and who know that the way they handle this situation may have have a lasting impact. Judith A. Myers-Walls, professor emerita at Purdue University USA who has studied the impact of political violence on children, told the Independent: “The quality of the response depends a lot on the person who is responding. A teacher can do this very sensitively or very insensitively and some pretend it’s not happening at all.” What the kid actually takes away from a classroom conversation on terror attacks all depends on how the teacher handles it, no pressure.
You’d have to be both a wizard and a scholar to really understand what led to the recent terror attacks and what they mean for the future. The situation is hard enough for adults to understand, let alone children.
It’s important to get the facts right, and there are lots of good resources for this: like this response to questions about whether Islam is to blame for the violence of a group like ISIS, or a back to basics explainer on what ISIS is. One middle school teacher in the US got in an expert to give a lesson to teachers on ISIS and the Middle East. What not to say: “Our religion Christianity teaches love, their religion teaches hate”. Don’t say that. This is what our friend’s cousin’s headmaster told the school assembly.
It’s also important to know how to communicate ideas to children of any age. Helpfully, there is a whole bunch of advice on this, like talking about bad actions as opposed to bad people, and ensuring kids have the space to talk through what they know and how they’re feeling before the adults jump in. You could see it as a problem that these methods aren’t rolled out across the whole country.
Classrooms are filled with kids with all sorts of views about the world. This is very often picked up at home or from other friends, and is normally what makes going to school so valuable. It can also lead to upset, and sometimes painful and lasting upset if students feel directly targeted for who they are by what other kids have to say.
Kids need to feel safe and heard in school. This pamphlet from National Union of Teachers gives some pointers on how to teach controversial issues like terror attacks in an inclusive way:
– organise classroom discussion in ways which enable every pupil to participate in that discussion;
– ensure that the views of everyone in the class are properly heard;
– moderate negative opinions and strong emotions;
– focus on evidence and valid information;
– represent the different points of view as accurately and fairly as possible;
– where possible, use a variety of outside and community sources; and
– demonstrate respect for different opinions.
All we’ll say is it’s a damned fine skill to have.
It is illegal for an educational body to discriminate against children on grounds of their race or religion (or disability, sexuality, nationality, gender… just don’t). Things get a little more blurred when it comes to faith schools, and the fact that according to the Citizens’ Advice for England “In a community or foundation school, acts of collective worship, such as assemblies, must be of a general Christian nature.” For the most part, however, UK schools are attended by people of varied or no faith.
Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crime has increased in the last year, meaning teaching around this topic can be particularly important. The National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education has a resource dedicated to teaching Islam following Islamist extremist terror attacks.
Recent research from Connect Justice suggests that feeling discriminated against at a young age can play a big role in encouraging people to join groups advocating violent political goals and terror attacks, whether these are far-right groups or Islamist extremist groups. Being told your religion teaches hate might be the very thing that makes you feel disaffected. The majority of people would probably agree that discrimination on grounds of race or religion is a bad thing in itself, but it turns out that there might be a very practical argument against it.
However, some would argue that this sits uncomfortably alongside the UK government’s current policy of tackling homegrown extremism. As of 2015, places of education from nurseries to universities are bound by law to actively counter extremism and radicalisation, though the Home Office have had a tough job explaining what exactly they mean by these words.
The government’s suggested strategy for tackling extremism is to keep a close eye on anyone who appears to be being radicalised and to promote what are being called “British values.” The problem is, if someone feels unfairly singled out for their beliefs, this might be counterproductive to say the least. This legislation was created to counter violence and terror attacks, but some say it gets tricky as teachers are in a legal bind to fight a poorly-defined concept of extremism, meaning you could end up targeting people’s beliefs rather than their actions. What would be a better way?