Posted on: 12th April 2018
Violent religious extremism poses a threat to all societies. But the violence is a symptom of a deeper problem. To promote co-existence and counter extremism, it is essential to tackle the ideology behind the violence—not just the violence itself. Understanding extremist ideology, and addressing it by reducing its spread and building resilience to its appeal, is paramount.
Globalisation and the rise of social media are increasingly exposing polarising values and beliefs, which means young people—now more than ever—need education that gives them skills to understand and respect others and be comfortable with difference.
Our Institute’s approach combines research and practical programming to provide evidence-based solutions for building resilience to extremism. This policy briefing summarises the key findings and recommendations of two research projects undertaken by our Institute as well as learning from our long-standing education programme, Generation Global, which since 2009 has grown to operate in some 50 countries and has worked with over 330,000 students. The briefing was finalised in consultation with policymakers and practitioners active in education and countering violent extremism, following a round table held in London in October 2017.
In many countries, there is a significant implementation gap between policy and practice, with implications for three key areas of reform: curricula, resources and teaching. The challenges facing individual countries are distinct and beyond the scope of this briefing, but generally, major reforms are needed in each of these areas in every country. The definition of basic quality education needs to be expanded to include global competencies.
These reforms should also form a central part of national and subnational counter-extremism policies. That is because ultimately, those policies will fail unless education systems equip young people from the outset with the understanding, tools and confidence to build resilience against extremist narratives.
This policy briefing sets out policy positions for these three key reform areas, with recommendations for governments, schools and teachers.
Curricula should create and protect opportunities for students to cultivate dialogue and critical-thinking skills, explore values and identity, and appreciate nuance and difference.
The content of education and the approach to its delivery matter as much to preventing extremism as does increased access to education. Exam systems that prioritise rote memorisation of information over the cultivation of independent thought can exacerbate binary worldviews. While governments have the right to educate children on what it means to be a national citizen, they should not do so at the expense of other communities, cultures and religious groups. Education reform can have an impact on countering extremism, but isolated efforts can only go so far in a fight against ideologies that do not respect borders.
- Governments should demonstrate the value of education in the fight against extremism by prioritising the teaching of global competencies as much as basic numeracy and literacy, by participating in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) measure of global competence in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and by advocating the role of these skills in soft-security approaches.
- Governments should take measurable steps to ensure that hatred and intolerance of different faiths, beliefs and cultures have no place in schools and are removed where they exist. This includes through robust assessment of teaching methods and materials in all formal and informal settings.
- Governments should ensure curricula and exam systems prioritise building critical analytical skills, rather than learning by rote, particularly in subjects such as history, religion and citizenship. Rote learning can often lead to young people being insufficiently equipped to challenge reductive ideologies, leaving them at greater risk of radicalisation.
- Governments should establish mechanisms for cross-departmental collaboration to share learning and best practice on curricula reform, nationally and internationally, to ensure a broad-spectrum global policy response to extremism. They should ensure that education that gives students the skills to understand, respect and be comfortable with difference forms part of counter-extremism strategies and action plans.
- Governments should engage with think tanks, research institutions and civil society to create innovative educational solutions to extremism that are based on robust understanding of the issues in their countries.
Resources, from textbooks to classroom activities and digital content, need to address real-world problems facing students, and they need to support teachers to talk about them.
Textbooks with significant omissions and ambiguities are potentially as dangerous as explicitly intolerant material. Extremist ideas do not operate in a vacuum; they are compelling partly because they instrumentalise deep-rooted prejudice encountered to varying degrees in classroom resources. Difficult issues cannot be tackled if they are ignored. There is a need to reflect on the lessons and controversies regarding sex education to understand the importance of moving forward by engaging on the subject.
- Governments should ensure that resources used to teach about national identity and values as well as different faiths, beliefs and cultures are fair, accurate and respectful.
- Schools should host difficult conversations on contentious issues to expose young people to diverse viewpoints, drawing on effective existing resources to facilitate discussions.
Training should give teachers the tools for student-centred approaches to dialogue and open-mindedness that take them beyond didactic methods and a reliance on rote learning.
Our Institute’s research and experience find that even reform-minded countries that support student-centred approaches to learning struggle to put policy change into practice in the classroom, with varying teaching quality. Teachers model and shape young minds. Teachers and their students need to be equipped with dialogue and critical-thinking skills to increase their confidence in tackling difficult issues. More can be done to ensure that teachers’ professional development values these skills.
- Governments and educational institutions should train teachers in modern education practices that encourage the skills of dialogue—communication, active listening, critical thinking, questioning and reflection—and open-mindedness.
- Governments should ensure greater consistency in standards of teacher training and teaching through effective inspection and review of global competence skills, including through formal and informal systems.
- Teachers should acknowledge the centrality of their roles in preventing extremist and intolerant ideologies from taking root in their students, and demand training that gives them the skills to do so. Teachers should take responsibility for creating classroom cultures in which students feel comfortable to discuss ideas and develop dialogue skills.
Young people are frequently drawn to and targeted by extremist messaging and propaganda. Students of secondary-school age make up 10.2 per cent of the world’s population, and the challenges of identity formation in adolescence can make them particularly vulnerable to such messages. Educational environments—formal and informal—are crucial for equipping young people to resist this messaging but are frequently and actively exploited by those who wish to proliferate destructive ideologies.
Yet while vulnerability to radicalisation is often explained by a lack of education or economic opportunity, and education provision offered as a universal solution, our Institute’s research (and others’) demonstrates that not all forms of education build resilience against extremism—even in relatively developed systems. Shortfalls in education practice across the globe can increase the vulnerability of young people to extremist ideologies, especially if those ideologies reinforce binary perspectives of the world and promote violence or discrimination. Failures by societies to teach open-minded tolerance must be addressed.
Examples of shortfalls range from a lack of clarity among government departments as to their remit in education policy to inadequate budget allocation, weak infrastructure and poorly implemented reforms. In recognition that education does not exist in a vacuum, education policy reform must be situated in a broader policy framework that also addresses other structural drivers of radicalisation, including the economic challenges and inadequate access to resources that many young people face.
Faced with globalised manifestations of extremism, which transcend borders and are exacerbated by the spread of online narratives and the influence of social media, effective education has become an urgent international political priority. This prioritisation has had a positive effect on national education reform, with bodies like the OECD, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and the European Union developing diversity and global citizenship toolkits and curricula. Yet, our research suggests that shortfalls in education systems across the world mean these systems are still failing to respond to the emerging challenges of a globalised world, leaving young people vulnerable to extremist narratives.
Our Institute’s research into the backgrounds of prominent jihadis from the Middle East and North Africa found that 46 per cent sampled attended university—higher than the regional average of 30 per cent—with 57 per cent graduating in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or medicine. Further studies suggest that narrow approaches to education can leave young people lacking the intellectual tools to resist extremist narratives.
Traditional education systems are failing to equip young people with the critical and creative mindsets required to navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world. But this is not just a threat to developing countries. The OECD has claimed that the UK education system, for example, is now more characterised by rote learning than systems almost anywhere else in the world. Analysis by our Institute of curricula, policy and classroom practices worldwide shows the global scale of the challenge.
This kind of education, with a focus on rote learning without necessarily building critical analytical skills, particularly in subjects such as history, religion and citizenship, can mean that young people are not sufficiently equipped to challenge reductive ideologies, leaving them at greater risk of radicalisation. This is exacerbated by exam systems that prioritise rote memorisation of information over engagement with challenging issues and the cultivation of independent thought.
The onus should not be on young people alone to reduce their vulnerability. What is needed is quality education that opens minds and equips young people with the critical-thinking and dialogue skills and intercultural knowledge to understand and respect one another. Critical thinking occurs when students analyse, evaluate, interpret or synthesise information and apply creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem or reach a conclusion.
Fostering these skills means holistic reform of education systems: changing curricula, evaluating and improving resources, improving teaching environments, and eliminating the teaching of intolerance and prejudice. Significantly, it means working collaboratively to reform education systems across the globe. Countering extremism is not the responsibility of one country or region. Governments worldwide must recognise the important role education plays in the battle against extremism. They must be accountable for ensuring their education systems adequately prevent its spread by supporting young people to navigate the social, political or economic challenges they face.
This policy briefing is based on evaluations of our Institute’s education programme, Generation Global, and findings from our research into pathways to extremism and global educational systems. The latter includes a snapshot analysis of multiple countries and territories to explore the ways in which education systems—curricula, resources and teaching practices—play a vital role in shaping beliefs that lead to the prejudice, discrimination and closed-mindedness that can foster extremism. Research for this project included interviews with teachers, students and policymakers as well as content analysis of textbooks and curricula.
The recommendations and findings outlined in this briefing are also largely informed by an independent evaluation of Generation Global undertaken in 2015–2016 by the University of Exeter, led by Professor Rupert Wegerif. The evaluation used a rigorous, innovative methodology that combined quantitative and qualitative data to assess attitudinal change in young people across multiple geographies. The study was undertaken against a backdrop of limited detailed research on the impact of educational interventions on resilience to extremism.
The evaluation designed a new instrument for measuring open-mindedness and attitudes towards others, and collected data through a series of questionnaires with responses from 89 schools in 15 countries. The tool measured key areas, such as tolerance of ambiguity and self-confidence in the face of difference, that gave insights into participants’ attitudes towards others. Analysis of the data included corpus linguistic analysis of 1,140 dialogue reflections, observation of videoconferences and in-depth case studies.
Our research and experience have generated policy-relevant findings for three key reform areas: curricula, resources and teaching.
Findings from both our Institute and the University of Exeter agree that when education systems are overly politicised, values of open-mindedness and social cohesion are undermined. Without global reform towards values-based education that fosters open-mindedness, classrooms will continue to be vulnerable to extremism.
The knowledge-versus-skills debate mires the education sector. A balance of the two is needed to effectively prepare young people for the world. Evidence shows that simply increasing access to education does not necessarily prevent extremism or reduce participation in violence. When curricula lack exposure to a range of different perspectives and ideas, it can encourage a simple black-and-white view of the world—binaries of truth and falsehood, us and them.
Building resilience to extremism through education needs to address complexity by cultivating critical thinking, exploring values and identity, and building an understanding of nuance and comfort with difference. These skills must be prioritised in a similar way to fundamental literacy and numeracy, and if students are to be prepared for the globalised world, school leaders need to allocate sufficient space in curricula to deal with these issues. Although further work is needed, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that the inclusion of such 21st-century learning, global competencies and critical-thinking skills also enhances academic attainment by students, and these skills are frequently identified as critical by employers.
The OECD has included a pilot measure of global competence in its influential PISA tests for 2018. This ranking is designed to comparatively assess how well students are prepared to work alongside people from diverse cultures and with different beliefs in a globalised marketplace. But several Western countries have refused to participate in this pilot development, raising concerns about the extent to which this critical component of a quality education is really being prioritised. The global competence indicator does go some way to measuring tolerance and ability to identify reliable information sources, acknowledging these skills as important for reducing violence and conflict. Yet it does not go so far as to explicitly recognise the role these skills play in softer security approaches that build resilience to extremism.
A frequent challenge in curriculum development is dealing with identity, particularly when education systems seek to define a narrow national identity through their materials. Our research showed that religious identity appears to be central to constructing a sense of national citizenship in many sampled countries, including in several constitutionally secular states. Educational discussions of national and religious identities often appear homogenised at the expense of minority communities, with good citizenship often conditional on observing particular religious or moral principles. This emphasis on national identity, while not necessarily seeking to exclude minorities, delivers a clear message to students from minority groups and can undermine efforts towards co-existence. Robust inspection of teaching methods and materials is critical to ensuring that hatred and intolerance of different faiths, beliefs and cultures have no place in schools and are removed where such sentiments exist.
The teaching of critical thinking poses another challenge. Our Institute’s research showed an almost universal willingness from both teachers and students to raise the standards of critical thinking in schools. It was linked to effective citizenship, conflict prevention, job success, and resilience to hateful and extremist views. However, there is widespread uncertainty about how to apply these skills in practice, particularly concerning controversial subjects such as religion or conflict. There is a lack of consensus on what critical thinking looks like, a lack of training on how to deliver it and a general sense that it is difficult to do. This is perhaps because, in the words of Daniel Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology, “you can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.”
A purely rote-learning focus, therefore, particularly in subjects like history, religion and citizenship, without also building critical analytical skills, means that young people are not equipped to challenge simplistic ideologies. Recent research suggests that learning how to think has an inoculative effect on the susceptibility of intelligent young people to extremist narratives. Incorporating opportunities for critical thinking into the classroom requires school leaders to value and protect space for it in schedules. It is this top-down leadership that is needed to develop and sustain cultures of dialogue and openness in school environments. Parents should also be brought into the conversation to ensure that understanding of the importance of these skills reaches beyond the classroom into the wider community.
The University of Exeter’s evaluation of Generation Global found a statistically significant improvement in participating students’ open-mindedness, including critical thinking, and attitudes towards others who are different (see figures 1 and 2). Importantly, the evaluation revealed a marked decrease in open-mindedness among the nonparticipating students in the control group.
Figure 1: Students’ Open-Mindedness
Analysis of participants’ language also showed a clear shift in the direction of increased open-mindedness and awareness of complexity, for example shifting away from “us and them”. The case studies suggested the programme has substantial potential for a transformative effect on teachers, students and whole classes, although it identified that more research is needed to understand what combination of activities has most impact, and in what contexts.
Figure 2: Students’ Attitudes Towards Difference
Global learning about how to best integrate skills that cultivate critical thinking and open-mindedness needs to be shared across countries and across government departments. Many of the challenges to policy reform differ among countries, so governments and research institutions need to work closely to come up with innovative education solutions to extremism that thrives in their contexts.
There is a wealth of literature that identifies best practice for teaching resources that educate against extremism. Good practice includes opportunities for students to have safe and authentic encounters with others who are different from them, to explore a range of perspectives and difficult subjects, to critically examine values and identity, to navigate nuance and ambiguity, and to construct evidence-based arguments to present their perspectives. The challenge lies in applying these lessons consistently at scale in different national education systems and contexts around the world.
Textbooks set the tone for education systems in general, and many fail to address real-world problems facing students and fail to support teachers sufficiently to talk about them. In our Institute’s programmatic work, we regularly hear from teachers around the world that they are unsure how to deal with difficult topics such as violent extremism and terrorism in the classroom, or how to access existing resources to help them. Teachers need to be better supported with pedagogical tools, training and opportunities in the school environment to facilitate dialogue with students who want to talk about difficult or contentious issues. These resources need to be assessed consistently, accurately and without bias to ensure they are fair, accurate and respectful.
The inclusion of resources and whole-school approaches that specifically target extremism has sometimes proven controversial, but it is critical to overcome this perceived toxification of the countering violent extremism agenda to start talking frankly about extremism and other difficult issues. Young people cannot always be sheltered from extremist narratives, especially in digital spaces, but they can be prepared to recognise and refute them.
Prior studies have often emphasised the presence of overt prejudice and discrimination in some mandated national textbooks. Our research shows that while such material continues to exist and should be rigorously excluded, the challenges raised by textbooks are often more complex, with textbooks characterised more by omissions and ambiguity on contentious topics than by explicit prejudice.
It is important that institutions engage in active reflection on the content of texts. This was well articulated in the Marrakesh Declaration, a statement signed in January 2016 by more than 300 Muslim scholars and politicians, who called for “Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism.” A similarly open and reflective approach should be enacted across all religions and cultures—particularly where these have a strong influence on the educational space.
Furthermore, not all countries have the necessary resources to deliver student-centred learning. The OECD’s emphasis on educational reforms calls for education for enhanced skills and positive attitudes. But the need for adequate teacher training to support the development of these skill sets is not yet widely implemented. For example, the OECD’s research demonstrates that UK teachers agree with statements like “Thinking and reasoning is more important than curriculum content” and “Students learn best by finding solutions on their own”, yet the UK has a high prevalence of memorisation as a classroom activity.
Even in countries where the training, resources and pedagogical culture exist to support a student-centred approach to acquiring 21st-century skills, best practice does not always happen. Our Institute’s research found that while many of the key issues are present in education strategy documents, there are clear discrepancies between ministry agendas and classroom realities. This means that reform that looks good on paper is not having much impact in practice.
Cultural attitudes to teaching vary hugely. For some, the profession is seen as the most crucial mechanism for the flourishing of future generations. But in many circumstances, teaching is not viewed with prestige, affecting how proactively teachers engaged with the task of developing young minds. Schemes such as the UK’s Teach First and the US programme Teach for America are aimed at increasing the prestige of teaching for top graduates. But globally, there is a need for greater acknowledgement—in both the public and the professional sphere—of the centrality of education for building open-mindedness in young people.
Our research found that where teaching for tolerance and critical thinking does take place, there is enormous variance in quality and impact among regions and even individual teachers. This is reinforced by the evaluation of Generation Global, which found that schools demonstrating increased open-mindedness and attitudes towards others had particularly passionate teachers who expressed concern for both better teaching and changing the world. These teachers could point to specific examples of how the programme incited social action in their students, for example in reaching out to newly arrived Syrian refugees in their towns.
However, teachers often struggle to develop critical thinking in ways that are relevant to students’ experiences, and they are often scared to engage with contentious issues that students want to explore. The urgency of teaching that transmits values is undermined by a top-down emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy and a bottom-up concern from teachers about how values should be taught.
Similar challenges exist with online education when it comes to preparing young people to be critical and informed consumers and producers of online content. Teachers are often ill-prepared to do this, because they lack the background and experience to support their young people, who can be vulnerable to encountering dangerous narratives online.
Learning by memorisation is a strong part of educational culture in many countries. Rote-learning approaches were common in our research into global education systems, particularly in countries with large class sizes or where cultural attitudes to authority are upheld in hierarchical structures in the classroom. This is exacerbated by teaching styles in many countries covered by our research that prioritise memorisation of topics to pass exams over engagement with issues and cultivation of independent thought. This style of teaching requires students to be passive, uncritical consumers of ideas.
Exam success is an important part of a well-organised school system. But when exams are presented as having intrinsic rather than instrumental value, students are pushed towards a narrow application of knowledge, which can curtail development of critical thinking. The skills and experiences essential to building resilience against extremist narratives are often excluded from education systems through pressure on teachers to teach to the test. Whether education is primarily economic and market-driven or framed around character development, the development of intercultural literacy skills is hugely significant in a globalised world.
Adequate teacher training is essential for successful implementation of educational reform. Teachers faced with discriminatory material might deal with the content differently, with one using it to critique ideas and another to push a biased agenda. Training needs to take place both before service and through ongoing professional development, but it also needs to put an onus on teachers to help their students acquire these skills as part of good professional practice. At the most fundamental level, training needs to take teachers beyond didactic teaching methods and reliance on rote learning, teaching modern practices that encourage skills of dialogue—communication, active listening, critical thinking, questioning and reflection—and open-mindedness.
Professional development for teachers can be a challenge in many countries, often complicated by pressure to rapidly produce a large cohort of trained teachers to cope with demand from demographic changes. Governments need to ensure that training contains an emphasis on how good teachers teach, as well as what they teach. In many countries, this situation is further complicated by an increased number of routes into teaching and many different approaches to achieving qualified teacher status. Ensuring parity of access to a range of pedagogical styles is critical. Cultivating these skills must be reinforced by standardisation and inspections across both formal and informal systems.
Our experience of training teachers through Generation Global demonstrates a clear demand for these tools. In the Middle East, for example, school principals have requested training for their entire staff having seen the impact after a handful of teachers were trained. In Italy, the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research has worked with our Institute since 2011 and has developed a substantial teacher-training initiative that has worked with over 2,000 Italian teachers, training them to develop the skills of dialogue and critical thinking with their students. The ministry has also initiated Rete Dialogues, its own network of teachers, to provide excellent professional development, a repository of teaching materials, a community for sharing best practice, and a laboratory for research and trialling new initiatives.
These examples demonstrate the potential for embedding these approaches and practices in an entire education system. Prioritising approaches such as these in initial teacher training is the best route to ensure they are firmly embedded in the fundamental skill set of educators. These practices need to be championed and supported by the policymakers who shape educational practice to ensure accountability and commitment. They also need to be valued and demanded by teachers themselves, with teachers recognising the centrality of their role in preventing extremism and intolerance from taking root in their students and from spreading in the classroom. Education systems need to more explicitly acknowledge the role of the teacher in developing open-mindedness in young people.
To achieve systemic change, education policymakers and practitioners need to move beyond rhetoric and a shared articulation of concern. Where examples of good practice exist, governments and educational institutions need to invest in more research and evaluation to better understand what works, in what circumstances and for whom. While this policy briefing focuses on secondary schools, based on our operational experience, these arguments also have considerable relevance to primary and tertiary education.
The ideas outlined in this briefing have clear implications for policymakers considering how to optimise the ability of education systems to address the challenges of extremism and help young people build personal resilience against extremist messaging. Governments and policymakers need to collaborate with a wide network of other organisations to create sustainable educational environments to prepare students for a globalised world. These efforts should focus on the recommendations for the three reform areas outlined in this briefing: enhancing curricula, emphasising appropriate resources, and supporting teachers with empowering and inspiring training that cultivates best practice.
The narrative of quality basic education must echo the call in UNESCO’s 2015 Incheon Declaration for the explicit inclusion of global education in any meaningful definition of ‘quality’. Governments and practitioners should continue to expand and promote a definition of quality basic education that includes developing global competencies in the classroom.
As outlined in our Institute’s evaluation report, Measuring Open-Mindedness, there is an urgent need for further research to understand more deeply how education can be a sustainable and cost-effective tool for addressing extremism. A number of unanswered questions from the field need to be explored through research that identifies the most effective drivers of positive attitudinal and behavioural change, as well as exploring the ways in which different interventions—and a range of school cultures and external influences—drive and shape them. One of the greatest needs is for longitudinal studies that examine the extent to which interventions with young people persist, or not, in adult life.
Generation Global has operated for over eight years, reaching over 330,000 students aged 12 to 17 in over 2,500 schools and training over 9,000 teachers. Over 2,500 facilitated videoconferences and 500 moderated online dialogues between students from some 50 countries have taken place. The programme aims to build a generation of students who are at ease with difference and confident in navigating diverse religions, beliefs and cultures peacefully.
The programme’s theory of change posits that developing open-mindedness and positive attitudes towards others builds young people’s resilience to extremism. It assumes that in open minds, there is less opportunity for misconceptions and negative stereotypes to take root, and therefore less vulnerability to radicalisation.
Generation Global is centred on a range of flexible classroom resources that support teachers to cultivate skills in their students in a supportive environment that encourages students to explore and challenge ideas. The programme’s distinctive offer is its combination of practical classroom materials and direct encounters with others that offer opportunities for students to have their views heard and valued. For many students, this is the first time in a school context that they have been asked what they think or have listened to views of others with whom they may not agree.
Generation Global offers a range of student-centred activities that build global competencies, including dialogue, critical thinking, and religious and cultural literacy, as well as the opportunity to put these skills into practice in safe spaces through facilitated online videoconferencing and moderated online dialogue. The lessons are based on a practical classroom approach to dialogue developed by educators that provides a series of experiential techniques that enable the acquisition of these skills. The programme’s topics are designed to equip students to engage with challenging issues of identity and culture, both with others around the world and in their own communities.
Schools use the resources in their own classrooms or connect with other schools in their locality through face-to-face meetings. A pilot project based on a student-led approach to this community dialogue is currently being developed in collaboration with the New York School Board. Other opportunities exist to practise these skills with local or global partners through digital dialogue via our online community.
If you have any questions or are interested in learning more about Generation Global, please contact Dr Ian Jamison, head of education and training at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, at email@example.com.