Today the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change launches a policy briefing that calls on policymakers to better prepare young people to guard against the dangers of radicalisation and build resilience to extremist narratives. Our recommendations focus on three key areas of education systems in which reforms are needed: curricula, resources and teaching.
As a former teacher, I have been privileged to spend the last ten years working on the Institute’s Generation Global programme. Working in over 40 countries, Generation Global provides teachers with practical classroom tools to build resilience in their students. We do this by developing skills of dialogue and critical thinking and by giving them opportunities to practise these skills with their global peers through technology-enabled interactions.
Over the last decade, by facilitating dialogues between students and by training teachers around the world, we have been inspired by the human faces behind the learnings and recommendations set out in today’s policy briefing. We have heard the stories of teachers, students and parents whose lives are affected by this work, and we use this experience to shape the programme. Evaluations of this kind of soft-power approach to dealing with extremism also reveal that they are both less costly and more effective than hard-security methods.
Through our teacher training, it is clear that there is a real hunger in the classroom for this kind of approach. Teachers see their students struggling to navigate the differences that they encounter on a daily basis—in their classroom, in the media or online. This struggle can make young people see things in black and white and feel less comfortable with the shades of grey in between.
In too many cases, schools do not prepare students to deal with difference; they approach the topic with misunderstanding, prejudice and fear. These approaches are all too easily exploited by those who promote extremist narratives. Teachers who want to give students a more open-minded approach to difference find that the combination of effective classroom activities to deliver skills and the opportunity for direct encounters with others through Generation Global is transformational.
Over the last decade, by facilitating dialogues between students and by training teachers around the world, we have been inspired by the human faces behind the learnings and recommendations.
Through Generation Global’s facilitated dialogue, young people work together to address the misconceptions they may have about one another, and they do not shy away from asking difficult questions that adults often avoid. This Jordanian student recalls a discussion about extremist violence during a dialogue with students in India:
We are always taught in school and home that violence is never the answer, [that we should] never desire anything bad or cruel to happen to a friend and [that we should] respect the elderly. In the end, we came to a conclusion that if one person or one group does something corrupt in the name of the religion, that doesn’t make the whole religion corrupt.
The Indian students in this dialogue had a preconceived understanding of life in the Middle East based on media images that portray the entire region as a battlefield and every Muslim as a terrorist. This direct encounter with their peers from the region was invaluable in helping them to confront and abandon some of their prejudices, and start to cultivate more informed insight.
During one videoconference between the UK and Pakistan that I facilitated, Pakistani students confidently asserted that in the UK, the practice of Islam was illegal, there were no Mosques and Muslims were oppressed. A British-Pakistani student refuted these misunderstandings, and for those in Pakistan, it was hearing this spontaneously from a person of their own age that brought power to the delivery of the message.
The global dialogues give many students a rare chance to have their voices heard, so that their perspectives and views can be shared with the world. Many young people are frustrated with misunderstandings about their experiences, and they embrace the opportunity to set the record straight.
Practising these skills not only helps young people to be more confident in the way that they address difference in their classrooms, but it also has a knock-on effect on the relationships they have with each other and with their teachers.
In preparation for these encounters, young people work with their teachers through a set of classroom activities that cultivate the skills of dialogue, including critical thinking. This is important because school systems are often about giving information rather than providing young people with a space in which to talk about their ideas and experiences. As one student in Palestine observed,
I liked this training because it’s the first time I get asked what my challenges are, and get to talk about what happens with me, in class.
Practising these skills not only helps young people to be more confident in the way that they address difference in their classrooms, but it also has a knock-on effect on the relationships they have with each other and with their teachers. As their confidence grows, they become more engaged—with their global peers and with their classmates and teachers.
Teachers also find that practising these skills changes the way they teach, making them more interactive. They find themselves being pushed by their students, not only to take part in dialogues, but also to explore new levels of engagement in classroom practice. This Indian teacher shares a common experience:
During the discussion after the videoconference, my students were insistent about being absolutely open and frank in talking about themselves and also about the country. They said even if the points they raise sound negative, it has to be voiced out in order to share and learn. I felt that was really a good attitude towards open dialogue.
Many school systems and individual teachers can be nervous about addressing contentious issues. But discussing challenging topics enables students to embrace the culture of honesty that lies at the heart of respect for others. This respect, in turn, is necessary for effective dialogue, because it provides space for frank exchanges that let people ask probing questions about others’ beliefs, and let people express things that are difficult for them to say. Creating this space for young people is what Generation Global is all about.