By Kate Hollinshead: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two weeks ago I delivered a workshop on critical thinking with year 5 pupils in a primary school in East London. At the beginning of the workshop, we played a game where groups of young people had to decide who they would and would not like to invite to a dinner party out of 12 potential dinner guests we gave to them in envelopes. After they made their decisions, the pupils gave their reasons for their choices and I wrote these up on their whiteboard. Below is a photograph of their answers.
They believed that the Black man who grew up in Somalia could be a kidnapper and dangerous, a Muslim from Bradford wouldn’t speak English and could start wars, the woman from Iran is from a strange country and throws bombs around, a Spanish immigrant would threaten us, and a woman who fled to the UK from Kosovo as a child was not invited to dinner because “there are enough foreigners in our country and they are taking our jobs.”
While the quantity of answers like this, and the number of young people in the class in agreement with the statements, made this workshop stand out from others, the sentiments themselves are heard regularly by EqualiTeach’s team of workshop facilitators across the UK, in diverse as well as non-diverse settings. During the same workshop in a primary school in North London last week, a 10 year old Muslim girl with Somalian parents asked ‘why would anyone want to invite an immigrant?’ before proudly saying that she’s not an immigrant when other children in the class were sharing where they had been born.
We now live in a world of Brexit and the increased profile of hate crime it has bought with it; Trump and the appointment of White supremacists into the White House; the rise of far-right groups across Europe, most notably in France, Austria and the Netherlands; and the murder of MP Jo Cox for supporting the plight of refugees and welcoming immigration into the UK. Prejudicial attitudes such as those above are nothing new, but the events of 2016 have legitimised them, increasing people’s willingness to vocalise, and even act, on them. Indeed, data released by the National Police Chiefs Council shows that the number of far-right referrals under the Prevent agenda in England and Wales has increased by 74% from 323 cases in 2014-15 to 561 cases in 2015-16. In Yorkshire far-right extremism accounts for half of all cases referred to Prevent, and 30% in the East Midlands. Far-right sentiments are no longer in the shadows, highlighting the need for young people to be given the opportunity to engage in open dialogue about the far-right and its counter-narratives in the classroom. Often, when discussions about extreme views do take place, the focus is firmly placed upon Islamic extremism, perpetuating a false idea that extremism and religion are intrinsically linked and that this is only an issue to tackle in certain communities or certain countries. That’s not to say lots of great work exploring the far right isn’t happening, it certainly is – under the Prevent agenda, under SMSC education and community cohesion duties in schools. However, the far right is a growing threat in the UK, and we must ensure that all classrooms are safe spaces for these discussions. While groups such as the National Front, the British National Party, and the English Defence League traditionally acted as ‘umbrella’ organisations for far right attitudes, in today’s world the far right movement is much more fragmented, and has been normalised and galvanised by recent events, meaning that challenging the ideology is extremely important, but much more difficult. The far right are no longer just skinheads, wearing doc martens and military gear, but men in suits, everyday citizens, neighbours, friends and family. So, how do we explain this to young people?
In a year 8 classroom in Hackney, an entirely different conversation is happening. Young people are shocked to learn about the existence of far-right groups in the UK, including those such as Britain First and the English Defence League. ‘Is this group real, miss?’ asks one young person, ‘How do they get away with it, why aren’t the police doing anything?’ asks another. Whilst these young people were not shocked about the existence of racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiment in Britain, indeed some of them have experienced this first-hand, they were surprised at how prejudicial attitudes and behaviours can escalate if left unchallenged and how people can organise around such attitudes. Prior to this discussion, some of these young people had dismissed the damaging impact of believing in stereotypes and thought that they were ‘just a bit of fun.’ For these young people, making the connections between accepting stereotypes about groups of people and the idea that newspapers and the internet ‘mostly tell the truth’, and understanding how far-right extreme groups manifest in a climate of prejudicial attitudes, legitimised hatred and ‘post-truth’, is an important discovery and paramount to preventing young people’s involvement in the escalation of hate.
However, critical thinking education does not end with young people; teachers must also be equipped with the confidence, knowledge and skills to question the legitimacy of their sources and the accuracy of the information which they pass on to their classes. A teacher recently queried me when I told a group of young people that a statistic was inaccurate. She told me that I had given them the wrong information because it was ‘almost accurate’ and that the figure ‘had just been rounded up.’ I thought that this was a strange ideal to strive towards, and that teaching young people that ‘half-truths’ are worth investing in can have very real consequences for the type and quality of information they choose to believe in. Indeed, Facebook has recently been criticised for helping to spread misinformation and fake news stories that influenced how the American electorate voted in the US Presidential elections, and that false information was deliberately being spread on Facebook in order to sway voters. This serves as evidence, if we needed it, of how important it is that we all think critically about the information we receive from all sources, whether that be social media, traditional media, friends, teachers or family. We must understand that information can be changed accidentally or on purpose, using techniques such as bias and exaggeration, and the reasons why this information can be changed; that our opinions must be underpinned by fact; and the consequences of allowing false information to go unchallenged. We only have to look at the election of Trump and the murder of Jo Cox to see clearly the consequences of acting upon false information.
And, as is evident from the photo above, this work needs to start from an early age. When even very young children ask questions about sensitive or controversial issues, it is important not to just shut the conversation down, but allow them the opportunity to discuss issues at an age appropriate level. Children must also be given opportunities to explore similarities and differences between people, whether these be skin colour, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, family structures or disabilities. Even very young children can be given the opportunities to explore these issues in numerous ways, including persona dolls, stories, role play, mixing paints or using tights to find exact skin colour matches and having external visitors to the school, all paving the way for more in-depth and challenging work on acceptance further up the school. Parents and carers can be invited into the school to share different aspects of their home lives with the children, whether that involves reading stories in two different languages, sharing food, music or art. Young people must be taught the dangers of stereotyping, and given an alternative view to those given in news outlets or on social media. One young person in year 8 recently asked me what 9/11 was, an important and timely reminder that the young people now entering secondary school were born into this recent climate of terrorism and fear after this significant event occurred and that young people, who haven’t been given the opportunity to discuss issues will find it difficult to put world events into context. In a similar way, I notice how the KKK are often described as sounding like other-worldly ‘baddies’ in a superhero film, descriptions not rooted in the reality of human suffering. Discussions about all forms of extremism are important; our young people do not live in a bubble and are already accessing information about extremist acts and groups, often on the internet and social media, and this can be extremely distorted. Google’s autocomplete function has recently come under criticism for throwing up hateful responses when half-typing in a question. For example, Google’s first suggestion for the end of the question, ‘are Jews…’ is ‘evil.’ Clicking on this reveals ten websites which all suggest that the answer to this is yes. Google defends this by saying that the results are a reflection of content across the web, perhaps highlighting a much darker and more pervasive problem across web content; and according to Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College London, the ordering of search results does influence people’s political perspective.
Educators are therefore in an extremely important position to be able to instigate safe, open and constructive conversations about events in our world, ensuring that they are taught and discussed with sensitivity and empathy and rooted in history and reality. Educators must allow young people to see beyond Facebook ‘news’ and Google search results and look for evidence and facts to inform their understanding and views of the world. Alongside this, reasoning and enquiring questions, such as ‘how do you know that?’, ‘why do you believe that?’ and ‘have you thought of the consequences of believing that?’ can have very real power in allowing a young person to dissect their thought process and change or adapt their perspectives. When educating in a safe space, we must not panic on hearing prejudicial attitudes or immediately stifle or shut down debate, but be grateful when young people share their prejudices, as this is often no easy thing to do and can signal the beginning of their journey towards critical thinking and understanding the importance of fact over fiction. At EqualiTeach, we have created a guide to equip teachers with the confidence and skills to create effective conversations with young people on controversial and sensitive issues, which available to download free of charge from our website.