Holding effective discussions with children around extremism means not only having a broad vocabulary to talk about the range of related issues, but also challenging concerning beliefs.
It can be difficult to tackle discussions on beliefs concerning extremism. But what constitutes a concerning belief, and how can teachers challenge toxic narratives or inappropriate comments whilst remaining culturally sensitive and celebrating differences?
Identifying warning signs
While there’s no prescriptive list of concerning beliefs that you should look to address in the classroom, there are some characteristics which may present grounds for concern. You’re encouraged to use your own judgement as to whether a view might be a warning sign of, or lead to extreme modes of thinking, but here are a few things to look out for:
- Excusing violence in service of a set of aims
- Spreading and endorsing a false narrative of contemporary politics and recent history
- Intolerance towards people of all or certain faiths; or blatant discrimination based on gender, sexuality, etc
- Hostility to alternative views and denying the legitimacy of counter arguments
- Undermining the authority of democratic institutions and systems e.g. parliament, the rule of law
- Favouring certain ethnicities, nationalities or religious beliefs, while denying the rights of those perceived as the “other”
The last point can be particularly dangerous, especially when expressed during a mainstream political discussion – like debates around immigration and welfare.
It’s important to remember that though extremist voices may promote some conventional viewpoints, their core principles remain opposed to fundamental British values and at odds with universal rights and freedoms. It’s this philosophy which conversations in the classroom must seek to challenge.
Challenging beliefs sensitively
An understandable concern for some teachers is that attempts to confront beliefs concerning extremism in the classroom might be misinterpreted as an accusation of radicalisation.
However, there are simple ways you can ensure that extreme points of view are challenged impartially and non-judgementally while avoiding negative interpretations. These include:
- Demonstrating the overlap that exists between different types of concerning beliefs. For example, fear and hatred of minorities (a common tenant of far-right ideology) and the desire to establish a caliphate in the UK (a common tenant of Islamist ideology). Though they are drawn from different ideological traditions, both beliefs are underscored by an intolerant attitude towards different ways of thinking, living and believing
- Using examples – like Nazi propaganda used in WWII and the crimes committed against European Jewish communities – to demonstrate the link between intolerant beliefs, language and acts of hate and violence
- Using news articles, case studies or stories to demonstrate how the spread of extremist voices and beliefs negatively impact communities
- Presenting contrasting examples of local community cohesion and unity, highlighting the principles which underscore positive civil society
- Ensuring that discussions are age-appropriate. Use your judgement as to what is suitable for your pupils and consider ways of guiding the discussion to make it more relatable to them.
Creating a safe environment to discuss controversial topics
Most important of all is creating a safe place for discussion, whether inside or outside the classroom. For students to feel free to discuss ideas and controversial issues openly, the classroom environment must be as inclusive as possible of all points of view. This necessitates the establishment of clear expectations and ground rules and may require you to intervene to:
- Ensure that one individual or group does not dominate
- Guarantee that a range of views are voiced and encouraged
- Promote the development of curiosity and critical questioning skills
- Sense check complex views when they are expressed (“I heard you saying…”)
- Ensure that pupils challenge one another’s beliefs respectfully and productively (“I find that worrying because,” as opposed to “you’re ignorant and wrong”)
If you identify a situation that requires intervention, it would be most appropriate to address the pupil outside of the classroom, to mitigate any feelings of being singled out. Also, you may find Essentials of Dialogue a useful resource. It offers a broad range of ready-to-use materials. These include comprehensive briefings and practical tips for facilitating debate; and activities designed to help pupils gain awareness of the influences which inform our belief system and acquire a respectful language of debate.
For further support and practical tools for conducting safeguarding, visit our Teachers’ hub.