Question everything: How open debate can combat extremism in schools

Analysis of more than 20 international initiatives reveals that allowing pupils to question radicalisation issues is an effective preventive measure

Fadia S is believed to have lived in Raqqa with her family. AP
Fadia S is believed to have lived in Raqqa with her family. AP

Teachers should be engaging in tough love and debate with pupils to combat extremism, security experts say.

A new report showed that encouraging youngsters to question radicalisation issues was more effective than telling children to treat each other nicely.

Researchers analysed more than 20 international education initiatives aimed at preventing violent extremism.

The paper by defence think tank Royal United Services Institute urged teachers not to shy away from challenging issues.

“Education initiatives can only address a limited range of concerns but, carefully designed, [they] can play a role to make students more resilient to radicalisation efforts,” Claudia Wallner, a terrorism and conflict researcher at the institute, said.

“We do have evidence from existing interventions that, if done right, certain approaches can make students aware of certain types of extremism and make them more resilient to recruitment and radicalisation.

“Education initiatives can be effective at targeting some extremism. Germany chose the approach to dealing with its own historical legacy by debating the government’s part in past human rights issues.

"It is relevant as many countries start to deal with their own racist history, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Improving the ability [of youngsters] to critically evaluate and see through world views and binary narrative by debating topics openly takes the power away from extremists.”

However, Ms Wallner said her analysis revealed that flawed initiatives could fuel hate.

“We also found poorly designed and managed interventions can create more harm than good and help radicalisation if specific groups are targeted by the intervention,” she said.

Prof Lynn Davies from the University of Birmingham specialises in how education can be used to combat extremism and said encouraging children to speak openly about topics built their “resilience and confidence”.

“What doesn’t work in terms of trying to prevent extremism is just telling kids to love each other and to be nice or respect each other – that is not enough in building resilience,” she said.

“What doesn’t work is saying ‘do not say that’, ‘do not mention extremism’.

"You have to let children express everything, even if it is very uncomfortable. Let children question everything is the key message.”

Ms Davies, whose work has reached 83,000 pupils and teachers in 20 countries, she said it was important for teachers to be aware of current issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the so-called fake news extremists use in their radicalisation techniques.

“There are links between extremism, knife crime, grooming and racism,” she said.

“Someone might start in a violent gang and switch to religious extremism and it is understanding this trajectory. [Educators need to] look at how extremists are capitalising on current events like Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter and understand how current events get diverted into support for extremist movements.

“We speak to former extremists and they share how they went into movements and how they were misled in terms of what happened.”

Ms Davies said the most successful initiatives were delivered by people with “huge credibility” among youngsters, such as former extremists or youth workers.

Updated: July 22, 2020 08:54 PM

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