There are increasing references to the importance of developing ‘critical thinking’ to prevent the likelihood of vulnerable individuals falling victim to radicalisation. With this, there appears to be a greater pressure on those regularly in contact with young people such as, teachers and youth workers to help foster this. Undoubtedly, educational settings create the perfect opportunity to speak about issues related to radicalisation and terrorism, whilst developing these fundamental life skills. However, many practitioners may find this a daunting prospect and are unsure about simply how to go about doing so. It might be that you feel unknowledgeable within the field, or you simply don’t want to ‘open a can of worms’. Not talking about it, could create more ‘elephants in the room’ and even push young people to seek alternative and less safe spaces to explore and consolidate their ideas. Whilst I do not profess to have all the answers to confront this challenging expectation – on top of the endless teaching and social welfare pressures – I would like to propose 5 working steps to help build confidence of facilitators and strengthen the quality of discussions in the classroom.

  1. Establish ground rules

Before starting a discussion relating to any sensitive or controversial issue, it is important to establish ‘ground rules’ within the class. Ask the students to consider what rules will ensure an open yet respectful environment for discussion. This might start with basic suggestions such as ‘don’t talk over each other’, ‘consider other opinions to your own’, before confronting more complex questions such as, ‘how do we disagree or challenge each other?’; ‘are there any limits of confidentiality?’. It is worth spending some time on this to affirm the importance of creating shared values and prepare students for the type of discussion they are about to embark on. Throughout the main discussion, you may refer to the ground rules to check the class is maintaining their initial agreement. At the end, it is useful to reflect and evaluate if there is anything the class could do to improve or if there need to be some additional caveats within the ground rules. Encouraging students to be critical of their own behaviour, as well as that of the group, helps to foster a more responsible and collaborative climate for learning.

  1. Approach the subject with maturity

It might feel as though just saying the word ‘terrorism’ comes across as abrupt or even crass. There may be some students who are unfamiliar with the concept and even less likely to be aware of types of terrorist groups or attacks, hence you are apprehensive about starting to pull back this veil of ignorance. However, rather than treating the topic as a taboo, or skirting around uncomfortable truths, it must be confronted head on. Using the ground rules exercise to be explicit about the potentially sensitive or challenging nature of the topic can assist with this. Acknowledging this from the outset, creates a mature atmosphere, which students are then more likely to naturally mirror. One important thing we have learnt from delivering our SAFE workshops is that, age does not necessarily positively correlate with a better understanding or wisdom around this topic. Some of the most insightful comments have come from our younger students. This being the case, we need to be careful not to make any assumptions about the levels of understanding within the classroom and mistakenly oversimplify the topic of discussion. Instead, take a litmus test; ask the students questions to get a sense of what is pertinent to them and what their sources of information are and take the discussion from here.

  1. Let go of ‘correct answers’

A possible reason why terrorism can be a daunting topic, is because we are not always sure we have the ‘correct answers’ to any one of those ‘dreaded’ questions students might ask. Firstly, it is important to affirm this is OK; this is not a simple question/answer exercise, rather such questions demand ongoing discussion with applied critical thinking. In our workshops, one of the points we start with is that the definition of radicalisation is widely disputed by experts, planting the idea that perhaps no one has the ultimate, definitive, correct answer! As a facilitator, you should provide a range of evidence from a variety of sources for students to navigate through. In this sense, consider your role as more supportive; you are required to facilitate, not necessarily instruct. This reinforces the complexity of the topic and challenges students to use reasoning and judgement in a much lengthier process to arrive at a better, shared understanding; one that is open to ongoing assessment and re-evaluation.

  1. Remember you are there to learn also

This directly follows on from the point above; letting go of the pressure to provide correct answers, allows facilitators to become an equal and more active part of the explorative discussion. This challenges the normative teacher/student dynamic, whereby students seek validation specifically from the perceived authority figure; in other words, it discourages students from looking for the ‘correct answers’. Alternatively, adopting a more egalitarian and democratic approach directly empowers student voices and forces them to actively engage their critical faculties to produce more considered and authentic contributions. You may have to explicitly state that you are unsure and encourage students that you would like to hear their thoughts and views. To assist with this, carefully devise questions that will provoke a response and refer to the ground rules to affirm that they are in a safe and open environment. Once their confidence has been built in this setting, prepare to be overwhelmed by the insight and interpretations of your students!

  1. Provide opportunities for further discussion

Lastly, time is always an issue, however it is important not to treat this as a ‘tick box’ exercise. This is not a topic that can be covered in one setting; especially if done properly, you should find that you have more to discuss than when you started. It is useful to assign one or a couple of students the responsibility to scribe during the discussion, to keep a record of some of points made. This then helps to identify what were the main points of interest or contention to return to at a later date; again, allowing the students to dictate the direction of the discussion is an empowering technique. It is likely that the discussion will take a course that you did not anticipate or perhaps even will appear tenuous or far removed from the original topic of radicalisation and terrorism. Go with it! Ultimately, value and progress derive from finding and talking about what is meaningful to them.

These working steps are based on aspects of a philosophical enquiry approach, utilised in our SAFE workshops aimed at 14-18 year olds. We hope that by developing the thinking and questioning skills, students build the resilience to not blindly follow the narratives set by extremists. For more information please contact us.