*Blog originally written January 2022 but updated in light of recent escalation of conflict starting October 2023

Working in classrooms or with young people, you’ll know the feeling.   A young person tells you or mentions in passing their opinion about a controversial, divisive and sometimes painful issue, and expects a response. When conflict escalates in Palestine and Israel it can ripple in our classrooms as young students try to respond to matters that are quickly unfolding on their screens and on the news. Should educators and parents react? And if so, how? Together, Professor Lynn Davies and Carys Evans, have developed what we think are the ‘Top 10 Tips for facilitating difficult conversations in classrooms’ to support you in this process.

But first, the recent weeks of conflict pose numerous challenges to those of us working with young people. While there are no quick solutions to how we individually and collectively navigate these challenges, the team has drawn up some immediate considerations, which may be impacting educators and practitioners right now, and some broader techniques which can help aid sensitive approaches to challenging conversations.

RIGHT NOW

  • Law: It is crucial to provide young people and communities the knowledge they need to make agentic decisions. This is a core action and at its most simple involves informing people of the law within this country. It is illegal to engage with any content or behaviour related to proscribed groups – prison sentences are known consequences of this behaviour. Critically, in relation to the current conflict, Hamas in its entirety is a proscribed group in the UK
  • Hate: Avoid and/or safely challenge sweeping, generalising or essentialising statements about any single group of people, explaining there is no group of people who are all the same with the same ideas, values, or goals. Generalising like this can lead to harmful prejudices including Islamophobia and antisemitism developing or being legitimised. 
  • Trauma: The digital space is creating a front for conflict that young people are witnessing and engaging with, including highly graphic, traumatic images that are difficult to avoid even on mainstream platforms. As part of trauma-informed practice, it is crucial that we are sensitive to this, checking the well-being of the young people with whom we work, acknowledging that the content online related to this conflict is especially graphic and difficult to see, and even more so if you feel in some way tied to what is happening. 

We can explain that the way all conflict is reported is changing in nature with the impact of social media and that the input of algorithms often shows us the worst, most violent, most shocking images because this is what gets the most views and shares. It is also a way through which emotions are utilised in conflict, in particular to generate support for ‘sides’. When a young person expresses a position for a ’side’, this is not necessarily something we should shut down. We should discourage generalisations related to their political position, however. “The other side” is not a whole group of people, nor a single institution that governs how populations and individuals behave. The language of ‘sides’ can be generalising, and otherising, and this is something we want to avoid. 

THE LONGER-TERM PICTURE

Professor Lynn writes….

The challenge of teaching controversial issues has a long history.  There are many excellent resources, such as Parallel Histories or Facing History and Ourselves which use past and current conflicts to generate discussion on competing viewpoints and interpretations of events.   International projects in Integrative Complexity from Scotland and Northern Ireland to Kenya and Pakistan, use ‘hot topics’ to generate debate and try to change the structure of thinking from binary to multiple perspectivity, to show how apparently contrasting values can find common ground or enable people to ‘live well together’.  Philosophy for Children is another impressive programme for children of all ages, using an enquiry based approach to explore values and to accept ‘you don’t always have to be right’.  In schools that have used these and similar resources, ideally young people will have been exposed to habits of seeing more than one version of events.  Ideally, they’ll have learned the disciplines of debate and respect.  In that respect, they’ll be comfortable with living with ambiguity and seeing one’s firmly held ideas as revisable, while retaining a core of values to assess current issues.  Yet there are always new and unpredictable events which generate strong, one-sided views which cannot always be reduced to arguments for compromise or respect.

There are also new ‘offences’.  We’ve seen how attempts to teach anti-racism, or anti-semitism or Islamophobia through depiction of images, cartoons and propaganda can generate claims of individual or community offence.  The national context may be crucial: does a government actually want young people to see both sides, preferring to designate a group as proscribed or terrorist or blasphemous or traitorous?  Or does a government in contrast prefer to promote absolute even-handedness in the interests of religious or political harmony (what we used to call the ‘Let’s hear it now for the Attila the Hun’ approach)?   Yet schools have a duty to enable young people to understand the complex roots of conflict and responsibility for conflict as well as to learn a sense of agency.  Should, as has happened across UK, schools sanction students for taking sides, for example, for showing pro-Palestinian solidarity? Is it possible to ‘see both sides’ when there are apparent asymmetrical power relations?

We know that extremist groups will use every opportunity to whip up hatred, to bring a distant conflict nearer to home by portraying it as an attack on their religion generally, or, in the far right, by portraying a rise in refugees and asylum seekers as an incursion on British nationality.  Existing resources may or may not be useful in tackling some new unforeseen eventuality.  As always, teachers must be prepared.

Carys Evans writes..

So, how do we think about these conversations in classrooms at ConnectFutures? We’ve developed our list of Top 10 Tips on facilitating difficult conversations in schools, colleges, and classrooms. These tips are based on our research and experience and borne from the belief that teachers and educators have the skills and desire to engage in these topics. I’ve been working with young people in formal and informal education settings for 10 years. Some of the most engaging and rewarding youth work I’ve done has been when facilitating peer-to-peer learning through difficult conversations. Our contemporary context makes this seem a daunting task; teachers report they are concerned they will commit unintentional micro-aggressions and educational policy on in-school neutrality continues to rein in those otherwise keen to engage. It is our firm belief we must proceed with these conversations rather than avoid them. Young people’s resilience to harmful messages increases the more they engage with difficult topics in safe spaces; we have the opportunity to support this development through the engagement in tough topics.

There are of course ways to encourage difficult discussions in schools without having to engage in these topics ourselves. Often, young people benefit hugely from hearing from those with lived experience or someone separate to their everyday teaching staff.  This can be done using INSET days with guest speakers, theatre in education sessions designed to prompt discussion or testimonies from individuals who’ve experienced difficult and life changing experiences. At ConnectFutures, we work in schools across the UK, spurring and encouraging discussion on racism, justice, violence, and extremism. What happens, though, when a world event prompts activism in your student body and you are not have the time, resources or knowledge to engage with external organisations to help? What happens when students chant “free Palestine” as an act of solidarity during break time or if teachers remove pro-Palestinian posters put up by students on school grounds? What actions would you take as a teacher when a student asks why the school does not have an anti-racism policy in a science lesson on genetics? What happens when students disagree in the playground about Israel/Palestine events, Brexit or environmental activism? How can, or might you, address these issues yourself?

What can we do? Facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom

While context matters and issues are never straightforward, these are our suggested best practice for facilitating discussions on tough topics when they arise in the classroom context.

  • Understand and accept you will not know everything there is to know about every topic your students might be interested in. Feeling a subject is alien to you can be overwhelming, so if you know it will come up then spend some time researching, but do not expect you can be an expert in everything!
  • Hot topics will raise passion in people’s arguments on both sides of the discussion. That’s great. Remember that as an educator you’re not a referee with the final say but instead see yourself as a facilitator in these instances. Your role should be to simply open, control and close conversations as per a set of pre-defined rules and circumstances.
  • Stipulate these rules and circumstances at the beginning of your session or conversation. It is important you have decided what you will and will not accept, for example, “I will not accept any racialised language”, or “I will not accept any comments about each other’s characters and identities”.
  • Engage your students in developing these rules. Ask them to come up with a session charter and agree to the rules of the session ahead of time. Throughout the conversation you can refer to this charter if you feel like students are crossing boundaries.
  • Develop some prompting questions that you can frame the session around. These questions do not have to rely on your deep understanding of the topic and can instead be designed to draw out opinions. For example, “What is your understanding of what has happened?”, “How have people reacted to this situation?”, “What is the possible impact of this situation on everyone involved?”.
  • Consider developing some statements that student can agree or disagree with related to the topic. Pre-empting disagreement in this way (the assumption being some students will agree, some will disagree and some won’t know how they feel), allows you to re-iterate the presence of difference – and this is ok!
  • Identify what may be ‘de-railing’ points or topics within your session and plan your response. Perhaps something like, “yours is an important and interesting point but not related entirely to the conversation today. Let’s consider how we could discuss it in a later session.”
  • Be honest if you don’t know the answer to something, there is no pressure on you to provide complex answers to complex questions. Try telling students, “if you ask a question and I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to find out for you after the session.” Or “There are a lot of complicated questions to ask on this topic, it is important to ask and be patient and open minded when we get answers.”
  • A student might ask what your thoughts on the issue are. Have a pre-prepared answer; you must not lie but be sure you follow your school’s guidance. Perhaps an answer like, “I’m learning about this topic with you, and today’s session is about gaining lots of different perspectives from the student body.”
  • Ahead of the session, consider the after-care for students. Perhaps you will tell them they can speak to you afterwards about any concerns or questions. Perhaps you will find useful sign-posting information related to the topic to direct them towards.

But there’s more…

These are not stand alone prescriptions. We need to weave conversations on tough issues into the work we are already doing with young people. It needs to become an expectation that we are interested and engaged in their thoughts on contemporary concerns, not that we will discourage or punish the expression of thought if it makes us uncomfortable or we don’t have an answer to the specific difficulty being posed. The key here is to see ourselves as facilitators instead of teachers. Being prepared for a difficult conversation doesn’t mean having a subject level knowledge of the topic being discussed. It can instead mean, preparing a set of open-ended, challenging questions designed to have students critically analyse their assumptions and beliefs.  This means asking what we might call ‘critical thinking questions’: what makes you think that? How might someone different to you think? Why might they think that way?

You’ll notice many of the ten tips imply dedicated time to prepare and run this facilitation. We recognise that time is not (at all!) of the essence in many institutions, so we’d be interested in other ways or resources you think would be useful to prompt discussion. School displays? Reflection rooms? Lunch time pop-up salons to discuss a recent world event? After-school clubs run by students for other students with you as the facilitator? Form time PSHE learning?

The bottom line is not shutting down debate on issues of global, national or local importance, and finding ways individually – or as a teaching team – to engage with controversial topics head on, even if it’s complicated. If school leadership advise certain topics should not be discussed, it is important to push for their justification; why? If you are a senior leader, consider the consequences of shutting down debate. Imagine caring about something so passionately, but not being able to discuss it, enquire about it or learn about it from others in your trusted education environment. Ignoring big societal moments risks students developing resentment, or turning to sources we can’t trust for their learning.  Interpretation of global events that foster grievance and hatred is one key mechanism in radicalisation.   We are convinced of the importance of building resilience to this through tough, open debate.  But if you remain unconvinced, get in contact! We’d love to chat.