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How One Educator Addresses the Challenge of Teaching About Terrorism

Today, Susanna Pierce, former teacher from the International School of the Americas (a member of Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network), now a teacher in an independent school, shares how she is addressing the challenge of teaching about international terrorism.

By guest blogger Susanna Pierce

The Power of Education
Nelson Mandela once told us that education is the greatest avenue for changing the world. He asserted that educating youth plays a critical role in spurring social, economic, and political progress.

As a teacher, his words resonate with me deeply. Like Mandela, I believe in the transformative potential of education. I believe that teachers, more than any other professionals in our society, shape young minds for the future, and therefore, have the potential to build a global utopia. 

Education is a powerful instrument that, ideally, changes the world for the better. However, we see instances in which people are taught negative behaviors and mentalities, leading to hate, animosity, and destruction.

Recent terrorist attacks illustrate the impact a destructive education can have on the next generation. When we shun diversity, teach violence, and promote ethnocentrism, our students can be drawn to acts of terror.

As a teacher, I am deeply concerned by the rash of violence perpetrated by young men and women around the world. I am unsettled by the fact that so many young adults commit mass shootings. Yet, as an educator and social activist, I am certain these statistics can change for the better, and that the solution lies within the doors of every classroom with intentional curriculum and pedagogy.

Integrating International Issues
In order to actively respond to terrorism, we as teachers must integrate international issues into our curriculum; consequently, students can reflect on the reasons for international conflict. Through a relevant curriculum that integrates current events, students can analyze these issues, and interpret how global systems amplify or mitigate these problems. In the case of terrorism, students understand the economic, political, and social reasons for the rise of terrorism and the pivotal role education plays within these systems.

In my own economics classroom, students recently read articles on the rise of ISIS from international news sources and viewed PBS videos on the economic and social factors expanding ISIS power. I framed an online discussion with essential questions about the rise of terrorism and its appeal to young people via social media. Students shared their findings in an online forum where they reflected on what they had learned and responded to the ideas of their peers. One student finally concluded, "Educational institutions need to teach students to think for themselves. It would be difficult for ISIS to gain control if [there were more] critical thinkers." In his opinion, critical thinking enables students to evaluate information effectively and thus, interpret its validity.

Classrooms that integrate multiple perspectives on current events enable students to analyze, interpret, and reflect on the underlying reasons for terrorism. In online discussions, students are more apt to truly internalize their findings, build on each other's ideas, and integrate new perspectives.

Structuring Small Group Discussions
Through small group discussions, we can intentionally integrate all student voices into our classroom. With their peers, students can connect the themes of history in a safe space. By doing so, students can explore how similar historical issues have impacted global societies and predict the outcome from these events in our present society. These exercises promote diverse conversations that blend together diverse student perspectives.

In my classroom, students participated in a Micro-lab where they had individual time to reflect on the extent to which ethnocentrism breeds violence. With a structured format, they shared their written responses. They described the causes and effects of genocide on global communities from history with specific examples of ethnic cleansing in the Holocaust, Rwanda, South Africa, and the Congo. As students listened to one other, they expanded their ideas from the thoughtful responses of their peers. This intentional small group structure built a more holistic perspective with equal participation from all students.

Invariably, reflective exercises that integrate all voices build global competency and empathetic listening—key skills for the next generation of leaders. 

Teaching Conflict-Resolution
Finally, we must encourage students to consider peaceful resolutions to global conflicts through full-class conversations. These discussions can be structured as a four corners activity or a full-class debate. Here, students refine their own beliefs, empathize with the struggles of global communities, and evaluate the effectiveness of potential policies involving terrorism. 

In my own classroom, students participated in a four corners discussion around the responses to the growing fear of ISIS. Students debated whether tightening border control was the ultimate solution to the problem. Even though some students stood on opposite sides of the classroom, the conversation ended with one student saying, "I think we're saying the same thing, even though we've placed ourselves on opposite ends of the spectrum."

Although the class differed on its initial sentiments on the issue, the final conversation united the group; after listening, students refined their beliefs. They learned appropriate responses must incorporate valid solutions from both sides of the issue, key voices from all groups. Incorporating conflict-resolution protocols strengthens negotiation skills and teaches students the value of compromise in promoting peaceful resolutions.

To help build leaders who think critically, reflect on actions, and compromise in the face of conflict, teachers must intentionally connect learning in the classroom to the world outside of the classroom.  In effect, students can become the leaders that embrace peace, diversity, and mutual respect.

We can be the catalysts to create a better world, shaping the minds that will fight peacefully for social justice and progress in the future.  

Connect with Heather and Asia Society on Twitter.  

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