One of the toughest challenges I have ever faced in my career is right now. How, as educators, do we present the world to our students without scaring them and conveying the impression that a grim dystopia awaits?
It is not enough simply to “present the world” and its issues. The role of education is to allow the development of critical understanding and to impart our shared societal values.
Allowing students to voice their fears, to understand the world as it is in the 2020s, with complex existential issues all around the globe is a challenge; these are issues that adults find hard enough to comprehend in this tumultuous decade.
“The role of education is to allow the development of critical understanding and to impart our shared societal values.”
But it is a challenge we must not be scared of or vacate the arena as educators to the populists and the extremists in our midst. Educators cannot be scared of education.
Our role in education is to show it doesn’t have to be this way, and that the world could and should be a better place. Education isn’t a passive process or outcome. We are not on the sidelines learning abstractly. We need to ensure that our students, as the next generation, have some degree of hope that there are solutions and resolutions to create a more sustainable, equal and peaceful future.
And we mustn’t forget also to teach them the beautiful human stories that exist and happen globally daily.
“We are not on the sidelines learning abstractly.”
The perceived politicisation of education over the last decade in countries including the USA and UK, has actually deterred many educators from even attempting to explain global events.
They are often now sticking to “teach them the facts only” without any values attached to this approach or critical thinking and understanding to unpack complex issues or historical and political events.
In the USA, this has been associated with America’s complex and difficult history around slavery, segregation, diversity and equality. The political issue of Black Lives Matter and high profile deaths of black people, coupled with the populism and nationalism of the Trumpian era, not only scares teachers in determining how they proceed but also scares students in thinking about the future.
“The perceived politicisation of education has deterred many educators from even attempting to explain global events.”
There are extreme cases of US states banning books, and “critical race theory” has become a very thorny legal issue for many school boards and individual parents, with a growing concern that US teachers and school leaders will end up leaving the system as these “culture wars” continue.
It seems odd that as Black History Month celebrations are an established feature of my schools in Moldova, more and more US schools are worried about even recognising such an important event as part of the school calendar.
In post-Brexit UK, the Prime Minister’s January 2023 announcement that students in England would study mathematics up to age 18 seemed to endorse the move away from schools “educating” students about the world, and a policy approach that sees teaching basic skills as the purpose of schools.
At some point, the false binary dichotomies prevalent in education for too long, be it “skills vs knowledge” or “traditional vs progressive” will disappear, but it seems we have some way to go yet – in the UK at least.
I have experienced such challenges throughout my career as a history and politics teacher, and as a school leader responsible for developing all the students in my care into well-rounded, educated, civic-minded citizens and global citizens of the future.
“At some point, the false binary dichotomies prevalent in education will disappear.”
Teaching history in the UK city of Bristol, with its slavery legacy, was never an issue and we had brilliant engagement from community groups, local museums, the universities and the city council, in how we presented and taught local history.
In Bristol last summer, standing by the empty plinth of Edward Colston (a 17th century slave trader whose statue was in 2020 toppled and thrown into the harbour) and talking with my own children about their city’s history, is part of that approach of educating, not scaring.
“The excuse of the ‘crowded curriculum’, often consisting of just three A-levels, doesn’t wash.”
As a former head of sixth form, in my view it would be wiser for the UK government to ensure that all 16 to 19 year-olds develop not only career and work skills but also the ability to develop critical thinking, debating, dialogue in safe spaces and media literacy.
The excuse of the “crowded curriculum”, often consisting in the context of England of just three A Levels, doesn’t wash when compared to the study programmes of 16-19 year-olds around the globe.
Listening to good voices, informed ideas and views, and different opinions, through lectures and talks, but all within the framework of accepted democratic society: this is the open mindset we want all students to develop. As the head of Wyedean School, the highlight of my week was the sixth form critical thinking class in my room on a Thursday morning.
A set of guidelines that is worthy of a more detailed look are the UK’s guidelines on political impartiality in schools from 2022 that, while much derided, are actually very useful for all schools in helping shape the way they approach contentious and difficult topics or stories in the news.
I have used some of these in developing a workable approach and policy for my schools in Moldova when it comes to approaching tough issues and events in a way that does not scare children.
The guidelines are a practical approach which is more useful than educators avoiding talking about the world for fear of scaring students. Educators need much more support and training here as well. I managed for years to teach Thatcherism in A-level politics classes without once bringing in my own personal views from my father being a trade union leader and striking coal miner.
Moldova presented itself to me as a challenge as far as history and politics were concerned: as a post-Soviet state, with a legacy of the Holocaust on its Jewish people, the immediate experience of many Moldovans in relation to the Soviet deportations, and the troubled and complex recent history with near neighbours Russia, Ukraine and Romania.
“I managed for years to teach Thatcherism in A-level politics classes without once bringing in my own personal views.”
A few years ago, I lectured a group of trainee history teachers in Tomsk State University, Siberia. I still remember the booing and cat calls I got from future teachers who didn’t like the way in which UK schools taught the USSR and Stalin. I have never forgotten just how deep this shared cultural context and contested history goes for some in this part of the world.
I am proud of the way we have developed at Heritage International School; our inclusion, our approach to diversity, celebrating all our humanity in our schools of over 25 nationalities. Doing nothing in Moldova is not an option. Education banishes fear and ignorance.
I am very proud of the way we have developed and taught critical thinking and debating skills and the way we have approached in a practical, age-appropriate way issues such as climate change and sustainable development.
In the last year we have dealt with the war on Ukraine and the impact on many in our community who had Ukrainian and Russian families. When we mourned the victims of Bucha in May 2022, following the national day of mourning in Moldova, our teachers and students found this much more useful and reflective than painting young children’s faces in blue and yellow.
“Bad teaching can lead to students being either scared or de-sensitised to complex events and issues.”
Teaching students badly, with a morally relative approach or randomly about complex issues isn’t the right approach here either. Often more damage is done this way, with students being either scared or de-sensitised to complex events and issues. An example here is the way that history departments in many schools don’t want the Holocaust taught as a historical event through the reading of the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
The mission of the Heritage International School’s founders is to prepare students confidently for the challenges of the future, not to hide them away from it or to make them scared and despondent about the future of the world.
This is my lodestar as a school leader as I continue to navigate the uncharted and difficult waters of the 2020s, ensuring all our students face the future not fearful, but educated, confident and prepared for their world and how to change it for the better.