Teaching terror: what role for schools in countering violent extremism?

Schools should teach students about peace and pluralism to reduce radicalisation, not necessarily about every world conflict and religion. Australian teen Jake Bilardi with Islamic State fighters. AAP Image/Twitter

A new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute calls for the inclusion of counter-radicalisation messages in the school curriculum and for the teaching of the situation in the Middle East and Australia’s involvement.

This recommendation is much more useful than the one which sees teachers and school personnel being trained in how to “spot a jihadi”, as the government recently proposed.

However, broader teaching on peace, pluralism and tolerance in all aspects of school would be more beneficial than curriculum additions on specific world conflicts and religions.

Teachers can’t be expected to recognise extremism

Any approach that attempts to identify people for law enforcement and other forms of intervention risks over-reporting on radicalisation. It also fails to understand that young people may superficially engage with some of the symbols of violent extremist organisations without fully comprehending the implications of such actions or without ever actually agreeing with those ideologies that promote and justify violent extremism.

Perhaps even more concerning is that certain behaviours considered indicative of radicalisation could potentially “misdiagnose” other issues such as drug abuse, family violence or mental illness.

Assessing whether or not an individual is radicalised to the point where they pose a risk of violent extremism is far beyond the core business of education.

Education does play a role

There is no denying that education plays an important role in the socialisation of young people and their moral development. Consequently, education features strongly in counter-radicalisation programs in several countries – such as the UK, The Netherlands, Austria and Belgium. For the most part, these education interventions focus on teaching subjects that promote tolerance, understanding and citizenship.

The compulsory school curriculum in Australia includes civic values. Suggestions have also been made that the curriculum should include teaching young people about different religions – including Islam.

While these may be valuable in their own right, proposing curriculum changes that focus on a particular context such as the Middle East, or on a single issue such as democratic participation, or on the teaching of religion, is problematic. For a start, the argument that all schools should teach young people the core principles of Islam misses the point.

A study of vulnerability and resilience to al-Qaeda violent extremism and other types of violent activity (animal rights activism; cults; gangs; right wing extremism and youth crime) found tolerance of other religious and ethnic groups is a factor in resilience to violent extremism.

Religious pluralism is an important feature of our democratic society and is embedded in our Constitution. Section 116 of the Constitution states that the Commonwealth shall not make any law for:

… imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion.

As an alternative to teaching young people about specific religions, focusing on religious pluralism through the teaching of our Constitution and fostering a sense of Australian identity is a much more useful exercise.

Broad lessons about peace and pluralism more beneficial

In March, I delivered a workshop on countering violent extremism and education. Part of the workshop program was based on my own research into how moral disengagement theory (avoiding shame or guilt from bad behaviour by justifying it as moral) could be used to build resilience to violent extremism through education.

It was also informed by research that identified good practice based on a review of teaching methods targeting violent extremism, gang involvement and crime.

Rather than require teachers and schools to undertake the onerous task of changing the curriculum, the workshop – delivered to teachers and education policymakers from Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria and Kenya – was designed to help teachers embed countering violent extremism into their current practice. We attempted to develop their understanding of how teaching can be used to build resilience within the existing curriculum.

The participants learned how to develop their own practices to challenge violent extremist messages, reinforce moral self-sanctions that prevent people from becoming violent extremists and develop young people’s awareness of how violent extremist messages are constructed.

Within this, teachers may well choose to teach their students about events in the Middle East. Or they may find that they can draw on teaching resources from civic values and citizenship education.

Alternatively, they may use existing education resources such as the Beyond Bali Education Package. This provides teachers with a set of activities to teach young people about the harmful consequences of conflict using stories of Bali Bombing survivors.

One of the more concerning issues for counter-terrorism is that we seem to consistently ignore lessons from the past. Almost a decade of teaching young people about values and citizenship has not stemmed the flow of foreign fighters or home-based violent extremists.

Introducing new curriculum requirements to teach young people about specific issues or requiring teachers to look out for signs of radicalisation are just as likely to have little or no impact if not supported by evidence.

While we still struggle to find empirical studies on educational approaches to preventing violent extremism, there are lessons that can be learned by examining how resilience to other forms of criminal or gang behaviour is embedded in education.


You can read other articles in the Roots of Radicalisation series here.

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