by Sue Roffey
The shooting of a police accountant by a teenage boy in Parramatta last year the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris have led to increasing calls to identify young people who are at risk of radicalisation. Although assessment of those at risk “shows a group of people clearly failing to gain satisfaction or friendship in mainstream Australian life” (Australian Strategy Policy Institute, June 2015) there appears to be no clear appreciation that what happens in schools can either contribute to or help address the problem. There is much that can be done but it needs to be pro-active and start yesterday.
In order to take preventative action we must understand at least some of the psychological motivations behind radicalisation.
Young people often have strong ideals and many need to feel they are important. Giving their all for a ’cause’ can be motivating if it turns you into a hero. A sense of belonging is also critical to psychological wellbeing and many young people look to groups and associations as a means of finding both belonging and meaning in their lives. Many of these hold out the promise of building a better world for future generations. This is an exhortation that has run throughout history – often with devastating results as many wars attest to.
Feeling connected is a major factor for resilience. It is one reason why marginalised young people often end up in gangs. Belonging that is exclusive rather than inclusive promotes rejection of anyone outside the group. We therefore need to do everything we can to promote inclusive belonging in as many contexts as possible. Feeling connected to school means you believe your presence matters, you are valued for who you are, not just how you perform; the learning environment is both positive and safe and you perceive your learning as meaningful.
In March 2009 the New Scientist reported on a study (Wike & Fraser, 2009) with the headline “Teen killers don’t come from schools that foster a sense of belonging”. Incidents of multiple killings in US schools took place in establishments where some students were seen as stars and others rejected as outsiders, even though they might be academically able. It was these marginalised individuals who perpetrated these atrocities, partly in revenge and partly to make themselves feel noticed at last. The killers reportedly showed no empathy for those they gunned down and had no apparent concern for their own safety or future.
Learning to Be and Learning to Live Together were identified as two of the four pillars of education for the 21st Century by UNESCO in 1996. The other two pillars are Learning to Know and Learning to Do. The overwhelming focus in schools on academic content can mean there is no time left for learning about relationships or exploring values. Any time devoted to understanding the self or developing relational skills can be deemed by some as a distraction from the ‘real’ purpose of schooling – educating for an economic future.
We not only have young people being radicalised, we also continue to have bullying in our schools alongside homophobia, racism, and increasing incidents of family violence and abuse in our society.
Much of the conversation appears to focus on reactive strategies. We cannot continue to put our energy into picking up the pieces. We need to actively teach our children and young people ‘shared humanity’ – helping them understand and appreciate how much they have in common with others.
They need to reflect on how every major religion in the world espouses a version of ‘ The Golden Rule’ – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. More connects us than divides us, but unless we give young people structured opportunities to think and talk about this they may be at the mercy of those who want to denigrate and dehumanise those ‘not like us’.
Schools can provide activities that connect students with each other – not just their mates but with those they don’t usually associate with. We can teach empathy. In the light of what we share we can value diversity. We can enable young people to understand their emotions and therefore raise awareness of how these might be manipulated.
There are skilled educators doing this all over the Western world and changing perceptions and behaviours as a result. But this is often under the radar where social and emotional learning does not fit with current policy. We are now paying the price for ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ being jettisoned in favour of more time spent on formal curriculum goals. We need to revisit the balance in education for all our futures.
Reference: Wike, T. L., & Fraser, M. W. (2009). School shootings: Making sense of the senseless. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(3), 162-169.
Associate Professor Sue Roffey is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is a psychologist, academic, author and creator of the Circle Solutions framework for social and emotional learning. firstname.lastname@example.org