Sign In
Sign In
Register for Free

The World can be Frightening, but Great Schools Offer a Safe Space Where Young People can be Empowered to Change It

Debra Kidd on how to teach in troubled times

Debra Kidd
by Debra Kidd

If we were to teach our young people about the ‘real’ world, what would the curriculum contain? Civil war, refugees, climate change, terrorism, plastic oceans, crashing economies, food banks, racism… I could go on.

What impact would this have on the already burgeoning mental health crisis in front of us? Would it increase anxiety? Probably.

It’s a difficult thing, balancing our duty to protect children from the negative impact of real events with our duty to ensure they are fully equipped for a future in which they understand the challenges they face.

It is my belief that the purpose of education is to develop wisdom and agency in young people so that they have the capacity to go out into the world and effect change. I know that others think differently, but that’s my view.

It is also the view of the International Baccalaureate, which has a mission statement that ends with the desire that students should “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” But how can we help this happen?

Fresh perspectives

Understanding other people’s points of view requires more than empathy. It demands knowledge and a capacity to set aside one’s own prejudices and belief systems (even if only temporarily) in order to consider another’s. It requires an ability to think clearly and articulate various points of view.

So it makes sense that if we want to achieve this purpose, we need to embed opportunities for children to place themselves in the position of others – to see the world from their perspective, and to talk.

We already know from EEF funded research in 2017 that dialogic talk impacts on achievement. But dialogic modes of drama, such as Mantle of the Expert, take this a step further. They allow young people to become agents of change, taking empathy and dialogue into imagined action – into the mode of active compassion; this is hugely empowering.

Let me offer an example of an activity from a KS3 class I taught.

To start, students establish themselves as the manufacturers of high quality tents. Sales are slow and the learners are asked (in an AGM) to offer possible solutions to the company’s difficulties. Tension is established by pointing out (within the frame of our fiction) that their jobs may be lost if we do not find a solution. Quickly they identify some key problems:

  • Our logo and branding is old fashioned
  • We have no website
  • Our customer base is ageing and is no longer fit enough to require our products which are designed for extreme conditions

They offer some solutions, thereby constructing their own curriculum. They will:

  • Design a new product range for a new market
  • Create a website
  • Consider the cost of materials and think about introducing cheaper products

The cost of compassion

Already we can see areas of the curriculum emerging here, linked to design, technology and business. But this is not our core purpose – we’re nudging them towards something more complex.

The students present their designs and they have some great ideas – pretty shelters for middle class glampers, festival tents and so on. They cost them up and start to create a catalogue. But then something happens: they receive a request from the Department for Overseas Development.

Following an earthquake in the foothills of the Himalayas, there is an urgent need for tents that can withstand a cold winter and heavy snowfall. 100,000 are required. The Ministry is not willing to pay much above costs, so the profit margin on the order is very small. It would mean suspending the launch of the new product range. What do they think?

The debate goes on for some time and the students eventually agree to the request, but on condition that the ministry is prepared to endorse their work. And so we’re off.

The unit is not about manufacturing tents any more. It’s about sending a crack team out with the supplies to help people on the ground to put them up and use them to best advantage.

The students have to consider the cultural and religious needs of designing tents for a largely Muslim population. They have to consider the best place for erecting them – considering aftershocks, weather, infrastructure and so on.

This is more than linking geography and business – it’s about exploring the impact of natural disasters on human beings in a way that has two effects:

  • It creates a sense of urgency and purpose
  • It is solution focused so it allows students to safely explore how they might effect change

It is a pedagogy for empowerment.

Difficult journeys

But some things are almost too hard to hit directly. Some conflicts, particularly those between religious groups, are hard to manage. Many teachers veer away from Palestine and Israel for example – it just feels too hard. And this is where frame distancing through narrative and allegory can be very useful indeed.

Take the poem Jabberwocky for example. I’ve done this with both KS2 and 3. This is Year 7, English. We read the first verse. We spell and identify the functions of the nonsense words. So far, so grammar. We define the words and turn the stanza into prose. For example, one class came up with this:

It was the kind of cold that creeps under your skin and makes you feel as if something bad is going to happen. The small, thin, slimy toves were stumbling in circles, their eyes weeping with acid.

In the deepest, densest and darkest part of the forest, borogoves stood, miserable and morose, their three eyes downcast at the ground. Somewhere in the distance, at the edge of the oyster ponds, the mome rath turtles shrieked – their shark-like mouths open wide calling out a warning…. Beware….

And again, we’re off. Our inquiry question is, “Why would someone leave the safety of their home and venture into danger?”

Heroes and villains

We spend weeks building our hero’s adventure, even making wildlife documentaries about the creatures he encounters. But at the end, when he returns, victorious, in the midst of our celebrations, a visitor arrives.

And the visitor points out that the boy – our hero – has in fact slain a creature that is precious and sacred to his tribe’s way of life. He demands the villain is handed over and leaves the class with this warning:

“Failure to comply with our request will be viewed as an act of war and our vengeance on your people will be great…”

And so we find ourself – safely, but securely – in the midst of conflict. We need to find as diplomatic a solution as possible. Our perception has been pivoted. Our hero is also a villain. And other people, with their differences, could also be right. What shall we do?

Working in this way is much more than creating story. It allows for a dilemma to be practised and explored in a safe space so that the experience can be transferred at an appropriate time to real life situations.

So that students begin to widen the lens and say “It reminds me of…”, “It’s like…”, “it’s complicated…”. So they are ready not just to know, but to act.

In this widening of the lens, we eventually move from the particular to the universal; from fiction to fact – and because the young people now have an element of experience and understanding from which they can draw, they are better equipped. They can see possibility. They are empowered.

Debra Kidd is a teacher, teacher trainer and author.

You'll also receive regular updates from Teachwire with free lesson plans, great new teaching ideas, offers and more. (You can unsubscribe at any time.)

Which sectors are you interested in?

By signing up you agree to our Terms & Conditions and privacy policy

You might also be interested in...