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Teaching for the 21st Century

Commentary4th October 2019

In the twenty-five years since World Teachers’ Day was launched, violent extremism has gone from a fringe problem to one of the most pressing challenges facing the world today.

Security measures will always be vital but defeating this threat requires a generational struggle against the ideas that underpin the violence. A comprehensive, multifaceted strategy is needed with Education at the heart of it. That’s why on World Teachers’ Day this year, we’re calling on governments and the global education community to root out religious prejudice and promote tolerance throughout their education systems. Education is one of the most effective instruments to counter extremist ideologies. Many extremist groups have an ideological opposition to mainstream, state led education. Their ideology holds that secular education produces, and is taught by, apostates who should be stopped. As such they systematically target education institutions to narrow the space for open-mindedness, hoping that a destructive and binary worldview takes hold.

For example, The Pakistani Taliban has identified schools and learning as a strategic threat that is part of the state it hopes to dismantle. Boko Haram, who’s name even translates as “Western education is forbidden”, has been systematically targeting educational institutions since 2008. In 2017, the group carried out three attacks against schools and 12 against university sites. Whilst the UN has estimated that some 3 million children require emergency educational support due to their violence.

This is why we need a global commitment to educate against extremism. Because, despite massive investments in educational infrastructure and recruitment, only 26 per cent of teachers feel prepared for teaching in a multicultural setting. It is widely accepted that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, and yet there remain substantial obstacles to recruiting and training teachers. At present, as noted by more than a quarter of a million teachers in the 2019 OECD Talis survey, teachers are not supported to deliver education that is fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

At the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, we see this whilst delivering our Generation Global programme. Throughout our programme, we see individual teachers and principals going above and beyond to teach their students about global citizenship and diversity, to teach them the skills they need to navigate the complexities of the 21st century. They are often doing this without the education system structure and training in place to support them, but they are doing this because they know that is what is needed. These teachers are to be celebrated, and the examples below highlight just a few of the many teachers around the world who are seizing any  opportunity to deliver student-centred education fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

But this is not enough. It is time for more systemic change, to ensure all teachers around the world are supported to deliver education that encourages and promotes open-minded, peaceful and prosperous societies. This case study highlights how teachers are leading this change.

Manzoor, Teacher, Jammu and Kashmir

Ensuring the next generation can peacefully navigate an increasingly globalised society is no mean feat, although in conflict-affected regions such as Jammu and Kashmir this comes with additional complications. The weight of the challenge is heavy and rests on the shoulders of teachers across the region who are currently not supported with the physical space, resources or training to develop skills conducive to the development of students’ open- mindedness. Instead, like elsewhere across the globe, they are mandated with curriculums that are centred on the principle that knowledge is king and encourage non-interactive teaching practices and rote learning techniques to ensure students pass exams. This over- emphasis on knowledge at the expense of skills-based learning means that in Jammu and Kashmir, young people leave school and step out into a diverse society marred by volatile ethnic conflict that their education has abjectly failed to prepare them for.

Manzoor is one of over a hundred inspiring teachers in Jammu and Kashmir working to disrupt the status quo of the local education landscape using Generation Global. A unique case, Manzoor is a self-confessed former extremist who subscribed to an exclusivist interpretation of Islam at the beginning of his teaching journey over a decade ago. This is something which in the early days, he admitted, reflected in his teaching and in the messages he delivered to his students. This was until he discovered Generation Global, after being nominated by then Education Minister Naeem Akhtar to attend the programme’s first regional teacher training in 2017.

The training introduced Manzoor to new approaches to teaching that put students at the centre of their own learning, and resources that help facilitate the development of students’ dialogue skills and open- mindedness, an impact felt by Manzoor, who claimed:

“I can understand Generation Global differently than any other teacher. I was actually an extremist, (and had a) hard stance on Islam, (and was) a narrow-minded person that time. After I had gone through the Generation Global training, I got an idea (you) should not be as narrow-minded. You people changed my ideology; your modules changed my ideology.”

Since this point, Manzoor has worked tirelessly with the programme to ensure the epiphany he experienced reverberates in his classroom. By carving out space in his school curriculum to deliver Generation Global classes, Manzoor has been able to create a safe and enabling environment for students to engage in dialogue on difficult topics relevant to the local conflict. These topics have included sensitive local issues such as the intra- religious tensions that exist across the state between moderate and extremist Muslim groups, as well as those within Hindu communities, along with broader issues of biases held within Jammu and Kashmir, and the negative perceptions toward the state in other parts of the country. Manzoor described the results as transformational:

“Before Generation Global, they were listening to people saying this is right and this is wrong. Now they’re analysing on their own what is wrong and right, not accepting things without critically analysing them. Their ability to think critically has improved… behaviour is changing positively, (they are) becoming open-minded.”

This has in many respects empowered the students to be at the centre of their own learning. As Manzoor explained, “If we teach them (students) one thing, they will, on their own, learn 10 things”.

This demonstrates how a constructive learning approach that emphasises the development of skills can sow the seeds for the adoption of attitudes and knowledge that are a product of students’ own critical thinking.

Keen to ensure this impact is experienced more broadly across the education system, Manzoor has gone above and beyond the call of duty and, without being prompted, has stepped down his learning and disseminated Generation Global resources across his network of peers to support broader uptake of student-centric and skills-based teaching practices in the region.

This is the kind of leadership we need to see from within Ministries, in order to achieve embedded changes to the way teachers are trained and to ensure students are resilient in the face of constantly shifting conflict dynamics.

Somaya, Teacher, Amman, Jordan

In a region rife with tension and conflict both within and between nations, Jordan represents a relative bastion of moderation and tolerance in the Middle East. In 2004, King Abdullah noted there was a need to “avert the clash of civilisations and help the overlap of cultures”. Dr Kamel Abu Jaber, a former foreign minister, even went as far as to say, “I am a Christian by faith . . . I am a Muslim by culture and identity”. This is illustrative of a long history of embracing tolerance across the country.

Perched on the periphery of inner-city Amman sits Al-Hassad Al-Tarbawi school, a home away from home for Somaya Tarawneh, a former classroom teacher turned Generation Global facilitator. In a similar vein to Manzoor, Somaya grew frustrated with what was at the time an absence of a skills-based approach to education. Her frustration stemmed from the fact that she had identified student needs that existed outside of the school, which she was unable to address through the established curriculum. Aligned with the government’s stance on the values of tolerance and community, Somaya wanted to ensure her students were equipped with the skills needed to navigate a society, which although predominantly Muslim, is home to many other minority religious groups and has become increasingly diverse following an influx of Lebanese, Palestinian and most recently Syrian refugees as a result of the region’s numerous conflicts.

Somaya introduced Generation Global to her students in 2013 and it was not long before she began to see positive changes in her students’ behaviour. She noted that her students – who are of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds – were interacting with one another in a way which they had not before, pointing to a new-found culture of dialogue that encourages critical thinking, listening and respectful challenge. By creating a safe space in which her students can practice the skills of dialogue and engage with diversity and difference, she is preparing them for a life after education in an increasingly globalised world.

Keen to put her students’ new learning to the test, Somaya took the initiative to bring two female Muslim students from her class to a workshop on the role of religion in society attended by some high-profile Christian priests, among others. The two students, who had not previously had any engagement with members of the Christian faith, used the opportunity to directly address a common misconception they had encountered in society, regarding damaging generalisations of a perceived association between Islam and terrorism. Somaya said the students drew on their learning from Generation Global to speak openly and respectfully to the priests to encourage them to use their platforms to help address this. Across generational lines, their request was met with humble agreement and amazement at the courage the students had demonstrated in raising the issue.

This encounter is a powerful example of how a skills-based approach to learning can improve the way young people can approach difficult issues and engage positively with diversity and difference, even in daunting circumstances.

Earl, Educator, New York, USA

New York City is the epitome of a multicultural society, a melting pot of different nationalities, religions, beliefs, races, ethnicities and sexualities. However, while diversity has long been the norm in New York City, this is not always reflected in the inclusiveness of society. In Upper Manhattan sits Harlem Renaissance, a transfer high school, dedicated to re-engaging students who have either dropped out or fallen behind in mainstream education settings. Like the city they live in, the school’s student population is diverse, with a range of different cultures, ethnicities and socio- economic backgrounds represented.

Earl Gray is an educator at Harlem Renaissance who has admirably taken up the challenge, in his own words, of working with his students to “build up their motivation to learn, getting individuals who didn’t care about school to start caring about school, to start caring about their education”. This in a context where minorities can be discriminated against, whether that be directly through open hate speech and racism, or indirectly by limiting future education and career opportunities.

Given Earl’s enthusiasm for experimenting with new techniques, he attended a Generation Global educator training sponsored by the city’s Department of Education and put his new learning into practice using the programme’s resources. Seeing almost instant value in delivering Generation Global through the positive outcomes it was having on his students – in terms of a perceived shift in communication styles away from combative arguments and debate to open and respectful dialogue – Earl was able to create a dedicated Generation Global class. Through this class, students were able to participate in numerous online connections with their global peers – from countries including the United Kingdom, the Philippines and Egypt – covering challenging topics such as racism, oppression and sex trafficking.

Earl began noticing changes in his students. Those who were mentally absent in many other classes were beginning to participate; those who were more outspoken were becoming more respectful; the relationships between students across race, culture and socio- economic status were improving; and the classroom was more inclusive as a result. By centring classes on a skills- based approach and putting students at the centre of their own learning, they are engaging with their education in a way they simply were not before, and further still are now better prepared to navigate the hugely diverse society in which they live.

The education system in New York City, as in many systems, is highly decentralised and more is required at a policy level to increase access to professional development opportunities that encourage inclusive skills- based teaching practices that build open-mindedness.

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The theme of this year’s World Teachers’ Day is “Young Teachers: The Future of the Profession”. Governments and the global education community must act now to ensure the future of the profession is more prepared for the diversity and global nature of the classroom today. This is a central element of our forthcoming Global Commitment to Promote Global Citizenship and Prevent Extremism through education.

We are calling on all governments to implement a set of principles across their education systems, including:

  1. Quality education: All children deserve 12 years of safe, free, quality education. A primary purpose of any education system, including in humanitarian contexts, is to deliver 21st-century skills to prepare young people to prosper while fostering global citizenship and promoting peacefulco-existence between communities, cultures and religions.

  2. Progressive teaching: Governments must develop, fund and implement education systems that prioritise the development and training of teachers and specifically the use of teaching methods that encourage dialogue across cultures, critical thinking, ethical decision-making and gender equality, and reduce the use of rote learning.

  3. Adequate resources: Education systems need sufficient human, financial and institutional resources to develop and implement educational reforms to address the cognitive, social and emotional dimensions of extremism.

With 2020 just around the corner, marking 10 years to achieve SDG4 and the Education 2030 Agenda, the time for urgent action is now.

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