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December 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 4

The Antidote to Extremism

Does a more peaceful world begin with education?

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Instructional Strategies
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The year 2016 was rocked by violence, much of it across cultural boundaries. The frequency and perniciousness of acts of terrorism, from Baghdad to Brussels, from Lahore to San Bernardino to Charleston to Dhaka to Nice to Munich, reinforced the urgent need for greater cultural understanding, both in the United States and abroad.
It is right for everyone to offer thoughts and prayers in memory of the victims of violent extremism. As educators, however, we can do more. We have the unique opportunity to develop in youth the skill and the will to prevent deadly intercultural conflict before it occurs.
The executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized education as an essential tool to help prevent violent extremism and the radicalization that leads to it (UNESCO, 2015), which it called "one of the most pervasive challenges of our time" (UNESCO 2016, p. 9). Indeed, education has been seen as an antidote to intolerance and conflict for centuries. As Harvard professor Fernando Reimers (2016) notes,
The very idea that all people should be educated was first advanced by John Amos Comenius, a Czech philosopher who lived in the sixteenth century witnessing and experiencing religious intolerance and violence, which made him a religious refugee. Comenius proposed that the root of such violence was the inability of people to work out their differences in peaceful ways, which led him to propose that all persons should be educated so we could have peace in the world.
But we also know that simply providing more education is not enough. As Jo Malone (2015), a senior project manager at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, writes,
The role of education in preventing extremism is paradoxical. Access to education in general or the raising of attainment alone will not combat extremism and terrorism. Many recruits [to extremist groups] are better educated than the average population, but they tend to lack critical inter-religious and inter-cultural literacy. (emphasis added) (p. 57)
Violent extremism and radicalization are not confined to any one country or culture; they are worldwide phenomena increasingly seeded through the Internet and social media. Youth who are marginalized by poverty, discrimination, and a lack of hope for a viable future—whether in Sudan or on the south side of Chicago—are most at risk. Preventing the seeds of radicalization from taking root thus requires a multi-dimensional response tailored to local and regional conditions across the world.

Four Domains of Global Competence

Building global and cross-cultural understanding starts at home, and it starts in schools through the development of global competence. Asia Society has worked for nearly 15 years to develop a systematic and comprehensive approach to producing globally competent youth who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will help them thrive within diverse, multicultural communities.
Students who are globally competent are able to investigate the world, recognize and weigh perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action. These four domains of global competence provide a powerful framework for understanding some of the causes of violent extremism—and they also point to what teachers can do to equip their students to prevent it. Here are some stories from two of the schools in Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network (more than 35 public schools across the United States, many in high-poverty communities). Network schools have a dual mission: closing the achievement gap for historically underserved students and teaching through a global lens.

Investigating the World

The willingness of one group to harm another group often stems from a lack of accurate information about the other's history, culture, motivations, and behavior. Teaching students to investigate the world mitigates these misunderstandings. It equips students to find information, weigh the credibility of the information they glean from sources worldwide, and frame issues in the context of global trends—for example, understanding the conditions that motivate some groups to seek new homes across borders, often at significant risk.
One school that excels at teaching students to investigate the world is the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) at Montbello in Colorado, which teaches students in grades 6–12. In a two-year capstone course designed by teacher Zach Serrano, 11th graders research and write on timely topics that have global significance, which helps them learn to investigate the world and develop cross-cultural understanding, as well as acquire college-level research and writing skills.
For example, one student investigated the meaning of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and the "All Lives Matter" response it generated. Is "Black Lives Matter" a credible call for equity and social justice? Is "All Lives Matter" meant to undermine its impact? Questions like these provoke deep critical thinking on issues of national and global significance.
Investigating the world isn't just relegated to current events. One student investigated the world through history and stories. Studying Greek and Norse mythology, she discovered that female gods in these mythologies were devalued, manipulated, and controlled by male gods, raising questions about how those gendered myths reflected the life and culture of the day; how they connect to life, culture, and conflict in modern Greece and Scandinavia; and how they compare to other mythologies and cultures.
Another network school that excels at teaching the four domains of global competence is Deering High School in Portland, Maine. Deering's student body includes a large immigrant population, many of whom are refugees, making the school's commitment to global competence all the more important. One way in which Deering teaches its students to investigate the world is through cross-curricular projects.
For instance, teacher Brian Dodge asked his calculus students to find photographs of Syrian artifacts destroyed in the current war. Students used their math skills and computer-assisted design systems to create 3-D renderings of what the original artifacts would have looked like. Students then printed their renderings on a 3-D printer, in a sense bringing those artifacts back to life.

Recognizing and Weighing Perspectives

Teaching students to recognize, analyze, and articulate diverse perspectives—including those with which they personally disagree—gives them the skills they need to understand controversial issues. For example, one student in Serrano's capstone class at DCIS Montbello jumped past the uncompromising and polarizing debate around abortion to focus instead on the perspectives of women, investigating how the "rhetoric and cultural influence used to understand and talk about abortion has an impact on the emotional and mental health of women."
One way Deering nurtures this competence is through the support system the school has created for its students from refugee committees. The school's social workers have developed a program that highlights and compares U.S. culture with the students' home cultures, teaching them how to recognize and weigh perspectives at a personal, local level that has a global impact. The program also helps these students celebrate their home cultures in tandem with the cultures of their new home.
As part of this program, a group of unaccompanied youth who recently arrived in the United States worked with the Telling Room, a local writing program, to create a book for other new Mainers to use. The book shared personal experiences, tips for getting acclimated to new surroundings, and local resources. The students conducted interviews at several nearby agencies, including a legal services organization, to learn more about available resources. This book has been used in the community, in the teen shelter, and other places where new Mainers congregate.

Communicating Ideas

One might argue that the failure to communicate effectively is one of the chief causes of disagreement, conflict, and even intercultural violence. So just as crucial as recognizing and weighing different perspectives is the ability to communicate ideas, with the understanding that diverse audience groups and individuals might interpret the same messages quite differently.
Effective communication isn't limited to syntax and diction. When considering how to best communicate their ideas, students must also consider potential language and fluency barriers, nonverbal communication, and modes of communication and delivery.
Deering High School's students develop communication skills through the plays they write and produce in drama class, which deal with difficult or sensitive subjects with cultural implications. One production, "Tribute: The Maine Labor Mural Play," was inspired by the political controversy over Governor Paul LePage's 2011 order to remove a mural of Maine's labor history from the Department of Labor's headquarters. The play focused on the voices of characters depicted in the mural, including child laborers, Rosie the Riveter, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The most recent dramatic production was a series of vignettes about human sex trafficking, which was so well received it was professionally filmed for use in other Maine high schools (Gallagher, 2016).
Students at DCIS Montbello look at issues from the local to the global level to communicate ideas and ultimately take action. In one project, a group of seniors mentored a group of 8th grade students who were doing a project to support Denver's homeless population. From beginning to end, the students conceptualized and executed their idea to hold a fundraiser to provide more than 100 meals to homeless people in downtown Denver. To carry out this project, the senior students had to craft messages to reach various audiences, including their own teacher, the teacher of the 8th grade students they worked with, and the 8th graders they were mentoring. They also had to communicate their plans to the target audience—members of Denver's homeless community—arguably one of the more difficult populations to engage with because of limited resources and communication outlets.
Zach Serrano, who supervised the project, says that watching it unfold was particularly inspiring because the seniors who carried out the project had not been excited about school at the beginning of the year—senioritis had set in early for them. But once they came up with the idea and began working with the 8th grade students, they changed from bored, disaffected teenagers into thoughtful, passionate adults. They not only worked through all the administrative details involved in raising funds, preparing food, and transporting it, but also inspired younger students to speak up and effect change with them.

Taking Action

Taking action is the culmination of all the other domains of global competence. A student who learns to investigate the world, weigh perspectives, and communicate ideas may be a thoughtful, well-intentioned individual. But a student who takes all that work and turns it into action can learn to create lasting change at the local, regional, or global level.
Deering empowers students to take action through various strategies. For example, after learning about the benefits of solar power for the environment, students had the opportunity to participate in developing solar chargers and mounting solar panels.
And taking action isn't limited to the students at Deering. Teachers and administrators also demonstrate a commitment to global competence in their work. In recognition of the technology challenges that parents of some students from immigrant communities face, the school's parent-teacher organization held events to help those parents navigate the district's online grading program, helping put them on an equal footing with parents who were knowledgeable about the system through their own experience.
At DCIS Montbello, students in their second year of Zach Serrano's capstone course design a project that embodies their own passion and interests, demonstrating how they can take action on a specific issue. For instance, one group of students organized an international trip to South Korea and worked with a nongovernment organization to explore the issues North Korean defectors face and to identify actionable solutions that could help support them.
Serrano comments,
We aren't just in the business of educating our students to be "college and career ready." The expectation is that our graduates will be movers and shakers; they will be the thinkers and doers, the change agents. They will be the leaders empowered with ethics and empathy to take action in ways that enhance our collective humanity and build a better world.

Taking Up the Challenge

Just as Serrano has observed at his school, global competence education results in a cultural shift—one that encourages analysis and reflection, communication and action. There may be no better way to combat violent extremism.
The work of Asia Society and others suggests a wealth of strategies that teachers and school leaders can deploy toward developing global competence. Here are some approaches for educators to explore in every school.
  • Create professional learning communities supporting collaborative work to infuse the curriculum with opportunities for students to investigate and analyze issues of global significance, communicate findings to diverse audiences, and take action to improve conditions.
  • Target high-leverage entry points within the curriculum to engage students in rigorous global inquiry, using national, local, and school standards as gateways to deep global learning. For example, the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for 9th and 10th grade call for students to be able to analyze important U.S. documents and identify common themes and concepts. Teachers can help students achieve this standard through lessons or projects that compare seminal documents from multiple cultures. Using this approach, we can help students learn the foundational ideas for American culture and at the same time begin to recognize commonalities with other cultures.
  • Connect your classroom and curriculum to cultural and educational institutions that can promote opportunities for students to thoughtfully engage with global issues and people with a variety of perspectives.
  • Pilot new approaches, and strengthen existing approaches, to promote global competence, from new course offerings (including world languages), to globally focused service learning projects and internships, to international travel and virtual exchange programs for students and teachers.
  • Develop your own global competence by taking advantage of opportunities to learn about the world's cultures, languages, and interdependent systems, and broaden your perspective through travel and study abroad.
Above all, teach courageously. Issues like migration, racism, and xenophobia are fraught with emotion, and some consider them too political to bring into the classroom. But where else can these topics rightly be viewed not only as national and global issues but as learning issues? And who is better equipped than educators to guide learning so that students' views on these issues are informed by analysis, perspective taking, and respectful dialogue?
We hope that this generation of students, and future ones, will be less and less likely to find attraction in the tenets of political or religious extremism. If so, it will be because educators took up the challenge of teaching for global competence.

EL Online

For a discussion of building religious understanding, see the online article "Navigating Religious Differences" by Robert Kunzman.

References

Gallagher, N. K. (2016, April 30). Deering High production to expose problem of sex trafficking dramatically. Portland Press Herald. Retrieved from www.pressherald.com/2016/04/30/deering-high-students-expose-sex-trafficking-dramatically

Malone, J. (2016). Educating to protect young people from extremism. In K. Koser & T. Thorp (eds.). How to prevent extremism and policy options (pp. 57–60). London: Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Retrieved from http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/sites/default/files/How%20to%20Prevent_Global%20Perspectives%20Vol%202_0.pdf

Reimers, F. (2016, July 21). Empowering global citizens to improve the world [blog post]. Retrieved from Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/fernando-reimers/empowering-global-citizen_b_11099352.html

UNESCO. (2016). A teacher's guide to the prevention of violent extremism. Paris, France: Author. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002446/244676e.pdf

UNESCO (2015, November 23). Decisions adopted by the executive board at its 197th session. Paris, France: Author. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002351/235180e.pdf

End Notes

1 For more information on the Asia Society International Studies Schools Network.

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