How We Can Create Safe and Brave Educational Spaces to Discuss Difficult Issues

Our 31st Lunch Talk on February 14 addressed the issue of creating safe and inclusive educational spaces to discuss difficult topics. Sharon Booth, from Solution Not Sides, shared her insights in a blog post for those who missed the talk.

February 23, 2024 — Many controversial and difficult issues have come up in our social discourse in the last few years, from Brexit to identity politics, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teachers have a responsibility to provide an impartial and safe space for young people to discuss and learn about such issues and make up their own minds, but this is not an easy task when emotions are running high. The first thing that needs to be acknowledged and addressed before a process of listening and exchanging opinions can be undertaken is the strong negative emotion that impedes this process. 

Various students can be affected by the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to a feeling of personal connection in some way. This can include students who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, politically active (left or right wing), or people from refugee backgrounds, but this list is not exhaustive. Any young person might identify with Palestinians or Israelis (or sometimes both) because of a shared religious identity, a shared sense of experience or suffering, or because Israel-Palestine represents for them something in their wider understanding of the world.

Often, their knowledge and opinions on this issue will be coming from only one perspective, which may be one-dimensional and simplistic. Their main source of information will probably be social media. In order to give them the chance to understand the issue in more breadth and depth and to think for themselves, we educators need to provide them with a values framework and skills such as emotional literacy, active listening, critical thinking, and conflict resolution. There are various tools for teaching these skills available online, and you can find some of them in our, Solution Not Sides’, anti-bullying guide here. The values framework that we use for our discussions at SNS is: “non-violence, equality for all, and the rejection of hatred.”

We also need to build an empathy culture rather than a shame culture in order to counter expressions of hatred between students who hold different views and have different identities. “We care about Palestine-Israel AND each other” is a balance that needs to be embraced by members of the school community, and using process, rather than static language, should be the approach when addressing hate speech. 

We recommend taking each incidence of potential hate speech on a case-by-case basis and applying the three ‘Ds’ -Demonisation, Delegitimisation, and Double- standards. Exploratory conversations to understand what is going on should take into consideration that the content or the attitude could be antisemitic or Islamophobic, or possibly both. Some things are said that are racist in their content, but the attitude behind what was said was not racist. Equally, some things are said that might not be racist when taken at face value, but there is actually an antisemitic or Islamophobic attitude behind what is being said. 

Our Guide to Avoiding Hate Speech can help educators determine on a case-by-case basis whether racism is present, whether intentional or unintentional, so that it can be tackled using an educational and empathetic approach. The Get the Trolls Out website also has some useful tools for recognising racist tropes and stereotypes. Our Anti-Bullying Guide also contains some example scripts for how to intervene sensitively, and our Triggers and Positions Guide can help people to understand why certain phrases and behaviours can be misinterpreted. 

Ultimately, the goal is to create a school culture where people want to avoid hurtful language because they care about one another, rather than avoiding it simply out of fear of punishment, and to ensure that teachers do not promote their political opinions but bring humanisation, diverse narratives, and critical-thinking skills into the classroom so that students can think for themselves. This is the very essence of education.

Sharon Booth