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Young people, “radicalization” and schooling October 26, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Engaging Learning Environments, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Carol Reid

The recent events in Parramatta and subsequent ‘threats’ on social media located at two south-western Sydney high schools has brought to the fore the role of schooling in developing and countering threats to social cohesion. This is not the first time that the relationship between schools and terrorism and crime have been raised and it is not just in this part of Sydney, which is home to the most diverse number of first and second generation immigrants in Sydney. For those of us who have worked in and with schools around these matters for a number of decades there is little surprise. Before discussing what might be done it is critical that we comprehend what hasn’t been done, or rather what has been erased.

In the culture wars over school curricula Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire argued that critical approaches in high schools were ideologically driven and took the place of what really ‘ought’ to be in the curriculum. Donnelly was the ‘non-ideological’ choice of government for interrupting what was seen as left-wing tendencies among teachers and reforming ‘tainted’ curricula. This article does not want to waste space recounting the debates as arguments can be found elsewhere, but it is important to outline what this has meant for schools and young people.

The attack on critical thinking skills (including critiques of government policy and our history) by conservative educationalists leads to schools becoming places where ‘touchy subjects’ can’t be raised. They are taboo in schools. This means that they find space in subterranean places. This happens in schools in part because that is where young people gather. Schools are therefore important sites for airing and challenging views, no matter how extreme. It is not surprising that fellow students of the Arthur Phillip High School student involved in the Parramatta shooting had not heard him mention anything untoward, nor is it surprising that he also silenced discussions of religion or appeared disinterested. This concealed two things – his own complicity with unspeakable texts, but more importantly the related silencing of different views of the world by conservative forces surrounding schooling.

If we are not blind we can take this opportunity to reconsider what schooling is and how marginalising some forms of critique only serves to deepen disaffection but more critically drives some young people to commit acts of terror. The new Turnbull government is beginning to soften the tone but often points to factors such as mental health issues, isolated young people or poor family relations as factors that leads to anti-social behaviour at school or by young people of school age. But this begs the question given all the mental health opportunities provided for young people. Assistance for this kind of anomie is off the radar. It cannot be spoken.

In the rest of this short article I would like to outline what might be done and in doing so stand in solidarity with commentators such as Yassar Morsi who said:

It maybe counterintuitive but the answer lays in less authority – a space for young Muslims to politically dissent in their own language, rather than more policing of their dissent. Less parenting, more growth and a space to criticise the west and Australia, without an Islamophobic or generational backlash and without the hysterical fear and suffocation that surrounds everything they do and say.

Indeed, the first response to the Parramatta shooting by the NSW State Government is to monitor more closely ‘prayer’ groups in schools and while not clearly stated, this appears to be only Muslim prayer groups. Dr Anne Aly – who works with Muslim youth and adults who are already radicalized – similarly argues for dialogue. But what can schools do? In the remainder of this article I provide an approach that builds on young people’s capacities to know, and to trust them to articulate this knowing and emerge with new understandings that enrich them, their peers and their teachers.

In late 2006 I was invited by Larissa Treskin, then the NSW Department of Education Liverpool Education Director of Schools, to consider a project working with public high schools in Liverpool on racism post-Cronulla riots. Apparently there were still simmering issues bundled up with everyday competitiveness by school boys about girls and turf; the usual spatial dynamics that have been around for a long time. Six high schools were approached and I invited two of my colleagues (Drs Les Vozzo and Debra Costley) to work with me on the project, which was funded by a competitive ‘Living in Harmony’ grant for 2007, managed by the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) with a contribution by my university, now Western Sydney University (WSU).

The project began with selecting the age groups to be involved. Year 9 and 10 students (14 to 16 year olds) formed two groups. The first (47 in total) spent a full day at WSU where we discussed the media representation of young people involved in two riots – Macquarie Fields and Cronulla. We were careful to approach the issue as one where the construction of young people was at the heart of the matter and thus to evoke a sense of ‘needing to understand’ different perspectives from and about their own peers. The objective was to explore and document through youth voices the causes of youth tensions in a context of rapid social change. We provided them with workshops on how to interview, carry out focus groups and ethical research practice. We argued that the main concern was to understand racism – whether it was indeed an issue, thoughts about the Cronulla riot and whether another might occur.

At the end of the day’s workshop we all co-constructed five questions (eight teachers included) that would be covered in their research. The students then left and with their teachers developed plans to interview a group of students and teachers at another school after a pilot focus group at their own school and an interview practice with a teacher or two volunteers. They also interviewed community members such as parents and local business owners. Staff workshops were also held.

A second group of students worked with a theatre group led by Kaz Therese on a creative representation of the issues, and also findings from the first group’s investigations. The youth theatre group decided to use a narrative approach so that the students involved could use theatrical forms to narrate stories of migration, indigeneity and everyday teenage concerns, along with a song they developed around the rejection of racism. The production was called ‘Pieces of Harmony’ because the students felt that while harmony was a fair enough aim it was a little naïve, but that in the act of aiming for harmony a rapprochement could be attained in pieces of harmony. The performance was held at the Liverpool Catholic Club and was attended by community, parents and dignitaries with a DVD produced.

What happened to those doing the research? The students were slightly apprehensive; pleased they had got the questions agreed on before leaving the workshop, but feeling intimidated about talking to parents due to cultural mores about respect and obedience among many second generation students. So, we had a mock focus group to prepare them. Students interviewed 301 other students in total across the six schools. Initially they were concerned about going to other schools but the evaluation of the project revealed that collaboration with other schools was the aspect they enjoyed most.

Furthermore, when they were asked about what they had learned, the greatest number of comments related to how doing the research had shifted their thinking about issues of cultural difference, race and harmony. A number had held negative constructions of students from other schools based purely on ethnicity or reputation rather than knowledge of their perspectives. Other interesting results here include the relatively poor perception of parental support for young people. Students were also surprised by some of the attitudes of teachers. The young people involved in the research requested another full day workshop to discuss their findings and asked why there were no more opportunities for this kind of learning. The young people who were involved in the research found some startling facts about others, themselves and their teachers.

Some key community attitudes about young people and the project that emerged from the focus groups led by students were:

  • They felt there was a lot of diversity in their communities;
  • Dominance of a certain culture made others feel inferior to that group;
  • Kept referring back to just ‘youth’ rather than racism – i.e. not their problem in other words;
  • Families had different values and morals;
  • Indigenous parents particularly enjoyed the performances where students told their stories.

From the students’ perspective:

  • The project produced an overall shift in attitude towards students from other schools and cultures developed through an exploration of local and global issues;
  • They concluded that older students had more fixed views influenced by the media;
  • Younger students were less decided. Still testing out the possible ideas available;
  • Concluded that Year 7 and 8 is a good place to start as they haven’t formed opinions or stereotyped people.

The students found that teachers:

  • Held the basic idea that more diversity produces racism and that this is an area that needs some substantial work done with teachers;
  • Lifestyles did not include much mixing with diversity;
  • Were worried about Bebo – site of racist narratives.

To conclude, the outcomes of the project were that people were now more conscious that racism takes many forms and that it is not just young people but community, parents and teachers who are implicated in multiple ways. While this project was related to racism, it is the model of youth engagement in understanding the issues from their perspective and in their words that is central. Working in multimodal forms also makes different forms of expressing these understandings and perspectives available. The project also developed critical thinking capacities and provided knowledge about ethical research practices.

More could be done to make schools safe places for student discussion of current issues. While it may seem counter-intuitive from a conservative perspective – that ‘touchy subjects’ ought to be repressed because they are dangerous – not dealing with valid concerns that young people have, whether radicalization or other matters, means that it is hard to make schools relevant in the totality of their lives. Educationalists must be explaining and debating. It is fertile space for further research and community engagement.

 

Dr Carol Reid is an associate professor in the Centre for Educational Research and School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Comments»

1. Margaret Vickers - October 26, 2015

Thank you Carol for explaining how youth participation in research on racism worked in 2007 – this is so relevant now – and certainly as much existing research shows, more surveillance contributes to the problem. Creating connections among young people – inclusive of their cultural and religious diversity – and having them carry out activities together – research mentoring – this is the way to go!

Carol Reid - October 26, 2015

Thanks Margaret. Yes it seems that we need to keep reminding ourselves that democratic approaches work best.


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