Having Difficult Conversations

By Lottie Dowling, Professional Learning Manager, Asia Education Foundation

On the 7th of July, 2005, I was working at an inner-city school in London, when I heard the unnerving sound of a distant siren. Our local tube station had been bombed as part of a coordinated terrorist attack on the city.

In the days and weeks following, everyone seemed to be living in a world of uncertainty. Students started asking questions: who had done these horrible things? Why did they do them? Why would people kill themselves for a cause?

Looking back I feel as though I failed my students by not being able to properly help them make sense of those events or the world they lived in.

In the aftermath of Paris and Beirut, I've found myself wondering how schools would deal with these events in classrooms across Australia.

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Earlier this year, I facilitated a nationwide professional learning program 'Connecting Students to the World', where teachers explored the cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity of Australia. At this time, even before the Paris and Beirut bombings, there was a lot of media around Islam, extremism and ISIS. At each session, as we addressed Australia's religious diversity, I'd inquired as to how participants were dealing with student perceptions of these issues related to Islam. I discovered that these issues were generally not being addressed. This was surprising considering how exposed children are to the media and the experience prompted me to contemplate why these critical issues weren't being discussed.

Perhaps it's because educators feel their lack of understanding of certain global events or contexts disqualifies them from facilitating discussion of the issues. Possibly they feel it's not their place to explore such themes in the classroom. However, these topics are too important to be ignored. They present real life opportunities for students to expand their understanding of the world, to build respect, empathy and understanding and to develop critical thinking skills.

In today's digital times trying to shield students from the world is impossible. News is rarely black and white, however, it is often presented so by the media. Our students need to build the skills to be able to critically decipher and evaluate information presented by the media.

Students need practice in evaluating information and the space to make sense of larger world events. Educators are as equally responsible for opening the world to students, as they are for closing it off to them. When it comes to difficult conversations, educators don't have to know all the answers, but they do need to be willing to create an environment where students feel empowered to debate complex cultural topics and challenge information.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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