When faced with suffering, it is a very natural thing to respond with a range of emotions. Children might lack emotional maturity (whatever that means), but they too have emotional responses: sadness, anger, helplessness, frustration and pity.
In schools, we are faced with these responses a great deal, and indeed we might seek to inspire them. When we run an assembly on the Rwandan genocide, we do not want our pupils to treat this simply as a matter of propositional knowledge: we want them to feel something about it.
It is, then, perhaps part of our role to expose children to things that will lead to an emotional response. Yet these are the very moments in which we can lead children into a simplistic and naïve view of the world. I remember taking some children to Sachsenhausen and hearing a teacher from another school tell some of her pupils to “stand by the gate and look sad”. This is an extreme case, but the sentiment manifests itself in schools in a range of ways. The most cringe-worthy are the kinds of drama exercises where children pretend to be slaves on a trans-Atlantic ship, or Jews entering a gas chamber, or Syrian refugees fleeing their country.
All of these are born from the idea that, by establishing a form of emotional empathy, the children can “really understand what it’s like to be there”. Would it be too far to say that this entails not a small degree of arrogance on the part of the well-meaning teacher: can he really even begin to recreate this suffering for his pupils? Or is it that we usually just end up reproducing a simplistic, naïve and ill-informed set of assumptions about a complex situation? “Are you struggling to make sense of this kids? Gareth: go and get the guitar.”
Let’s take the example of the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis it has caused. In schools we should make sure that our pupils know about this. And we should be frank with them in saying that what they see is going to give rise to range of emotions. But, as teachers, this is where our job starts, and not where it ends. We are here to educate these children about the Syrian civil war.
So what do they need to know?
A good starting point might be a helpful webpage by the BBC that provides a good summary of the issues surrounding the civil war. But, to repeat a line of thinking I have written about before, the very knowledge base needed to access this introduction is quite extensive. If you take a look at the vocabulary the article contains, you will find words such as
- Jihadist militant
- Proxy war
- Rebel brigades
- Executive powers
- Special envoy
- Secular moderates
- Gulf Arab states
- Nerve agent
- United Nations
- Security Council
- Capital Damascas
- Second city Aleppo
It is now a well-rehearsed argument that, in order to comprehend the article, one needs to have some knowledge of what most of these terms mean. We can cope with a small number of novelties, but if we have no idea what the majority of these words mean, then we are going to struggle enormously with the article. Even more problematical is that most of these words are not ones that children would ordinarily encounter in every-day life.
It is impossible to teach of all these words in one go. The forest becomes lost amidst the trees. Ideally, therefore, we would have already taught a number of the terms. Perhaps in primary school the children learnt the names and locations of all the countries in the middle east? Great – that’s a start. Perhaps in Year 7 R.E. the pupils have learnt about Sunni and Shia Islam. Perhaps in a Year 9 history lesson they learnt about the idea of ‘proxy war’ from studying Vietnam, or ‘executive powers’ from an assembly on the British political system.
My argument here does not need labouring. As teachers, we want children to grapple with the major issues in the world today. The single most important thing we can do to help them care is to explicitly and systematically teach them the kinds of knowledge they need to know in order to even begin to make sense of the complex world in which they live.