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War in Ukraine and the power of education

Painful family separations have been a frequent occurrence in Ukraine (Source: AP)

Images of people on the move, destroyed hospitals and victims of war have appalled me.  But whenever I see footage of a child’s palm on one side of a departing train’s window and their father’s palm on the other, it hits home, it hits hard, and I well up: that could be me and that could be my child.

Faced with this and other heart-breaking scenes from Ukraine, as with other crises both at home and abroad, many of us will feel helpless.  Students will also be reacting to the war in schools across the country; many of them will be feeling increasingly uncertain and anxious as the situation develops.  Teachers have been impelled to respond, and some of these responses are also worth considering by parents and others with concerns about the welfare of our young people.

The role of schools

School leaders and form tutors alike have been preparing and delivering assemblies and activities to help young people navigate the crisis, and these have been shared on social and traditional media alike.  In the short term, we can also point to the highly valued role which pastoral and counselling teams play as students seek emotional guidance and support.  And it is easy to forget the crucial role played by the mere fact of attending school, which gives our students a well justified sense of security.

The war will also be used as a contemporary reference point by teachers of history: parallels and connections with previous European and world conflicts are already being drawn.  Moreover, the powerful media content emanating from Ukraine will sharpen our senses and remind us of the self-destructive capacity of certain members of our species.

Politics teachers will be able to help their students understand the contemporary context of the conflict, whilst war poetry written over a century ago will, in the expert hands of English teachers, have renewed power and poignancy.

It’s also about time that geography teachers – and I write as one – become more forthright about the value of their subject in understanding energy security and geopolitics.  And how many people realise that superpowers and international governance is an integral part of A Level Geography?

Belief in humanity

But all of us – inside and outside the world of formal education – can respond more profoundly too.  We are all exposed to a daily barrage of stories about the world.  We live in an era of 24-hour media access and rolling news, but how many of us are equipping our young people to survive, let alone thrive, in such a context?  The concept of ‘doomscrolling’ – working through a depressing stream of bad news on a smartphone – was first used in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the pandemic, but it can now be applied to news about Ukraine, and our students will be at risk from the despair it engenders.

To counterbalance the sense of doom, we should encourage young people to take a ‘big picture’ of the world, both in terms of long-term trends and a global context.  Whilst it is imperative that we consider some of the responses to the Ukraine crisis outlined above, it is also crucial that we draw young people’s attention to the better side of humanity: the side that, in recent decades, has led to a huge rise in global life expectancy, a massive reduction in infant mortality, a fall in malnutrition and levels of extreme poverty, the eradication of smallpox, and the near eradication of polio.

It’s also the collaborative and co-operative side of humanity that has given us a largely peaceful world since the end of the Second World War.  Young people should be told that the rash actions of one dictator and his cronies must not undermine their faith in human nature that we will eventually overcome this challenge, just as we have overcome challenges in the past.

The power of education

In the longer term, we should remind ourselves just how powerful education can be: teachers and other citizens alike should continually be asking what should we teach, and more importantly, why are we teaching it?  Over the last decade there has been a growing concern with what Gert Biesta calls the ‘learnification’ of education.  He argues that education has primarily become a system of knowledge transmission, rather than as a way of preparing our students for roles as critically thinking, democratically informed, and active citizens in a changing world.

A reformed educational purpose may involve engaging young people in discussions about conflict escalation and resolution and involving them in opportunities for deliberative democracy.  Teachers should have the courage to move away from being just facilitators of learning, into preparing our students to live in and shape a better – and more peaceful – world in the future.

None of us can change the world straight away, but whilst robust shorter-term responses attempt to disempower Putin and steer the crisis away from becoming a global catastrophe, we should harness the power of education to lay the foundations for the world we’d like to see.

By alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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