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THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

RADICALISATION & CRITICAL THINKING

Radicalization refers to a short- or long-term process where persons subscribe to extremist views or legitimize their actions on the basis of extremist ideologies.” (Danish Government, 2016 – see the module 1 of part 1: Introduction to Radicalization).

Although there is no final and generally accepted definition of radicalization, the term generally refers to a process – either a short or long term one – which sees the progressive adhesion to an extreme ideology, to the point of legitimizing or even perpetrating violent acts. Said process is ignited and enabled by a series of social and personal circumstances which can amount to an increased vulnerability of the individual to the attraction of extremist ideologies and groups (CPRLV, 2016).

Process of radicalization leading to violence diagram

© by Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence (CPRLV), all rights reserved

Such circumstances can be divided in societal and/or contextual circumstances and personal/individual circumstances. Societal circumstances include political and/or economic unrest, heightened political discourse, social conflict; individual circumstances can include psychological or socioeconomic vulnerability, precariousness of family ties and social networks. These circumstances can on one hand encourage individuals – especially young people – to question the status quo and their environment and to embark in a quest for meaning; and on the other, act as enablers for extremist groups to recruit vulnerable individuals and offer them the attractive answers and community. So, where does critical thinking come into play in this picture? Along with social and individual circumstances, it is possible to identify protective factors. These include psychological factors such as empathy, cognitive resources and a feeling of belonging; and social factors such as strong family ties, community, social networks and inclusive environments. Critical thinking is the most important of the necessary cognitive resources that can protect an individual from the affiliation to extremist ideologies or groups.

 “Critical thinking can be defined as the ability to think rationally, exploring issues and ideas and understanding the logical connection between them, before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion. It might be also described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” (Wiley, 2011 – See module 2 of Part 1:  Critical Thinking)

The idea of Critical Thinking focuses on teaching students how to think rather than what to think. Critical thinking is the ability to assess and question information, opinions, ideas, and to determine the validity of arguments and ideologies. It can act as a shield against fake news and biased propaganda, and support individuals in building their own identity and independent opinions. Critical thinking is the foundation of democratic societies, as only critical and informed citizens can fully exercise their right to vote and actively participate in the democratic life of their society.

THE SCHOOL AS A RESILIENT COMMUNITY

Adolescence is a time of social and emotional vulnerability for most young people, and it is characterized by a quest for answers and for one’s identity. This is particularly true for youngsters who don’t fit the mainstream mold, be it because of their ethnic or socio-economic origin, be it because of their sexual orientation or simply because they have trouble socializing. Schools can in fact turn out to be environments that heighten social anxieties and marginalization.

According to sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, an individual’s self (their identity or perception thereof) is conditioned by the perception said individual has of how the people around see him/her (Rahim, 2010). This concept, named the Looking-Glass Self, is explanatory of feelings of rejection, non-belonging, low self-esteem and marginalization young people who don’t fit socially in school may feel. These feelings can push youngsters towards ideologies and groups which specifically target their vulnerabilities and provide for perceived answers to their quest for meanings and feelings of community, group and kinship, thus reversing the effect of the Looking Glass-Self. It is therefore fundamental that schools turn into positive environments, able to provide community and meaning. The school and/or the classroom should be a resilient community, encouraging individuals to become resilient.

A resilient community can be defined as a group whose characteristics help prevent its members from engaging in extremism leading to violence. The concept of the resilient community focuses on the idea that strong relationships and feelings of belonging reduce individual vulnerability to violent extremist propaganda (Stephens et al., 2019). Teachers have the potential to ensure that their classrooms – and the school in general – become resilient communities instead of hotbeds for marginalization and vulnerability. In order to do so, they should make sure that the classroom is a safe space, where all students feel accepted and listened to. Teachers should encourage their students to exercise emotional intelligence and empathy by addressing existing conflicts and improving the quality of relationships, and to engage in open dialogue. No topic should be taboo, and everyone should be encouraged to actively participate.

In this respect, critical thinking is a fundamental skill students need in order to learn how to build their own opinions, build arguments and challenge stereotypes. Employing critical thinking in dialogue ensures that students who have outlying opinions or backgrounds are ostracized for who they are, but meet with intellectual challenges to their opinions, rather than exclusion for who they are. This mechanism has the potential for reversing the effect of the Looking-Glass Self, with students feeling that their voice is listened to and that they are not the victims of labeling and stereotyping, but full-fledged members of a community of dialogue.

THE RESILIENT INDIVIDUAL: A CRITICAL THINKER

Resilient communities are meant to foster the development of resilient individuals. Resilient individuals possess the individual psychological, cognitive and relational protective factors previously mentioned. Although there is a diverse body of literature referable to the concept of the resilient individual, it is possible to summarize the main positions as focusing on three individual aspects that make an individual resilient:

Character traits:

These include mainly emotional intelligence and empathy. In fact, empathy is fundamental in order to reverse the process of dehumanization of particular group of people (or several), which is often part of extremist propaganda and of radicalization trajectories;

Values:

Several authors point to values such as democracy, pluralism, freedom of speech, human rights, as fundamental in preventing radicalization and improving individual resilience to extremist messages. In fact, providing young people with a strong framework of values and encouraging them to act upon them through civic engagement and in their everyday life, will contribute to filling a void and leave less space to alternative sets of values (stemming  from extremist propaganda) to look attractive;

Cognitive resources:

The main cognitive resource that emerges as a means of prevention is critical thinking. Resilient individuals are critical thinkers because they are able to address any topic, they are able to debunk fake or polarizing messages and manichaeistic propaganda through rational analysis of arguments and sources of information.

A FOCUS ON RISK FACTORS AND PROTECTIVE FACTORS AGAINST RADICALISATION

Image from RAN Policy Paper: Transforming Schools into labs for democracy, 2019

Another model for the representation of risks and protective factors against radicalisation is the one proposed by Magnus Ranstorp (RAN ISSUE PAPER The Root Causes of Violent Extremism, 2016), a Swedish expert member of the Radicalisation Awareness Network.

According to Ranstorp, around the process of individual radicalisation there is a kaleidoscope of factors intersecting and complexly interconnecting.

As the image shows, at the centre of the radicalisation process there is the individual. Beside personal risk factors, such as victimhood, anger, personal trauma and feelings of humiliation, Ranstorp identifies other six risk factors that are graphically included in the first level around the individual, indicating external circumstances that can affect the individual pushing it toward a process of extremism and radicalisation. They are social factors (exclusion, social immobility, crime), political factors (foreign policy, islamophobia, war), ideological/religious factors (historical missions, ummah), cultural/identity factors (lack of belonging, identity crisis, marginalisation), recruiting factors (pull of the extremist milieu, social media, targeting of the vulnerable), group dynamics (friendship and kinship, groupthink, social media).

For each of these factors, there is a protective factor which can act as a shield between the individual and deviancy. Each protective factor mitigates risk and promotes individual resilience in relation to a particular aspect. The protective factors are represented in the third external level, in connection with the related risk factor.

  • To protect against political alienation, it is necessary to focus on democratic citizenship.
  • To protect against ideology, it is necessary to offer religious knowledge and more in general to promote intercultural awareness and openness to diversity.
  • To protect against identity crises, it is needed to stimulate personal participation and active citizenship.
  • Against the pull of the extremist milieu, a supportive family environment is a strong protective factor.
  • To help individuals resist negative influences from friendship and kinship, it is fundamental to cultivate autonomy, self-esteem, social-emotional well-being and life skills.
  • To protect from (feelings of) exclusion, social coping skills should be enhanced.

In this context, schools have the role to promote citizenship education, by enabling students to actively engage and express themselves in democratic ways by developing peaceful fighting skills and conflict resolution skills.

Finally, the third level of the figure is represented by promotive factors at society level, for the creation of a resilient community, which are:

(RAN ISSUE PAPER Protective and promotive factors building resilience against violent radicalisation, 2018)

  1. Vigilance
  2. Safety
  3. Education
  4. Dialogue
  5. Inclusion
  6. Care

THE ROLE OF SCHOOLS IN PREVENTION OF RADICALISATION

The primary purpose of education is not only to develop knowledge, skills, competences and attitudes and to embed fundamental values, but also to help young people – in close cooperation with parents and families – to become active, responsible, open-minded members of society. Children and young people represent our future and must have the opportunity to shape that future. We must combine our efforts to prevent and tackle marginalisation, intolerance, racism and radicalisation and to preserve a framework of equal opportunities for all. We must build on children’s and young people’s sense of initiative and the positive contribution they can make through participation, while reaffirming the common fundamental values on which our democracies are based”.

(Paris Declaration, 2015)

The Paris declaration, adopted by the European ministers responsible for education, and the Commissioners for education, culture, youth and sport recognises the primary role of education and schools in promoting a more tolerant, pluralistic and open society, safeguarding the common values of freedom of thought and expression, social inclusion and respect for others, as well as preventing and tackling discrimination in all its forms.

Particularly, the declaration identifies as one of the main objectives to be reached by member States in the field of education to strengthen children’s and young people’s ability to think critically and exercise judgement so that, particularly in the context of the Internet and social media, they are able to grasp realities, to distinguish fact from opinion, to recognise propaganda and to resist all forms of indoctrination and hate speech, as key factors for preventing radicalisation.

Similarly, the European Agenda for Security, adopted in April 2015, assign to education the key role to play to address the root causes of extremism through preventive measures, countering radicalisation by promoting common European values, fostering social inclusion, enhancing mutual understanding and tolerance, highlining that inclusive education can make a major contribution in tackling inequalities and preventing marginalization.

These preventive measures represent forms of early or generic prevention, acting as protective factors that can protect pupils like a shield contrasting against the risk factors already analysed in the previous section.

Schools stand at the very forefront in the prevention of radicalisation for several reasons. First of all, because youngsters in the period of their adolescence are regularly subject to concerns, grievances and crisis around their identity and the negotiation of the values laying at the foundation of our society. Secondly, because youngsters often lack of opportunities and space for discussing and creating their own opinion about topics such as immigration, gender, discrimination and international conflicts. Both these elements can create a breeding ground for extremist propaganda. To prevent these seeds to grow, schools need to nurture instead resilience and all the communicative, social and emotional skills needed to tackle the challenges of adolescence, and by providing the space to do it safely.

Schools must provide a safe space for students to develop and voice their views and convictions, explore ideas and their own boundaries.

The roles of schools and education, as thus identified, represent a first level of prevention (or primary or early prevention), aimed at strengthening resilience against risk factors that can lead to radicalisation processes, and raise awareness about this phenomenon. This aim represents the overall objective of education which is to prepare youngsters to responsibly live in a democratic society, respecting its rules and embracing its values.

In this framework, schools have the primary role to nurture an environment where concerns and grievances can be addressed, polarised positions can be mitigated, controversial issues openly discussed and misinformed views and false myth challenged. Particularly, schools can challenge exclusive patterns to identity that can be so attractive in the adolescent phase, since they provide easy and ready-made answers, rigid and unchangeable perspectives, straight and undoubtable paths.

At a higher level, teachers and educational staff within schools can play the fundamental role of noticing early signs of extremism and radicalisation in students, and initiate specific intervention of measures oriented to the case.

The current Radicalisation Prevention Programme fits into the first level of early prevention, while elements related to the second level will be included in the intellectual output n.3 of the PRACTICE project – Guidelines for Teachers. 

WHAT CAN SCHOOL DO?

The role of school in the phase of early prevention of radicalisation processes can be summarised in the following elements (RAN Policy Paper – Transforming schools into labs for democracy, 2018):

1. PROMOTING DEMOCRATIC ETHOS
  • Raising awareness and promoting basic values, rights and freedoms in democratic societies;
  • Enabling students to explore their ideas in inclusive settings
  • Providing a safe space to address controversial and conflicting issues
  • Challenging the idea of absolute leadership and authority conveyed by extremist ideologies that can have an effect of fascination toward youngsters in a phase of identity quest or crisis.
  • Opposing to this idea the values of pluralism, acceptance of compromises and contrast of interests and especially the importance of representation of minorities
2. ENHANCING DIVERSITY
  • Deconstructing narratives of “us” against “them”
  • Valuing the contribution that diversity has given and gives to our pluralistic society
  • Addressing topics of culture and identities, gender roles and migration – that are key topic exploited by extremist groups to promote discriminative narratives, hate and violence
  • Enhancing anti-biases approaches, countering stereotypes and intercultural awareness
3. FOSTERING MEDIA LITERACY
  • Raising awareness on the topics of hate speech and fake news with special reference to technical functions and algorithms that shape the reality online
  • Proving tools to consciously approach online media via fact-checking and online verification of information
  • Addressing information disorder, understanding how it is affecting democracy and empowering pupils in resist to these processes

To be effective, any strategy of radicalisation prevention following these three main pillars, needs to educate students but beforehand empower teachers, challenging their own possible biases.

For this reason, the structure of this programme, as already presented, follows two directions, providing training for teachers, as well as a guide for workshops and activities to be implemented with students.

Go ahead for starting your training in the following sections, navigating through the different topics. Select what is more interesting for you and start learning and practicing!

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Coordinator – Centro per lo Sviluppo Creativo Danilo Dolci – Italy

antonella.alessi@danilodolci.org