Culture & Conversations

A few years ago, I was asked by some students if I wanted to help them with a club called “fight for rights”. It was initially made to address what they felt were inequalities within our school community and culture. At first, I was reluctant. I didn’t want to be tagged or labelled as an “activist”. After reflection I saw that this was a naïve move, as I had written about these ideas for years and as a teacher, I feel it is my duty to help to empower others. This group of students felt they were being left out of conversations due, what should be,  unfathomable factors such as their sexual organs, their skin tone, how they walked, how they studied, or how much cash was in their pocket. It wasn’t right. Furthermore, teachers, students and staff in all the schools I have worked in have discussed the idea of culture and inequality. We have all experienced what it is like having baseless judgments against us, but some have had to deal with it more than others. We all judge each other, but the judgments regarding the aforementioned list are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what makes us, us. They undermine what is really important: our physical & mental wellbeing with cultural appreciation at the centre. The main reservation that I had was: how could we address this theme in such a polarised world, which seems to favour the loudest in the room during the Internet Age? 

I recommended that they should realise that “fighting” isn’t the only answer, nor is it apparently, the most suitable way to get their point across in a centre of learning. Theoretically, my “teacher response” seemed to make sense, but what happens when stakeholders do not feel comfortable or safe to state their opinion or ideas in open dialogue? In all the schools I have worked in verbal abuse seems to be commonplace, from the casual homophobic or racial slur masked as banter or locker room talk.  In a way this subtle and sometimes not so subtle discourse managed to subdue those deemed to be the subaltern.  In my experience when this issue has been raised teachers throw up a number of things to blame from the media to parents. The real issue is a lack of awareness of oneself and those around us. Breakdowns in healthy conversations usually stem from ignorance. How can we create spaces where people feel that they can express themselves freely, but at the same time respect the people around them and have culture awareness regarding what they say?

It seems natural that cultures and communities have tensions built within them. How we manage our diversity and learn from our differences is the key. Open debate should be viewed as healthy as it creates innovation  and understanding. Debates are some of our oldest practices. That should be an international school’s focus: to embrace the variety in front of us and within ourselves, to promote positive change and also to be proud of what we have currently. There is, however, a battle between real-life and online experiences. According to Cinelli, social media has closed our open-mindedness, creating homophily and echo-chambers. The monetary-minded coders at numerous internet companies have composed algorithms that champion monothought, not heteroglossia. The world of social media is a behemoth for educators to battle against and we need to expose it for what it is. In some lessons we have educated students on the pros and cons of social media and looked at how it can affect our mindset when it comes to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Of course, there are positives to online engagement, such as encouraging activism and exposing injustices, but more often than not social media companies thrive from content that promotes outrage, deception and conspiracy. The more polarised we are, the better it is for them. 

These extreme attitudes can bleed into classrooms, beyond virtual life and beyond veils of computer screens. There have been incidences of teachers controlling political views,  students verbally attacking those that oppose them and teachers being physically attacked for questioning cultural practices; even killed. Has there been an increase in this kind of behaviour, or are we just seeing it more in the news? Nevertheless, clearly what needs to happen is a development of spaces where conversations in schools allow freedom of expression (or the closest we can get to it). School classrooms should not be battlegrounds for culture wars, rather there should be a space where there is a search for identity rather than a  “double down mentality” of one’s own identity or perspective. When I first introduced the idea of being prepared to be offended during debates in my class, I asked the following questions:

  • Have you ever felt degraded or disrespected by someone? Why? What did you learn from that moment?
  • ​Where is the line of what you can say and what you can’t say? Should there be a limit in class?
  • Should it be a crime to hurt someone’s feelings? What if that person isn’t around to be hurt?

These three questions seem to open up a huge amount of critical thinking and debate in themselves before we even began discussions regarding identity, politics and culture or otherwise. Prior to debate, we must think about what we say and how we say it. This is different from censorship, this is developing our interpersonal skills and learning how to manage different situations.  Some may see this as shrewd or political correctness, but I see it as surviving in a chaotic environment. The term political correctness has had its own evolution both on the right and left of the political spectrum. Initially seen as a satirical term but left it was used in the 1980s by the right as a weapon against inclusive language. Now perhaps it has an amalgamation of both stances. If people want to say what they want to say in any manner they see fit in spite of the situation, they must be prepared for the consequences: good or bad. This preparation and handling of situations and being prepared to speak our mind takes considerable emotional intelligence (skills that need to be taught more in school). Students should also be open to hearing other opinions different to their own and reconsider their points of view in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. This will avoid “cancelling” people unnecessarily and an abuse of “woke culture”.

As educators we can facilitate discussion by possibly incorporating roleplay, or using other methods such as De Bono’s thinking hats.  In Theory of Knowledge, IB students are sometimes restricted to certain Ways of Knowing in debates. From a teacher’s perspective we need to raise awareness prior to discussions about the stages for those who have been historically marginalised and the process it took for them to even have a ‘seat at the table’.   The three stages could be observed as so:

  • Recognition – realising that we all of us have implicit bias
  • Toleration – the dominant power recognises marginalised as humans but doesn’t necessarily recognise their views.
  • Legitimisation – the dominant power may perhaps recognise the rights of these marginalised people and may allow concessions.

In unmoderated debates on social media young people are interacting with users at various stages of the pyramid. The last step of recognition will be the hardest, for those who feel they are marginalised and also for those who feel they are in power, as we have varying backgrounds and experiences in the classroom. The classroom should be a level playing field and this can only happen with equity rather than equality. To navigate these “risky” cultural conversations successfully it will take empathy, humility, guidance and accountability. These aspects need to be modelled by the teacher and other members of the school community.

I have been passionate about the meeting of cultures for most of my life. It’s one of the reasons I am an international teacher.  We should be glad more people are becoming more aware of themselves and others and I know a lot of colleagues and students are hopeful that these conversations become something that comes naturally, enhancing an appreciation of each other and a willingness to accept our differences.

Schools have spoken a lot about diversity recently and we do need to have conversations about culture at the various points where they meet. Some stakeholders, including staff and teachers can be defensive when they hear that word. If that’s you: try not to be triggered; be hopeful. Diversity is nothing new. If you don’t like the way the word is being interpreted or used, take ownership of it. Celebrate culture in the way that it reflects you, but doesn’t harm others. Diversity is part of you, it’s part of all of us. It’s what makes us who we are and it’s good to talk.

Christopher Clyde Green

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