“It can be useful to look outside our own education systems for inspiration.”

Teachers and educators from Northern and Western Europe met on the island of Utøya to learn, share, and give feedback from practice to the European Wergeland Centre (EWC) and the Council of Europe on the role of education in building democratic resilience.

Utøya after the attacks of 22 July 2011: A case study

Internationally, much can be learned from Utøya after the terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011. Sites of atrocities are often made into monuments frozen in time. However, Utøya has been developed with the aim of bringing new life to the island, while at the same time making space for commemoration, learning and engagement.

The active involvement of victims and affected families, as well as of the Workers Youth League (AUF) and national and international experts, has become a leading example of an inclusive process dealing with sensitive issues and controversies in ways that foster compromise. Utøya after 22 July 2011 is a place for exploring, comparing, and discussing different approaches and responses to terrorist attacks and extremism in other contexts. It provides a unique frame for international democracy trainings.

How to deal with controversial, political issues in school?

A DEMRED pilot training was organized at Utøya in March 2023. EWC has worked together with Utøya since 2015 to establish a national and international learning program to promote democracy and human rights.

The pilot training aimed to strengthen democratic resilience through education. When it comes to the role of schools in teaching democracy, one issue raised by teachers and trainers as particularly challenging is responding to or dealing with controversial, political issues. These could be situations where national political leaders promote views that dehumanize certain groups of the population or disparage democratic institutions and processes.

Teachers and trainers shared that students promote such views at school and teachers need to find ways to deal with it. On one hand, discussing real-life political issues is more likely to engage students than discussing imaginary, less controversial issues. On the other hand, how does one open the classroom to different perspectives, without taking sides, while at the same time promoting democratic values and principles?

At Utøya we explored concrete tools for dealing with such situations. Here are some relevant resources:

Living with Controversy Training Pack – to understand more about the nature of controversial issues, your role as a teacher in dealing with them, and some pedagogical strategies.

The Deliberate Classroom Project – to learn how to use deliberation pedagogy in addressing sensitive and controversial issues.

Debunking myths

The project brought together teachers and educators from countries across Europe with recent experience dealing with extremism. One of the lesson learned from the training is that sharing experiences in an international context helps to debunk myths, stereotypes, and prejudices in how different countries and school systems deal with terrorist attacks, hate crimes, and extremism.

One example, highlighted by participants from France, is the tendency to promote France as “the bad example” when it comes to dealing with controversial and sensitive issues in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. However, examples from headmasters and teachers showed how educational professionals in France find ways to pedagogically navigate complex situations connected to politics and religion in school. For example, schools find ways (often on very short notice) to organize minutes of silence after terrorist attacks and hate crimes, ensuring both student and staff involvement, and cooperating closely with the local community.

Listening and learning from the practical experiences of teachers and schools allows for more intercultural understanding and solidarity.

Building a sense of community across borders

The training was an opportunity for teachers and educators to look beyond their own national education systems and everyday work. Another lesson learned from the training is that addressing complex, sensitive, and controversial issues connected to anti-democratic movements, exclusion and extremism in an international context makes educators aware that they are not alone in dealing with these issues.

Moreover, as one teacher said: “Sometimes, it is useful to look outside our own education systems for inspiration.” The teacher argued that we are often “trapped” in our own systems and ways of thinking. Learning about practices in other countries makes one question the structures or procedures one takes for granted. In other words, knowledge about practices in other countries could lead to positive change.

The role of schools in strengthening democratic resilience

Schools and teachers in different countries work within different legal frameworks and deal with different definitions of key concepts and subjects (such as citizenship education, democracy and citizenship, or ethics) that guide the role of education in preventing extremism and building democratic resilience.

The Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture (RFCDC) is useful in creating a common understanding across different educational contexts. The participants supported the Council of Europe and EWC’s approach to preventing extremism through recognizing schools as a fundamental place for learning democracy, fostering inclusion, and respecting human rights.

The teachers also emphasized the central role of student participation in building democratic resilience. This feedback is in line with the whole-school approach promoted by EWC, and will be included in the further development of our project.

How did we do it?

  • Inviting educators from countries with recent experiences dealing with extremism, particularly far-right extremism. The countries in the pilot were Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France, invited through our Advisory Board and other partners.
  • Organizing a three-day pilot training at Utøya prepared and carried out by a team of trainers from EWC and external experts.
  • Developing a space on our online platform where experts, trainers and participants could get to know each other, share expectations of the training, and exchange relevant knowledge and research materials.
  • Organizing an online follow-up meeting three months after the training to catch up and plan ahead.

The training was a part of DEMRED – Strengthening Democratic Resilience through Education, a joint project between EWC and the Council of Europe. In Norway we cooperate with the learning center at Utøya.