Action or Knowledge? Reflection from Fellow, Farah Amalia

Written by Farah Amalia, 2017 AC4 Fellow, on September 9, 2017.

Violent extremism is always a scary subject to delve into. Defining the term is difficult enough, let alone creating a whole curriculum around preventing it. These two words are used everywhere, including in the world of international education. However, in most situations, audience understanding is simply assumed. Perhaps when talking about violent extremism it is sometimes easier to leave the term undefined in order to be all-inclusive and not isolate a certain group of people. In many situations, not giving an exact definition does not render a discussion meaningless. Violent extremism has become a household term. Yes, conversations can continue to happen even though we only “sort of” know what it means, but it is a whole different matter when we’re in the position to teach about it.

Our understanding of what violent extremism means is not only a matter of choosing the right words, but the way we define this term also says a lot about our assumptions and beliefs. A truly transformative education requires complete equality between educators and learners. Knowledge in the learning space has to be co-created, which means as curriculum developers, we needed to remove those assumptions out of our lessons as much as possible.

Our project was initially titled “Preventing Violent Extremism: A Curricular Intervention.” This was a catchy title for a proposal, but sending the curriculum out to potential partners in Indonesia was a whole different experience. In our first extensive conversation with Rumah Baca Komunitas, the organization our team ended up working with, one of their members explained to us, “Here, we hold on to the principle of what we call ‘appreciative learning.’ We start with the positive aspects of what the students already have. So, we need to know first, what do you mean by this title?” This was not an easy question to answer. First, we had to convince them that any issues that could potentially carry our assumptions and biases, such as violent extremism, human rights, and social justice, would be defined by the students themselves. We were not to present them the Universal Declaration of Human Rights until they have come up with their own declaration, and even then, only use it as a comparison. Second, we had to implement this promise and revise our curriculum. Our initial plan of starting out the workshop by exploring the question “What type of actions contribute to violent extremism?” was not “appreciative learning.”

The first content-filled lesson was dedicated to discussing local and universal human rights. As we wanted to primarily take the role as researchers, the lessons were led by a facilitator from Rumah Baca Komunitas. We observed as he asked the students, “What do you understand about human rights?” and moved towards the board to write the term down. Some students mumbled their answers, some stayed silent. The facilitator called on a few people who gave answers along the lines of, “human rights are rights that everybody has” and “human rights is something we have since birth” — all of which are sentences plucked from textbooks. The facilitator continued to draw a spider web and described the different types of human rights. He wrote “rights that are attached to you” and “rights that you choose to exercise.” We watched as some students diligently took notes and noticed as a few in the back started to nod off. A picture of a typical classroom. There was nothing wrong with this picture, as side conversations and a sleeping back row are a normal part of most classrooms. Notes from the note-takers will eventually go around and in the end all the students will know what human rights are. On top of it all, they were comfortable with this style of learning. But a typical classroom is not a transformational classroom, nor is it “appreciative.” A typical classroom is not education.

We wrote down a list of things that needed to be fixed in the next lesson: more student presentation, use outdoor space, rearrange classroom, less breadth more depth, break time into small chunks, teacher circulation during group work, etc. Every week we had three lessons that were conducted three days in a row, and four days free until the next round of classes to reflect and adapt. The following topic was social justice, something that was foundational to the curriculum and therefore must be understood by the students thoroughly. In revising our lesson plans, we grappled with the question “Is the aim of this workshop to increase content knowledge or to develop social activism skills?” Most progressive educators would find this an easy one to answer. However, it is a difficult decision when the learners do not yet have a basic understanding of human rights. When asked to list examples of human rights that they have heard of, many students listed answers such as “rights of parents,” “personal rights,” and “everybody’s rights.” We came to ponder on the bigger question of “Is a transformative education possible in contexts where there is minimum grasp of content knowledge?” In the end, we still decided that we wanted the students to be able to make their own social projects, and hence designed our next lesson to be a town hall simulation game.

Each student had to pick a piece of paper from an identity lottery, and they could become either a member of a religious minority, an ethnic minority, an elderly person, a woman, a farmer, a street child, or a person with a disability. The results of their town hall meeting read:

  1. Street kids need to be treated fairly and be provided with education facilities, decent work opportunities and financial aid.
  2. The Christian community needs acknowledgement from the wider community. We need to be treated fairly, be protected from bullying, and be treated honestly.
  3. People with disabilities need healthcare.
  4. Women need social protection and they need to be protected from discrimination. They need equality, justice, and education.
  5. Farmers need land and financial aid.
  6. Elders need healthcare and nursing homes.
  7. The Buddhist community needs worship places.

The students took their roles seriously, some even went as far as demonstrating their theatrical skills. Although the lesson may not have exposed the students to complex human rights and social justice vocabulary, they instead achieved something more difficult–learning to advocate for other people.


Author: Farah Amalia is a current M.A. student in International Education Development at Teachers College, graduating May 2018. Farah was part of the team who won the fellowship award in 2017; the team travelled to Indonesia to pilot a non-formal human rights education curriculum centered around preventing violent extremism.

Photos: All taken and submitted by author.

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