Schools are necessarily places of routine and structure. Bells and timetables shape the pattern of the days and weeks giving a sense of a school-world slightly removed from the ‘hurly-burly’ of the 'outside'. As teachers our landmark events are often exams, reports or parents’ evenings ... with the occasional school play or Ofsted inspection to liven up the mix.

Every so often events come along which provide a jolt to this sense of routine. Global events such as the Boxing Day Tsunami and September 11th are at a scale and of a significance that cannot be ignored. This poses some very real challenges for schools as to how to respond. There is no rule book, little support or advice, yet a strong sense of demand from the school community as a whole.

Following the Asian tsunami, Tide~ undertook some consultations with teacher groups to find out how schools had responded and what issues this had raised.

Following the tsunami ...

Ways that schools responded:

  • Fund-raising activity – this seems to have been the most common response. Many schools undertook fund-raising schemes with ideas often initiated by students themselves. In many cases efforts were organised on a whole school basis eg through non-uniform days, sponsored events etc.
  • Assemblies – these provided a useful focal point for the school as a whole to acknowledge what had happened and for personal and collective responses to be shared.
  • Curriculum activity – many teachers were able to create further opportunities through the curriculum for students to explore their understanding of the events. For example, Geography and Science offered particular opportunities for issues-based enquiry and through Citizenship wider implications of decision-making and responsibility were explored.
  • Debates – many teachers recognised the need to create space [particularly for older students] to discuss and explore issues for themselves ... media coverage often provided a useful starting point for this.
  • Use of outside speakers – for example a number of schools invited a speaker from Islamic Relief [an International Aid agency] to share first hand experiences of the emergency relief operation and the impact of the disaster for local people.

What issues had this raised for teachers and schools?

  • Many teachers expressed uncertainty about what to do next, once the media coverage had blown over. They felt unsure about their role/ responsibility for following this through further.
  • The implications of mass media coverage for students' awareness and understanding – many teachers expressed concern that the powerfulness of images of 'disaster' and 'victims' would skew student perceptions of this region and the people who live there. They felt there was a need for these events to be seen as part of a bigger picture.
  • Issues raised for how we teach about 'disasters' more broadly. One group felt there was a need for new work on 'natural' and 'man-made' disasters, local and global, and how we support children in making sense of these [This also led to discussion about what events are seen to be major disasters and which are not].Dilemmas about fund-raising ... and how to ensure that this is a meaningful rather than superficial response. A number of teachers said that students had raised questions about what would happen to the money raised and in some cases there were debates about other 'good causes' that could be seen as being in competition. Teachers reflected that in most instances, fund-raising activity was conducted without creating sufficient opportunities for students to think about the wider issues involved, but recognised that this was not always easy to enable.
  • Access to support and information - a key issue for teaching about current events. Teachers said that they had valued the support offered by networks such as Tide~, the Staffordshire Learning Net the Geographical Association, the DEA and others to make accessible useful web-sites and information sources. They reflected that quantity of information was not the issue, rather quality support and advice for enabling teaching and learning.

The Staffordshire Learning Net Geography web-site offers high quality support for teachers and schools seeking to respond to current global events. There is a wealth of material linked to the Asian tsunami including personal perspectives and experiences from teachers in the region.

Implications for Tide~

Discussions and advice from these groups concluded that teachers and schools that enable work on development issues and global perspectives as an integral part of the curriculum and school ethos are well placed to respond to global events. If students have had the opportunity to explore ideas and discuss different perspectives about issues such as poverty, human rights, justice, trade, aid etc, then work linked to a particular current event can be seen and investigated in this context. For schools that have less of a focus on global dimensions, responding quickly to global events presents more of a challenge and in some instances may lead to responses that do little to enhance students’ real understanding.

For Tide~ as a network our challenge comes back to the need to enable work on global dimensions as core to the educational experience of all young people. Whilst global events such as the tsunami offer a particular focus they don’t necessarily provide the best starting point or framework for enabling students' exploration of the underpinning global issues.

Key challenges I would identify for Tide~'s role in supporting teachers and schools’ response to global events:

  • the need to offer a forum for teachers to share ideas, experiences and concerns
  • to be a source of support for access to basic information and teaching ideas
  • most importantly to enable and support teachers and schools in their ongoing work around global dimensions, and create opportunities for groups to respond innovatively to the changing world around us.