When war and terror enter the classroom
Associate Professor Bjorn Wansink conducts research into conflict in educational settings. He is taking part in TerInfo (link in Dutch), a UU project that brings together interdisciplinary science and public engagement. “Our goal is to connect researchers, pupils, teachers and students with one another. Very complex stuff, but it’s just fantastic to be part of it and be able to share my knowledge.”
One example of a disruptive event is the 2019 tram attack. Thousands of pupils in Utrecht found themselves behind locked doors at school, waiting for their parents. As a teacher, how do you respond to a situation like that? In very different ways, according to teacher trainer and historian Bjorn Wansink. “In some classrooms, they had a conversation about terrorism. Other teachers were instructed by their school administrators to say nothing and let the parents talk to their children about it – while pupils already had their phones in their hands.” Terrorism. Reconciliation, peace education. Climate change. Whether or not to get vaccinated. These are all topics that can be very complicated to address in an educational setting. And that makes each and every one of these themes interesting to Bjorn.
Award for TerInfo
Bjorn Wansink is part of the core team of TerInfo, a Utrecht University project that helps schools promote open dialogue about terrorism, political violence and disruptive events. The Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW) awarded the TerInfo project the Brouwer Confidence Award (worth €100,000). This award is given in recognition of a social initiative that serves to strengthen mutual trust in Dutch society. The award ceremony was held on Tuesday 24 January.
What we are doing in TerInfo is unique because we’re linking together content, pedagogical science and didactics.
TerInfo has been around for years, says Bjorn Wansink. The project was initiated and is led by historian Beatrice de Graaf, whose goal is to provide pupils with a historical framework for understanding disruptive events. Its relationship with the faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences was there from the very start. Pedagogy professors Mariëtte de Haan and Micha de Winter (emeritus professor) helped draft the pedagogical framework. “What we are doing in TerInfo is unique because we’re linking together content, pedagogical science and didactics. Within pedagogical and didactic practice, there are existing handbooks on how to deal with controversial themes in the classroom, but those offer generic tips that have no connection to the subject matter. And a great deal of history education deals with the history behind a particular conflict. In the TerInfo project, we unite these elements: how can you adapt the subject-matter content for teachers and pupils, and how do you convey that content to specific age groups?”
We make use of the expertise of Humanities scholars, for instance when it comes to the war in Ukraine. At FSBS, for example, Kees van den Bos and David van Alten are supplying their knowledge.
That combination calls for a team with diverse backgrounds and approaches. “My work focuses mainly on the pedagogical learning track, while Beatrice de Graaf is looking more at the content-related, historicising learning track. The project management is interdisciplinary as well: Maxine Herinx is a theologist, and Mila Bammens studied anthropology and has an ISS Master's in Social Policy & Public Health. We also make use of the expertise of Humanities scholars, for instance when it comes to the war in Ukraine. At FSBS, for example, Kees van den Bos and David van Alten are supplying their knowledge.”
“Through TerInfo, we provide training sessions and lectures at schools and for teacher-training programmes. We also have quite an extensive database,” says Bjorn. “It contains information on things like what terrorism is, what attacks have been committed in recent years and how you should handle the protests by farmers. We also achieve a lot of impact with teaching letters, which we write immediately after disruptive events and then distribute to teachers. That was an important factor behind the jury's decision to give us the award. Each teaching letter contains a section on historical knowledge, various teaching methods differentiated by target group and pedagogical tips. They get a lot of use, not only among teachers, but at the Police Academy and by assistant professors as well.”
Some pupils think that a hundred thousand people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the Netherlands, so it makes sense that they are scared.
Bjorn Wansink wants to substantiate the effect of the TerInfo approach in an evidence-based way. “TerInfo gave a workshop on terrorism in 28 classrooms and conducted measurements before and after to see how the workshop affected fearfulness among the pupils.” The data have only just been collected, so they still need to be analysed. Psychologist and researcher Laura Bucher will be taking care of that. “Many pupils seem to overestimate the extent of terrorism – which is exactly what terrorists want: to sow fear. Some pupils think that a hundred thousand people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the Netherlands, so it makes sense that they are scared. The real number is six. We want to find out if knowing facts like this will help to relieve their fears.”
It is important that research be conducted under these extreme conditions.
In addition to the TerInfo research at Dutch schools, Bjorn Wansink also wants to conduct research in Ukraine and in a refugee camp in Jordan. “I have been trying for several years to get consent from the institutions on location and thus from our faculty's Ethical Review Committee. In Ukraine, I work with academics who have just created new teaching materials. They were supposed to conduct interviews, but they often find themselves sitting in the dark with only their mobile phone. War makes the conditions much more complicated. Besides, it’s simply impossible for us to get into that Syrian refugee camp.” While this kind of cross-border research demands patience and endurance, it is important that research be conducted under these extreme conditions, Bjorn explains. “It’s a way to understand how war affects education, so that we can support teachers with the recovery efforts when peace returns.” This is something Bjorn is currently doing in the former Yugoslavia and in Lebanon, in cooperation with the European Association of History Teachers EuroClio.