How to help students spot political polarization and extremism

Recognizing far-right extremism is more about spotting disinformation than ideology, professor says
By: | July 13, 2021

Here’s an idea for teaching students about political polarization and far-right extremism: Have them do the research to debunk a conspiracy theory.

This will help students develop healthy skepticism toward the avalanche of information they come across on the internet and other sources, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor and director of the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab at American University. “An exercise for kids is to pick a non-ideological conspiracy theory—like, birds are not real, all birds are drones—and have them figure out how to prove it’s not true,” says Miller-Idriss, author of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.

In higher ed schools of education, student interest in taking courses on teaching about far-right extremism is now similar to the interest in terrorism after 9/11. And ultimately, teaching about political extremism and polarization is more about disinformation, misinformation and propaganda than it is about ideology, Miller-Idriss says.

“A great place to start with elementary students is a digital communications class where they learn about how to be good citizens online, and how to protect privacy and online safety,” Miller-Idriss says.

It can be extremely hard for teachers to cover specific incidents of political extremism because of the polarized climate. Still, teachers can avoid ideology when teaching lessons about evaluating the legitimacy of sources of information, she says.

This can become even more difficult as students get older and are more aware of the scope of current events, such as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Lesson plans

A new archive on far-right groups in America is now available from Gale.

Political Extremism and Radicalism: Far-Right Groups in America contains primary sources educators can use to teach about political extremism and radicalism

Administrators and principals can support teachers by helping to develop guidelines on what fact-based sources educators and students can use to research disinformation.

“Administrators just need to understand that students coming back after 16 months may have been spending extraordinary amounts of time online, where the circulation of propaganda has increased,” Miller-Idriss says. “And there is some trauma that has to be processed, so campuses should expect that not everything will be super smooth.”

‘Standing your ground’

While administrators and educators may have less ability to influence the actions of governors and legislators, they can turn down the temperature of controversies over divisive topics such as critical race theory, says Irshad Manji, founder of PD provider Moral Courage ED.

“Education leaders heading into the fall have the huge challenge of making meaningful progress on the legitimate issue of diversity, equity and inclusion, while at the same time unifying parents, students and fellows educators who sometimes have starkly different points of view,” says Manji, the author of  Don’t Label Me who has also been a professor of leadership at New York University.

Critical race theory tracker: Where it’s been banned 

Moral Courage ED aims to help educators achieve “diversity without division” based on three principles:

  • Reject labeling or shaming of people, no matter what group they were born into.
  • Define diversity to include a diversity of viewpoints because understanding another person is crucial to being understood.
  • Encourage educators to think more clearly, rather than dictating what they’re allowed to think.

Cognitive psychology and neuroscience research have shown that making the other side of an issue defensive at the beginning of a discussion quickly eliminates any hopes of eventual cooperation, Manji says.

The organization’s PD, therefore, counsels administrators to be proactive in reaching out to and involving parents in district decision-making. When parents who are concerned white students are being singled, she tells them not to make accusations when interacting with school officials.

Educators should consider that while many parents support teaching about slavery, some may have concerns with how it is being taught. These parents will also have a problem with being labeled as part of the backlash simply because they have questions, she says.

“We need to lower our emotional defenses all around. If we take a zero-sum approach or an either-or lens to these issues, we’re doing a huge disservice to both social justice and free speech.”

Educators should also expect that any and all social issues to become politicized in the current national climate. And as district leaders expand essential diversity programs, they should remain wary of alienating certain students.

“A lot of diversity, equity and inclusion work in schools is focused so much on what people are supposed to believe, it completely overlooks how we express ourselves to one another,” Manji says. “When that’s missing, we’re actually sowing the seeds of distrust.”