Controversy and Polarization in European Contexts: Sharing insights from a research meeting in Brussels

One of a teacher’s worst nightmares is when a classroom explodes into a heated argument that gets out of control. This is possible in all contexts and for various reasons; some instances are predicable, while others are completely unexpected. EUROCLIO has been exploring these issues with the ongoing Learning to Disagree project, with resources available in March 2020.

The Evens Foundation and The Flemish Peace Institute called a research meeting May 23-24 2019 to dig into the difficulties surrounding controversy and polarization. As part of my research traineeship at EUROCLIO, I was asked to present the Learning to Disagree project and parts of my master’s research at Erasmus University on controversial and sensitive history in a Dutch context. Here I will discuss some of the most important findings from that meeting.

Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the classroom

Initiator of the meeting and driven by his role as senior researcher at the Flemish Peace Institute, Maarten Van Alstein, wrote Omgaan met Controversie en Polarisatie in de Klas (Dealing with Controversy and Polarisation in the Classroom). Based on his research in the Flemish educational context, Van Alstein has developed a “scenario based approach” that may help teachers to deal with emotive and sensitive topics in the classroom. He discusses how in Belgium, and across the globe, students are being pulled to more extreme views with more strongly held positions that makes it more difficult to teach or predict when controversy may occur in the classroom. He distinguishes three different scenarios:

Scenario one: “A Classroom in Turmoil” describes a situation where a classroom explodes due to insensitive or inflammatory remarks. In this situation, depending on the teachers and students present in the classroom, a teacher must decide what to do quickly. There are pros and cons to removing a student from the class, cutting-off discussions, encouraging further discussion or probe a student for a particular response. Removing a student from the classroom may cease the undesired comments from the discussion, but it also limits that student’s ability to engage in more perspectives. There may be a fear of allowing a student to remain will only amplify the insensitive or undesired remarks, although probing a student for why they hold a particular viewpoint can allow for debasing their comments. Van Alstein states that in a polarized classroom teachers should aim for the middle, less vocal students by providing arguments based upon reason and evidence. These are the students who do not have cemented beliefs and may potentially be persuaded by the more radical classmates.

Scenario two: “Controversial Topics in the Curriculum” focusses on topics from within the curriculum that are perceived as controversial. Van Alstein highlights that, first, teachers need to estimate if the controversy is an open or a settled controversy. A “settled controversy”, for instance, is evolution, which some students may still consider to be  controversial. Van Alstein encourages teachers to use correct terminology and to avoid presenting topics in absolutist terms. Instead, it is important to allow  students to inquire and learn how to ask disciplinary questions in order to evaluate the topics like a scientist or a historian would. An “open controversy” is a topic that still has unanswered questions within the field. For example, in science classes students may evaluate evidence on effectiveness of different modern vaccines. Dealing with “open controversies” may be more effective for student to engage with once they are accustomed to using the disciplinary methods and weighing viewpoints.

Scenario three: “Controversy as Pedagogy” is where teachers use controversial issues to introduce students to different perspectives and engage students in democratic discussions in the classroom. Prior to using this pedagogy, teachers should plan their goals and preferably have a longer project based time period to work with students. This should be done in an established democratic classroom and it may be better to start with less controversial issues. This way, students would slowly become accustomed to engage with talking about such topics, allowing the classes to be built up to more recent issues or topics closer to their identity. An example from history education could be having students engage in a dialogue or debate on a particular event and look at different historical interpretations. This allows for students to weigh each position and explore why those particular theories may have been held.

In all three scenarios, Van Alstein encourages teachers to use the classroom as a means for democratic engagement by creating a safe classroom with an “open-class climate” in which students and teachers are able to participate in a democratic way. This encourages students to use critical thinking and ask inquiry questions. Such an open class climate can be established if teachers first recognize biases in their own practice and reflect on what their position will be in potential situations. Second, by setting up rules with students to create a democratic, safe classroom. As a teacher, this means some of the classroom authority will shift to students; this encourages self-direction and ownership. Finally, teachers need to help students work through and engage in dialogue around potential controversial or sensitive topics. This may include having students first research or journal their thoughts to ensure a discussion has academic foundation. This may also help students to recognize their own biases and influences of outside narratives.

Expanding into a Broader European Context

The meeting moved forward into each individual or organization sharing their experiences with controversy and polarisation. Participants came from Belgium, Croatia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. Cross-disciplinary discussions between English, science and history teachers along with teacher trainers. It provided rich discussions and best practices to emerge from each context.

Thea, an English teacher from Croatia, described how her school worked to integrate students from Serbian and Croatian backgrounds. The school provides opportunities for students to participate in classes together, in a school system that allows for segregation based upon language. She explained that students have the choice to join in classes or go on trips with classmates from opposite regional identity. This helps in countering stereotypes that each group has about the other.

Olivier, from France, provided intriguing methods using multi-perspectivity in science classes. France has a rigid prescribed syllabi and he has found ways to engage with using the content as controversy, or in Van Alstein’s terms “controversy as pedagogy.” He provided the example of having students research the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine, which is an open controversy with no firm scientific conclusions. Each student group had to present, with evidence, on their recommendations for the vaccine. In one class, three groups, reading the same evidence provided three different answers—one said to get vaccinated, one said do not get vaccinated and the third group said they did not know what to do. The teachers do not force students to select an answer, rather, provide the evidence and allow for students to choose for themselves what they want to believe.

Representatives from Poland and Barcelona discussed the difficulties that teachers, NGOs, and educational professionals are facing in these contexts. In Poland, the discourse is quite bleak around education, with the government vilifying teachers after the month long teacher’s strike. In Barcelona, some teachers are facing the risk of prosecution for discussing the 2017 Catalan conflict after the unsanctioned independence referendum. In both scenarios there is increased fear from teachers and significant blocks for engaging in controversy or polarization in their classrooms.

Despite push back from government and communities there are teachers who encourage students to engage with difficult topics in these contexts. They have created Good Conversation Clubs, Forum Theatre’s and encouraged students to engage with social campaigns. These groups are reaching out to engage with the whole community to initiate whole community change to help restore the loss of trust between teachers and the community. There also is hope in the amount of students that are voluntary participating.

I have done integrated research for my master’s degree and EUROCLIO. My Master’s research centres on how international school teachers in the Netherlands deal with sensitive and controversial history. I used research and literature to help write a working document for EUROCLIO on what factors teachers need to consider prior to engaging with sensitive or controversial history. I will share these results via another article that will be published later. EUROCLIO is working to develop further resources with the Learning to Disagree Project with the March 31 to April 4 2020 annual conference centred on this topic.

Discussions raised question for how controversy and polarization appear in broader European contexts with each organization presenting individuals initiatives and plans. Each country has unique challenges. Despite all of the differences, there are similarities in the ways to go about engaging in difficult conversations or innovative methods using multiperspectivey. The most hopeful result of all is that there are organisations and individuals that are stepping up to the challenges of controversy and polarization in education.

Written By Lexi Oudman, Former Euroclio Trainee

Lamberto Zannier, HCNM: “Conflicts often have to do with the interpretation of history”

Motivated by a natural curiosity and well trained instincts, Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner for National Minorities at the OSCE, attended the meeting organized around the project Contested Histories in Public Spaces in Oxford, which reviewed several cases of controversial monuments and statues around the world. In this meeting, Mr. Zannier explained the applicability of these cases as a reference point for developing conflict prevention tools and guidelines, where “education is key”, he stressed.

The charming streets of Oxford have some controversial corners. In the historical center of the city, right in front of the prestigious All Souls college, a statue of Cecil Rhodes stands undaunted, in spite of the campaign run by students asking to remove it and not further celebrate his legacy, polemically linked to Britain’s imperialism. Therefore, this city stands as a paradigmatic example of the global phenomenon studied by the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project, which Task Force meeting was held at the same All Souls college thus welcoming more than 20 scholars into a debate about the past and its day to day repercussions.

This project, led by the institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), in partnership with EUROCLIO and other organizations sharing similar missions, envisions a simple but rather ambitious goal: drawing useful guidelines and recommendations from the global phenomenon of contested statues, monuments and streets names, which are being challenged for their historical legacy, usually related to colonialism, slavery, human rights violations or fascism, among many others. From the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa to the Captain Cook in Australia, from Holocaust memorials in Berlin to statues the Paraguayan dictator in Asunción, many are the cases found around the world -91 and summing up.

Even though this project is still on a development phase, it has attracted interest amongst relevant actors, such as university authorities, parliamentarians, as well as members of the international community. For instance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and its High Commissioner for National Minorities, Lamberto Zannier, who flew from The Hague to the UK to join the discussion.

“The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandate. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”

Lamberto Zannier, OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities.

But how comes that an organization dealing with security issues is interested in the public memory making through statues and monuments? Mr. Lamberto Zannier, in conversation with EUROCLIO, explained that his interest in this topic is tightly related to his mandate, which is primarily focused on conflict-prevention. “My mandate is to avoid or try to prevent tensions within society. Sometimes, I feel I need to dig a little bit more in-depth, and try to find out what is the source of these tensions. Very often this has to do with the interpretation of history”, he said. Awareness of this phenomenon, according to Mr. Zannier, did not come out of the blue. While traveling throughout the OSCE participating states -57 from Europe, Central Asia and North America- the High Commissioner has became aware of how salient this situation is for national communities. “The issue of memory politics is an issue that I keep finding as I travel through the area covered by my mandante. There are monuments, there are names of streets and symbols that I constantly find, where the interpretation by different groups differs and the difference of interpretation results in tension”, Mr. Zannier said, stressing that these dissimilar interpretations,combined with a lack of acknowledgment of the story of the Other, “affect the relationship between groups in society”.

That is how the High Commissioner for National Minorities of the OSCE became interested in looking how issues of this kind have been addressed in different contexts, and what are the lessons that can be retrieved from other cases around the world. In this regard, the mandate of the High Commissioner is matching with the project of Contested Histories in Public Spaces, which aim is to identify and research the decision-making process behind sometimes violent controversies over statues, monuments, and street names. What can a major of a city do when a statue is painted in red? What can a dean of a university do when the name of a hall is covered with pamphlets and banners? What can an activist ask for when a street name is considered offensive? Through practical guidance, the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project is aiming at addressing these questions in order to help future decision-makers and grassroots organizations.

“My job is to advise governments, and put forward an advice that is not only my own personal opinion, but that is based on things that worked before or against processes that resulted in failure. Look! Somebody else has tried this, and it was a disaster, so think twice before you do it, because you might apparently solve the problem tomorrow but then, the day after, you start finding out that you have a larger problem within your society”, said Mr. Zannier, explaining why he has decided to join the working group of this project. “I am exploring, and I do realize that this is a very sensitive issue”.

The role of education

Since its foundation in 1992, EUROCLIO has been raising awareness about the uses (and misuses) of history education for paving the way to a peaceful future. Even though the study of history is usually confined to academia, the role that it plays in the issues our societies are wrestling with today is rather prominent, especially for the emancipation of minority groups and social cohesion.

This situation is also clear for Mr. Zannier, who believes that younger generations are the key for conflict prevention. “If you want to have an integrated society you need to work on the young generations to make sure that people grow inside the society, and the diversity becomes well embedded in the society”, he said. Mr. Zannier also underlined the benefits of a well achieved integration, by which diversity can be at the service of society instead of being a problem. “You can free the government of the problem of dealing with diversity if you put this diversity at the service of the country. Then you really make the society more resilient to potential instabilities”.

Together with his interest to explore issues around history education, the attention paid by Lamberto Zannier to the role of history and memory in conflicts, represents a milestone for the international community. EUROCLIO and the IHJR welcome and appreciate his willingness to address such as sensitive but important topic, and believe that his path should be followed by other key decision makers.

Discussing Terrorism in the Classroom: The Day After

Agustin De Julio Featured, In-Depth Articles

When a sudden outburst of violence or a terrorist attack occurs in your country, how do you as a teacher address this as responsibly as possible in the classroom? After a shooting in Utrecht on March 18th, the Dutch educational platform TerInfo, which is an interdisciplinary group of scholars from the Utrecht University, sent out a lesson plan to every school in Utrecht. It contained do’s & don’ts to help teachers discuss the incident with their students. Perhaps most remarkable, was the speed with which TerInfo acted: within a day their lesson plan guided discussions in classrooms in Utrecht.

We talked with Bjorn Wansink, one of the people behind the lesson plan, in order to find out how TerInfo drew up their guidelines so quickly and why they believe time is of great importance in these situations.

Terrorist act?

At 11AM Wansink received a text message saying that something was going on at the 24 Oktoberplein in Utrecht. Once word got out that shots had been fired, he immediately contacted his colleagues at TerInfo. Even though nothing was yet known about the shooter and his motives, many news websites and people on social media had already begun framing the incident as an act of terrorism.

Wansink was hesitant at first. “You have to be very careful not to stigmatize when discussing a shooting incident,” Wansink says, “but the event was already being framed as a terrorist act in public discourse. So we decided we had to do something, schools and teachers started to ask questions, what to tell their pupils?”      

Classroom emotions

In the wake of 9/11, Charlie Hebdo, IS and the refugee crisis, teachers are confronted with emotions and statements that can divide entire classrooms. TerInfo was launched in 2017 to help teachers deal with these delicate topics. The platform is initiated and created by professor Beatrice de Graaf an expert in terrorism, and supported with help from Utrecht City Council and her Stevin Prize Fund. By combining expertise and insights from Conflict Studies, Pedagogical Studies and History at Utrecht University, the platform aims to develop concise and balanced information packages and pedagogical materials for teachers so that they can address and discuss terrorism in a way that is embedded in a historical context, clearly formulated, fact-based and builds understanding, clearly formulated, fact-based and builds understanding.

These incidents stir a longing for over-simplified, one-sided stories that provide clarity.  “People tend to get very emotional and only see things from one perspective, but we want to emphasize the complexity of these situations.” The lesson plan helps teachers to deal with these emotions, by offering tips on how to implement them in a rational and constructive conversation, starting not with immediate normative responses, but with factual, historicizing and engaging materials. “That’s why we felt the need to act quickly: in the immediate aftermath, when there are not yet many facts available, emotions, bias and a simple lack of (factual) context tend to obscure students’ understanding of the issue.”

Historicizing Perspective

The “ historicizing perspective” TerInfo offers, backs teachers up with statistics and factual information about terrorist attacks in The Netherlands, connecting the present-day conflict with historical precedents. In this way, students are triggered to expand their viewpoint and look into the past in order to learn where these sentiments come from and how their reaction to these incidents can be understood historically or psychologically. “By doing this, we help students overcome the tunnel vision and anxiety that often comes hand in glove with the push of urgency, immediacy and panic that is frequently triggered by large incidents and crises. We help them, by giving them a sense of ‘historical significance’, to come to terms with the relevance of the incident for their lives. The reason we were able to do this so fast is because we already had the expertise available from different fields of research,” Wansink explains, “we used existing documents and made them up-to-date with information about the current shooting.”

The day after sending the lesson plan Wansink has received a lot of positive reactions from teachers who used TerInfo’s lesson planin their class. “In the future we want to have scenarios ready for these incidents so that we can keep supporting educators. Our goal is to respond right away, even though this may prove to be difficult.”

TerInfo’s lesson plan is available in Dutch (original) and in English (translation).

If you have questions about TerInfo, please contact

Written by Jilt Jorritsma, trainee at EUROCLIO.

Push for Copyright Reform in Education

Early next year, the Legal Affairs (JURI) Committee of the European Commission will vote on a new directive concerning the use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes across the EU.  The directive, in theory, aims to expand upon existing exemptions from copyright legislation in education at an EU level. While this sounds desirable, in reality the directive falls short of this goal, and contains numerous caveats that would in fact hinder the continuous development of high quality, cross-border educational resources. In response to this, EUROCLIO, in partnership with COMMUNIA and the Lifelong Learning Platform, amongst others, are advocating for the development of a more open and effective copyright framework that would allow educators the freedom to fully take advantage of the technologies available to them, thus making high quality education more accessible for all.

Representatives from EUROCLIO and a variety of other institutions including COMMUNIA, Wikimedia, and SPARC Europe, met at the offices of the Lifelong Learning Platform in Brussels in November to strategise and streamline these advocacy efforts for better copyright in education. As it stands, the directive would serve to allow for the sharing of copyrighted materials for educative purposes, but only under certain circumstances that we believe to be inadequate for the modern teaching and learning environment, and the meeting provided a space to articulate the most pressing of these concerns.

The meeting arrived at the identification of the following primary concerns with the current directive:

  1. Limited scope and clarity of the exception: in order for the exception to be effective and beneficial in a practical learning environment, it needs to apply across the board, and make clear to educators what they can and cannot do. Currently, the directive does not do this. Instead, it allows for the exception to be overturned by certain licenses, and essentially provides an “exception to the exception”, maintaining an unclear and fragmented system that would not allow educators the freedom needed to deliver high quality education in a digital world.
  2. Exclusion of key educational stakeholders: The exception remains limited to “formal” education institutions, meaning that professionals from museums, libraries, civil society organisations, and other organisations providing “non-formal” and “informal” education, would still be limited in what materials they can use. This would be harmful to the development of adult education and the work of those providing useful workshops in the voluntary sector, for example.
  3. Closed Networks: Under the current directive, the exemption to copyright legislation would only apply within the boundaries of formal education institutions, including online materials (so, materials could only be shared through an internal network). This is unrealistic in the 21st century, where education takes place in a multitude of locations, and across many different platforms. With technology that allows for EU-wide accessibility to high-quality education, it is detrimental and illogical not to take advantage of this and to restrict the sharing of materials to an internal process.

The issue was highlighted further by EUROCLIO Deputy Director Steven Stegers when collecting the award for Best Practice in Education and Innovation Pedagogy for Historiana‘s eLearning Environment at Lifelong Learning Week, as the current directive would seriously impact the efficacy and quality of the Historiana platform, and received further support from various people present at the awards.

Follow @EUROCLIO on Twitter and Facebook for continued updates and calls for further input on this issue, as well as the Lifelong Learning Platform, who will be coordinating a taskforce on the issue.

New Narrative for Europe

By Stefan Haagendoorn

On the 12th and 13th of October, I was in Leuven, Belgium to partake in a youth event organized by the European Commission, which was focused on the question on how to form a New Narrative for Europe. As a historian, many questions immediately come to mind. What makes a narrative? Can we talk about just one narrative or are there as many narratives as there are Europeans? Or even; can we just create a narrative like that, and when is the group deciding this, representative enough?

In other words, it was bound to be a discussion-laden two days. The main set-up was as follows. Gather a large bunch of young Europeans in a big room and let them discuss around four main questions interspersed with seminars and presentations. The idea was good, but given the strongly varied background of the participants, some guidance was needed. As such, the whole event was centred on 4 main questions, namely ‘’becoming united in diversity’’, ‘’employment and education’’, ‘’freedom of movement’’ and the ‘’changing climate’’. One can question whether taking these four topics is preventing an open discussion. In hindsight, I would argue that it made sure the arguments stayed on track. After reflecting on the most important issues within each of the 4 main topics, and thereby gathering our thoughts, we were asked to focus further. This was to be on no more than three ideas in total, per main question. This resulted in essentially 12 broad topics in total, which we more or less democratically decided upon to be the most critical. This caused some heated arguments, but we eventually managed.

What followed next was the fun part. In a small group of about three to four, we worked on our chosen sub-topic in order to form a narrative. The idea here was to create a newspaper front-page of about 20 years into the future, with associated headlines, pictures and text. This was to be based on the results of our group discussion. The topic I decided to partake in was centred on ‘’a common European identity through education and history’’. A contentious issue, to be sure. To give it a frame to work with, several questions were posed to us as a group, on how to form this narrative. These included: ‘’what are the actions that should be taken?’’, ‘’what are the steps required to achieve this New Narrative?’’ and ‘’who should take these actions and when?’’.

In the end, the result might be considered by some to be unsatisfactory. There was no real New Narrative, rather a list of hopes and dreams, focused on changing policy, not the people tweet about or tell each other over a drink. However positive this may be and however hopeful it may feel to collect a large group of diverse Europeans into one room, all starry-eyed about the future, it does not solve any real issues. Some uncomfortable questions were posed, mostly at the very end of the conference, such as ‘’how do we reach those Europeans that are not self-motivated to engage with it?’’ A comparison was made between a ‘’funny cat-video’’ getting a million views within the hour and Juncker’s State of the European Union address not getting any further than a few thousand. The EU and its leaders, it seems, are just not appealing. The heart of the matter here was not discussed. Other politicians (Obama, Macron, even Trump in his own way) manage to reach millions through savvy social media campaigns and appeal, at least in part, to the youth. So why not Europe? Another argument against the near-utopian narrative is its inherent tendency to always go forward. Forward sounds good and positive. But what if the best course of action (for example because the current political situation does not allow for steps towards further integration) might be a step sideways, or even backwards? This was not a popular view. Connected to this is the issue of developing something that only those that are already in the ‘’bubble’’ can identify with. How do you speak to youngsters from a Eurosceptic background? They are not going to be attracted to the same ideals as pro-EU youth are.

Notes from the meeting (picture by Stefan Haagendoorn)

As such, all the great ideas offered might then eventually be in vain. To finish off the program was a member of the European Parliament. He brought what we lacked as a group, namely an actual narrative. In short, the narrative has been, since the end of the Second World War, a negative themed narrative under the guise of ‘’never again’’. This obviously appeals less to the youth of today. As such, he proposed a positive spin, in a sense. This was that Europe is, in fact, alone. The United States for example, though still connected through shared institutions such as NATO, is seemingly carving path away from Europe. Obama had its pivot towards Asia, Trump is doing his own thing altogether. There is no other region anywhere else in the world that can then truly be called a reliable friend. This makes Europe our home and our only one at that. This should invoke a level of solidarity, which can be seen in sharing responsibility and deepening ties.

In the end, it might seem that such an exercise as this was futile. But one can’t deny the positivity that was there in the room. The last question that remains is then: ‘’where do we go from here?’’ Though some ideas were offered in the spirit of bringing this group back together at some indeterminate point in the future, I remain doubtful of that being useful. I would see more use in bringing together various other groups first (thereby making sure to try and attract those from conservative and Eurosceptic backgrounds), and then perhaps picking representatives from each of the groups to go even deeper. More serious personal contact with policy makers in both national and European governments would be another point. That more work, much more, is needed remains abundantly clear.

Following in the Footsteps of Revolutionaries

The year 2017 marks the centennial of a series of events that changed the course of history: the Russian revolution. In order to commemorate these turbulent times, EUROCLIO – in cooperation with the St. Petersburg Academy of In-Service Teachers’ Training, led by Konstantin Bityukov  – hosted the International Scientific and Practical conference “Revolutions in Contemporary History: Facts, Interpretations and Educational Strategies” in Saint-Petersburg, Russia on 27 and 28 October 2017.

Over the course of these two days more than 150 history educators from all over Europe and Russia came together at various venues, such as the local school Gymnasium 209, to listen to lectures, participate in workshops and to exchange their ideas and teaching strategies about the Russian revolution. With the beautiful city of Saint-Petersburg as a backdrop, the participants were truly immersed in history. By visiting the Hermitage, wandering through the same opulent rooms as the Bolsheviks did one hundred years ago, and the Museum of Political History, showcasing the famous balcony Lenin held his fiery speeches from, the participants got a chance to walk in the footsteps of the revolutionaries.

To broaden the scope of this conference, EUROCLIO has developed a survey, which we would kindly like to ask you to fill out. By means of this survey we would like to expand the findings of the conference and identify different approaches to teaching the Russian revolution. To fill out the survey, please click here.

Group picture of the participants in the conference