Teaching about existential threats: why we need to teach concepts, not just facts.

It has now been more than four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and I have been thinking how badly we need to be teaching about existential threats. I think we need to develop a curriculum that is open to contemporary real world challenges.

It has now been more than four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like many, I have been ruminating. This post it’s about that. Or at least not directly. I have been thinking about how badly we need to be teaching about existential threats. I think we need to develop a curriculum that is open to contemporary real world challenges.

I think global education needs to adjust to new realities. The First World War, the Great War, wasn’t a World war in July 1914. It became one later. The Second World War likewise was not a world war in September 1939, although it engulfed the globe in due course. We are yet to see whether the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine will prove to have been the start of the Third World War. Hopefully it will not become that kind of milestone, but i think we owe it to students to prepare them for that possibility.

Education is different now than it was in 1914 or 1939. Now we have wall to wall coverage, ubiquitous social media and real-time battlefield insights piped into childrens’, adolescents’ and adults’ television screens, tablets and smartphones. There is almost as much misinformation as there are facts on many platforms; as many well-meaning transmitters of misleading (sometimes factually inaccurate) news, as there are respectable and accredited voices. The democratisation of information is a good idea, but it assumes individual generators of that information are well-informed, critical and, if opinionated (or biased), state that upfront.

I have learnt a great deal about Ukraine in recent months. Some of it from listening to TikTokers and YouTubers. Some summarise Ukrainian news sources for us. and others share their daily lives from war torn cities. Some review Russian media sources. Some provide valuable daily summaries. Others share emotive responses to news as it happens. I am aware that I am, I believe, relatively digitally literate. I’m critical of the sources, often look up the individual commentators on other social media, check their LinkedIn profile and review past output. This last element is particularly interesting. I have been suspicious, though not dismissive, of social media account that started in late February 2022. Some are clearly chasing followers, clicks and likes. Some are clearly trying to provide what they see as a genuine information service. Being able to identify the difference is not always easy. Our students need to learn these skills.

Risk evaluation is a very difficult thing to teach. Each student will have different life experiences to make them more or less fearful of uncertainty. Those who lived through the Cuban missed crisis or the nuclear standoffs in the early 1980s may say they’ve seen it all before. What is different now is the ubiquitous nature of information, and misinformation, which is in danger of confusing students’ ability to make their own judgements.

Educators are morally obliged to teach the unseen. That includes climate change and the risk of nuclear war. There is not a discipline that cannot leverage the moment. Social sciences and humanities obviously have an edge. Physical sciences are often less flexible in terms of the curriculum. But I think it’s important that anyone teaching today pauses before delivering any concept, any idea or thought, and consider whether there is a contemporary example amongst the unseen existential threats that exist. It means sometimes abandoning our own safe assumptions, our own safe havens, and exploring things that we ourselves may see as uncertainties.

There any number of examples of elements within any curriculum that can leverage the Russia-Ukraine war. Political scientists can explore the notion of the Eurasian multipolar world view. Geographers can explore the three seas project, and Sociologists can explore the religious realignment we are now seeing amongst the Orthodox churches. Examples are endless if we focus on the concept rather than the content. Beyond any obvious historical comparisons there are lessons to be learnt across all the disciplines using contemporary examples. The learning of concepts, geopolitical perspectives, resource management and cultural power, are all more useful to the students that any specific set of facts.

How relevant the current Russian invasion of Ukraine may be perceived by faculty and their students alike will depend largely on geography. While the conflict itself is seen as a largely European ‘problem’, and it’s global economic implications are yet to be clearly felt, I would understand that these reflections are probably more relevant to my European colleagues than to many others. But the principle still stands. All concepts that form any part of the curriculum need to be based within a contemporary world context. We need to leverage the current crisis that is being seen and witnessed by students through the prism social media. In doing so we can both serve the curriculum and educate students with critical judgement about their sources of information.

Concepts not Content

I am passionate about privileging the teaching and learning of concepts rather than content. Concepts are instruments that serve to identify, define, explain, illustrate and analyse real-life elements and events, past, present or future. These are usually within the confines of a particular geography, social context and within discipline conventions, but when defined well, reach across all cultural boundaries.

There are essentially two kinds of concepts: sensory and abstract. Sensory concepts are tangible, they can be experienced through our senses. Abstract concepts are not directly experienced, they are often not visible and need to be imagined. There is a simple three step process for you to consider as you build learning with concepts: define, illustrate, and imagine.

Define:

It’s important to keep the definition of a concept at its simplest. It should be a self contained concept.

Let’s take for example the statement that Regional wars have global consequences.

We could then unpack what we means by regions, wars and global consequences. The easiest way to validate your concepts’ definition is to see how easy it is to state its opposite. Regional wars do not have global consequences.

I can already envisage an assessment task that asks students to identify regional conflicts that did not have global consequences, and then have their peers challenge them subsequently as alternative perceptions of those consequences (after some enquiry-based learning).

Illustrate:

Illustrating a concept helps learners to catagorize new knowledge, to cement that new learning in a hierarchy or order of reality. Illustrations can be examples that demonstrate the truth of the definition, or it’s opposite. An illustration that does not match the definition also serves to help learners make sense of the definition. So in this example “Regional wars can have global consequences”, I could describe the key protagonists and events that led to the war in the Middle East between Israel and Arab powers in 1956, which had profound long term implications for European loss of influence and the rise of the United States as a regional power broker.

For its opposite I could take the regional war fought between the Sahrawi Indigenous Polisario Front and Morocco from 1975 to 1991 (and involving Mauritania between 1975 to 1979), for control of Western Sahara which has had minimal global impact. Although it is still a live issue in that region.

Neither world wars, both clearly regional conflicts but with different impacts. A useful conceptual space to unpack thoughts and idea with students. Learners do not need to have detailed knowledge about the background histories of the parties to be able to develop and understanding why these two different conflicts result in different implications. The challenge for them to unpack the factors that make up the definition of the concept shared earlier, that regional wars do not have global consequences.

I am not teaching my students about the 1956 Israel-Arab war or the war in Western Sahara, I am illustrating the factors that go into making the truth of my definition self evident. Examples and non-examples both support the interpretation of concepts.

Imagine:

Imagining scenarios in which the concept might be illustrated, perhaps using analogies, can prove very effective. Interpreting analogies requires the learner to deconstruct and reconstruct the element of the concept, it supports deeper comprehension, improves retention and allows the learner to adapt then meaning of a concept into their own sociology-cultural context.

It’s important that as you construct your imagined scenario or your analogy, that you ground it in the existing, or at least conceivable, experience that your learners already have or could have. There is a danger that we forget just how culturally diverse our student cohorts are. References to popular culture, national habits and pastimes may mean something to you but are not going to be generally understood.

You could for example ask students to imagine a conflict between whichever country you are teaching in and ask how a conflict with a neighbour state might, or might not, have global consequences. I acknowledge for too many in the world this is not merely an intellectual exercise.

Changing Practice

Concepts are foundational to all new learning but we, in tertiary education, are in the habit of burying or obscuring the key concepts amidst the weight of information, and then expecting the learner to be able to think in abstract terms.

I had a lecturer recently tell me that they didn’t have time to change the example that they were using to teach supply and demand, a well developed scenario based on the oil price during the Second Gulf War. I found it very hard to believe, given that the current Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a direct impact on oil and commodity prices globally. Why, I suggested, why didn’t they ask the students to fill in the details of his scenario so that they would understand better the duplications of each factor rather than sharing a preprepared example. I suggested that might also provide an opportunity for students to talk more openly about the current threats that they may perceive impact on them personally as result of this particular war.

Strange as it may seem I think that the current war provides an important catalyst for the re-evaluation and revitalisation of much of our social science and humanities curriculum. It reminds us that there are existential threats around us, and that these should service as pivotal points of reference as we explore concepts with our students enabling them to make meaningful connections.

Students need to be encouraged to seek out sources of information with a critical eye in order to be better prepared for the unforeseen.


Photo by Антон Дмитриев on Unsplash

Author: Simon Paul Atkinson

30 Years as an academic practitioner, educational developer, educational technologist, e-learning researcher, strategic advisor. Simon is now an Educational Strategst and Consultant. Experienced presenter and workshop facilitator. Formerly the Head of Learning Design at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Previous roles included Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning (BPP University), Academic Developer (London School of Economics), Director of Teaching and Learning (Massey University - College of Education), Head of Centre for Learning Development (University of Hull), Academic Developer (Open University UK)

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