Youth Climate Strike and Activism in Schools

Sixteen-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg’s incendiary speech at the UN places children at the centre of protests. As educators, we must be concerned that protests and activism adversely impact children; especially the tone and inherent vitriol of activist language. In response to Thunberg’s scathing UN address, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “we must respect and harness the passion and aspiration of our younger generations, rather than allow others to compound or, worse, facelessly exploit their anxiety for their own agendas. We must similarly not allow their concerns to be dismissed or diminished as this can also increase their anxiety.”

Anxiety and fear are emotional tools to exploit and manipulate. Embroiling children in ‘us vs them’, ‘deniers vs believers” labels, the quagmire of discerning credible science vs agenda-based reports for money, and mass media sensationalism creates havoc. Accusatory statements like “if you care about the environment you will protest” unfairly burden children. Protesting is a blunt weapon; by definition, adversarial. We must resolve not to turn young students into ideological child soldiers. Children should be at school, not on the streets. As educators, we must tread carefully in sanctioning activism by students; especially in primary school. We are educators in the art of critical thinking and must maturely and wisely suppress our personal, adult moral and intellectual biases.

Encourage and give equal weight to contrasting views, objectively. Expect students to research widely and deeply. Illuminate nuances in classroom discussions. Students cannot rely on news stories for balanced, objective, nuanced debate and information. Protests – sensational, vitriolic, divisive, adversarial and incendiary – become the issue; fuelling the mass media agenda for ratings and revenue. Young children take adults on face value; learning from us, as role models. This isn’t to suggest that children do not and cannot think for themselves; they can and do. But street protests can harm children’s undeveloped cognition, ideas and beliefs, and suppresses nuanced debate, which welcomes contrasting views.

Saturated in anger, intimidating demands and close-mindedness, protests threaten children’s physical, mental and emotional safety. Verbal abuse, threats and intimidation and vitriolic language spark fear and anxiety. Brain science research in the book, Your Brain and Business reports that even information heard and not consciously registered can activate the amygdala (fight, flight, freeze) region. A mere 30 milliseconds are all the brain needs to activate these responses. The rhetoric of extreme, apocalyptic proportions provokes unconscious fear and anxiety residing in the amygdala; blocking critical IQ and decision-making resources.

We are educators in the art of critical thinking and must protect students from, not promote, these dangers. Our role is to nurture open minds and discourse led by curiosity, intellectual rigour, respect and thoughtfulness. Emotion is a cognitive component that can spur learning forward. Motivated by dreams and optimism, not by fears, a mind in equanimity is a mind of open thought and learning. Activism has no place in schools. Nuanced debate and critical thinking certainly do.

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