What should teachers do if children tell jokes about the Prophet Muhammad, the Holocaust or 9/11? Discuss and debate.

The government want teachers to ‘promote British values’ but teachers are understandably nervous about tackling issues of extremism. However, extremist views present fantastic opportunities for teachers to address a whole range of serious moral, political, social and religious questions. The murders related to the Charlie Hebdo magazine and other cartoonists in Denmark and Holland force us to consider how much humour addresses those questions.

When I was at school (a large comprehensive in a working class area of Liverpool) the teachers established a wonderful debating society. Topics included apartheid South Africa, immigration, women’s equality, abortion – nothing seemed off limits.

It is perhaps inevitable that people will feel intimidated in our current climate – if not by the potential threat of violence, however remote – but by the sheer complexity of the issues and the possibility that teachers will seriously upset some pupils or cause offence.

This is where ‘rules’ come in handy. Having a formal discussion or debate with rules – about who speaks first; what facts and evidence they can provide to back up their argument; how, when and where that argument can be challenged; when questions can be asked and by whom – provides a rule-governed environment enabling confidence and security.

Schools are required to provide a Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural curriculum as part of the National Curriculum. In my view, it’s also part of the professional duty of teachers to teach children to discuss and consider complex, even extreme issues and debate them with others – especially those they fundamentally disagree with.

Children should learn that ‘causing offence’ should, on the one hand, be avoided as part of our moral and social responsibility to get on with each other. But on the other hand, it should be seen as part of democratic discourse and a legitimate way to challenge over-bearing authority and tyrannical abuse. Doing so may one day protect or liberate them.

They will learn the scope and limits of ‘free speech’ too. We do not have unlimited free speech, nor should we. We all need and expect the protection of the law from verbal threats, abuse and incitement to violence.

When I was a primary classroom teacher I overheard a pupil telling a racist joke. I didn’t ‘tell the child off’ immediately but sometime later set up a discussion in class to discuss and debate what assumptions and attitudes were behind the ‘joke’.

When I later trained teachers, this was also my advice to new teachers too – not to heavy-handedly suppress racist comment, opinion or ‘jokes’ but use the classroom as a platform to challenge such assumptions in a more reflective and ‘teacherly’ way. It was a controversial approach because some people thought I was also giving a platform to racist abuse. I wasn’t.

I made a clear distinction between the ‘free speech’ of offensive, extreme and even racist opinion on the one hand and abusive and threatening language on the other. I told the kids that the latter was banned in my classroom – for the protection of us all – and they understood that, even at age ten and eleven. But I also wanted them to reflect and consider what they think, say and believe – particularly when such views are expressed as ‘jokes’.

Humour has a unique characteristic in that while it is intended to make us laugh, it is often based on causing some kind of offence. “What can we, or can’t we, laugh at?” That’s a great topic for discussion and debate in schools. But I think many of us are shying away from providing such opportunities to students in these increasingly sensitive times. We shouldn’t. Setting up a debating club or society can give us the confidence to tackle sensitive issues.

I have heard a Jew make a joke about the Holocaust. I heard a New Yorker make a joke about 9/11 the very day after it happened. Quite recently, I have also heard Muslims make jokes about burkhas.

Personally, I can’t conceive telling a joke about things like the Holocaust, 9/11 or burkhas – but to be completely honest with you, I laughed at all three jokes when I heard them. I accept that laughing along with someone or at ourselves is one thing while laughing at others requires a slightly different set of rules.

I defend the right of those people to tell those arguably tasteless and offensive jokes but just because we have a right to laugh at someone doesn’t mean it is right to do it.

Recently I was with a group of trainee teachers discussing “fundamental British values” as part of the Teachers’ Standards. Many of the British trainees said they didn’t really know what British values were. But an Italian student in the group (living and training in the UK) said she thought “British humour was a reflection of British values”. When I asked her to explain what she meant she said: “The British always seem to be laughing at themselves – their pomposity, their snobbery and their own social class divisions. We don’t laugh at stuff like that in Italy, at least not in the same way. I think what a society chooses to laugh at is a reflection of its values. It tells us a lot about ourselves and the way we relate to each other.” (I think she was paying the British a compliment.)

So to return to what is implied by my initial question. What can we – and can’t we – laugh at? This is an urgent topic for discussion and debate in schools – along with a thousand other urgent and compelling issues.

I therefore propose a motion: “That this House believes every school should have a Debating Society (and a Joke Club too).”

All those in favour, say “Aye!”

If you would like to set up a debating club or society in your school, The English Speaking Union has an excellent resource: “Ten tips for setting up a Debating Club”.



Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.



One thought on “What should teachers do if children tell jokes about the Prophet Muhammad, the Holocaust or 9/11? Discuss and debate.

  1. A debating society can be a good way of airing views and opinions, including about sensitve matters because it provides the opportunity for students to consider facts. Participants can learn to put forward arguments for and against a motion, not based on prejudice, racist views etc and not even their own opinions but on reasoned thought. It can be challenging having to defend a motion when your own view is actually the opposite!

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