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  • Number of participants = Any (small groups of 5 – 6)
  • Theme = Beliefs, critical thinking, globalisation
  • Duration = 90 minutes
  • Difficult for participants = Level 3
  • Difficulty for facilitator = Level 2

Summary

In this activity, people discuss how beliefs develop, how they are reinforced and how and why they have changed over time.

Goals/Learning Objectives

  • To develop an understanding of the social construction of beliefs
  • To develop critical thinking and discussion skills
  • To cultivate attitudes of open-mindedness and enquiry.

Materials

  • Possible Beliefs-Statement Cards: one set of cards per small group
  • A flip chart and pens for each group

Preparation

Copy the handout, add more statements of beliefs or delete as required and cut out the statements of beliefs.

Make one set of cards per small group.

Flow of the Exercise

Explain that this activity is about how beliefs change over time. Firstly, participants discuss the beliefs that past generations had, but which are now outdated. Then, they discuss those beliefs that they have and which their children and grandchildren may find outdated.

Brainstorm what people understand by the word ‘belief’.

Ask participants to get into small groups of three to four persons. Distribute the ‘Possible Beliefs – statement cards’.

Each group should choose someone to make a summary on a flip chart and someone to give feedback in the plenary.

Ask the groups to look at the ‘Possible Beliefs’ statement cards. They should choose five beliefs that have changed since their grandparents’ time, which they would like to work on.

Take the chosen cards and discuss the beliefs that their grandparents had about the statement. Where did those beliefs come from? How were they reinforced? With hindsight, were they wise beliefs? Why/why not?

Then try to imagine what life may be like in your children’s or grandchildren’s time and discuss what they will believe. In what ways will their beliefs about the chosen statements be different from yours? Why will they be different?

Bring the groups back into the plenary and ask each group to report briefly on their conclusions.

Debriefing

Start with a short review of the activity and then go on to discuss the challenges of living in a globalised world where beliefs and values are changing.

Were there any strong disagreements within the groups? Compare the feedback from the different groups.

  • Where do we get our beliefs from? Are there any general things to say about how it was in the past and how it will be different in the future?
  • Why do beliefs change?
  • Are any beliefs absolute? If yes, which sorts of beliefs and why? If no, why are beliefs not absolute?
  • What are the advantages of holding beliefs in common?
  • How do our beliefs limit us?
  • What would make you change your beliefs?
  • How easy is it to change beliefs? Which sorts of beliefs are harder, and which are easier to change? Why?
  • How can people protect themselves from propaganda and false claims, for example spin by politicians, doubt by climate sceptics, or ploys to get your money by bogus organisations?
  • Give examples of limitations to the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Who should decide what these limitations should be?
  • Can you name examples of violations of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in your community, country, Europe and the wider world?

Variations

Introduce some of the beliefs (please see the handout) to the whole group by using the method Where Do You Stand?. The participants do not have to say anything; they can listen to other people’s points of view to help them understand the issues better.

Possible Follow up Activities

You may want to continue addressing the right to freedom of religion and belief with the method A Mosque in Sleepyville which explores a dispute over the building of a new mosque in a traditionally Christian area by simulating a town council meeting.

If the group is interested in looking back at the key dates of history when these ideas and beliefs were developed, they may like to use the method Timelines; use this method to discuss how the beliefs and ideas were developed within a story or historical event, to better understand the power dynamics of the historical events.

In the method Path to Equality Land, the group can discuss how different beliefs could be challenged and overcome.

With the simulation card game Barnga and the simulation method Culture Clash, the idea that beliefs are changing over time can be followed by discussing how cultural clashes, differences and interactions can have an impact on ideas and beliefs during the debriefing for these two methods.

Ideas for action:

Together with friends, colleagues or classmates, pick out a collective belief that could prejudice or discriminate people in your community, for example, beliefs about homosexuality, the use of contraception, abortion, relationships outside, or girl and boy roles. Invite someone from an NGO or other organisation to speak about this topic, so that you understand more about the issue. Then decide what action you want to take locally.

You could also create and produce a play about a chosen issue to perform for your local community. Be aware that it is much easier to get an audience to come and watch if your performance coincides with one of the international or European commemorative days.

If you feel comfortable doing so, adapt this exercise to use during informal moments with your friends, family, and colleagues. Ask them about their opinions/beliefs about certain issues. Be careful, however, as some people can be very sensitive about certain issues.

Recommendations

Although participants are working in small groups, some individuals may feel shy about stating their opinion about some of the issues. One way to avoid this is to manage the small groups so that friends or those who feel comfortable with each other work together. Another way is to give people less ‘threatening’ topics first and then, as confidence grows, present the ones that are more controversial.

The process of building a world where human rights are respected as the norm means challenging most people’s beliefs in one way or another. Thus, the point of this activity is to encourage participants to understand that people’s beliefs are often social constructs or products of their society and the age in which they live. At the end of the activity, participants will be more aware of why beliefs are deep-rooted and hard to view objectively. They will also appreciate that it takes education, the presentation of clear, factual evidence and good critical thinking skills to change beliefs that are either harmful or simply outdated.

Definitions, Helping Tools and Materials

A belief is a conviction that a suggestion, statement or idea is true. People may say that they believe something to be true for different reasons: They have seen/witnessed it or because of personal experience, there is good evidence for believing or because of they have faith. The word ‘belief’ is often used in relation to religion, as for example when people talk about their ‘belief in God’. However, this is a narrow use and you need to be sure that participants are clear about the meaning of the word. A belief is an assumed truth. Thus, everything is a belief. We create beliefs to anchor our understanding of the world around us, so once we have formed a belief, we will tend to stick with that belief. Understanding how beliefs develop is an important step in promoting a culture of human rights.

Psychologists studying belief formation, and the relationship between beliefs and actions, have found that beliefs form in a variety of ways.

  • We tend to internalise the beliefs of the people around us during childhood. Albert Einstein is often quoted as having said that common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of eighteen. Political beliefs depend most strongly on the political beliefs most common in the community in which we live. Many individuals believe the religion they were taught in childhood.
  • People may adopt the beliefs of a charismatic leader, even if those beliefs fly in the face of all previous beliefs and produce actions that are clearly not in their own self-interest. In such instances, rational individuals attempt to reconcile their direct reality with the belief and contradictions, the condition known as cognitive dissonance.
  • Repetition forms beliefs, as do associations of beliefs with for example images of sex, love and other strong positive emotions. This is the primary thrust of the advertising industry.
  • Physical trauma, especially to the head, can radically alter a person’s beliefs.
  • Even well-educated people, well aware of the process by which beliefs form, still strongly cling to their beliefs, and act on those beliefs, sometimes even against their own self-interest.
  • Faith is the confident belief in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing. It is the belief that something is true because an authority says so. Faith can have very specific meaning in some religious contexts.

Adapted from Council of Europe (2017). Compass: Manual for Human Rights Education with Young People. Soon to Be Outdated. Strasbourg.

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