Adolescence and Belonging: Religious and Ideological Diversity in Schools

Increasing diversity in classrooms can be challenging for teachers and students alike. Canan Korucu, one of the directors of, has recently been interviewed on provocations typical for adolescence, how to deal with conflicts in classrooms and the changes that need to happen among teachers and educators themselves.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): Ms. Korucu, you are the co-executive director of the association, which is active in civic education and prevention work on the topics of Islam, anti-Muslim racism, and Islamism. Your work mainly consists of accompanying and supporting educational professionals in the challenges posed by various forms of diversity, especially religious diversity. What challenges do teachers face in religiously and ideologically diverse schools?

Canan Korucu: In classrooms, young people with very different biographies, experiences, values, and norms sit together. They come from different social backgrounds, have different experiences of discrimination and racist attitudes, and acquire different strategies for dealing with them. It is a challenge for pedagogical professionals to question actions, demands or statements that young people themselves justify with their religion or culture or to translate them into the typical adolescent behaviour of young people. When young people legitimise their actions with the statement “But that’s how it is in my religion” or “That’s what my religion tells me to do”, it is helpful to interpret these statements in terms of the young people’s own lives.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): What are the realities of young people’s lives in educational institutions?

Canan Korucu: Firstly, all young people are going through a transformative process from child to adult and are dealing with questions that shape their identity: Who am I, who do I want to be, where is my place? What moral, political, and religious values do I hold? Young people are also preoccupied with questions about the meaning of life, gender identity and their own prospects for the future.

Dealing with these questions alone is demanding, confusing and exhausting we all remember. In addition, school is not only a place of education, but also a place where social relations of dominance and difference take effect. For young people with migrant backgrounds or who are read as Muslim, the experiences of the above-mentioned discrimination and racist attitudes are added to this.

Canan Korucu; Picture: privateCanan Korucu is co-chief executive at She finished her degrees in education und gender studies in Berlin and went through a postgraduate course in Islamic studies.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): What does this mean for everyday school life?

Canan Korucu: Even if it is written in educational law, for example in the Berlin Education Act, that every student has the right to a non-discriminatory school education, the educational reality as well as the social reality looks somewhat different.

If we take the labour migration of the 1960s as a starting point, even after 60 years, the goal of equal opportunities in the education system has still not been met. Students from a migrant background or those who are read as Muslim are more likely to repeat a year and less likely to receive recommendations for grammar school, even if their academic performance is sufficient for a grammar school recommendation. It is not the grades, but the educational background of the parents, the (assumed) lack of parental support or the (assumed) unfavourable learning environment that are given by the teachers as reasons for the decision.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): What is the concrete impact of this?

Even today, a Turkish name proves enough for a dictation exercise to be marked lower than one taken by “Max”. In a 2018 experimental study, 204 prospective teachers — divided into two groups — scored two identical dictations. The number of errors found was the same, yet the prospective teachers derived different marks from the same number of errors. The supposedly Turkish student with the name “Murat” was graded lower. Representative studies also show that teachers have lower performance expectations for students from a migrant background or those who are read as Muslim — with the result that they receive lower grades than their peers despite the same performance, or their performance is negatively affected.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): Does this only apply to students who are read as Muslim?

Canan Korucu: No, students from lower social backgrounds are also less likely to receive a recommendation for a grammar school than students from higher social backgrounds, regardless of their ethnic and religious background. In short, the school’s promise to judge students objectively according to performance, and thus to grant everyone the same opportunities for participation, has still not been met to this day.

Students from a migrant background or those who are read as Muslim, young people from low social backgrounds, and marginalised youth in general know that they are judged by different standards. They experience only too often exclusion and a sense of not belonging, and this in addition to other, already challenging aspects of adolescent development.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): How do young people respond?

Canan Korucu: In the same way that many young people react to perceived and actual injustice: often rebelliously, with provocative statements and behaviour. So when young people make demands for a prayer room, refuse to observe the minute of silence after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or female students don’t want to take part in swimming lessons, in the vast majority of cases these young people are neither ultra-Orthodox nor Islamist.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): But how then do educational professionals best respond to such demands?

Canan Korucu: These demands, even if they were forcefully made, should not be understood by educational professionals as an attack on or a dissociation from “Western” values, nor should they be taken personally. In essence, they are an invitation to talk. In the demand for a prayer room, there is usually a desire for acceptance and belonging. At the same time, it is also a litmus test: Does the right to the undisturbed practice of religion enshrined in the Basic Law also apply to me as a Muslim? How are the issues that are important to my family and me discussed? With the knowledge of everyday racism as well as the continuous negative reporting about “Islam”, pedagogical professionals can try to classify the behaviour of the students in terms of the latter’s own lived experience.

Theological arguments, such as: “Prayer can be caught up on, you don’t have to pray at school” should not be used. A theological discussion prevents the issue behind the topic from surfacing, namely the desire for belonging, acceptance and self-determination. It also runs the risk of polarising and reinforcing “us-and-them” discourses. In any case, examples show that at schools where the concerns of individual students with a Muslim stance were taken seriously and a silent space was created in dialogue with all interested students, the space was very rarely used for prayers.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): You mentioned Charlie Hebdo. After the attack on the editorial office of the satirical magazine by Islamists in 2015, there were national and Europe-wide expressions of solidarity under the motto “Je suis Charlie” and minutes of silence at schools. How can one classify the refusal of some students who are perceived to be Muslim to participate in these minutes of silence for the terror victims?

Canan Korucu: For the vast majority of students, it was a matter of provocatively drawing attention to double standards. Why should they participate in minutes of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks when the victims of terrorist attacks in Ankara and Beirut shortly before were not given the same solidarity? They asked: don’t the many Muslim victims who died in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and other countries count?

Pedagogical professionals in such situations can honour students’ protest and critique of double standards and, through collaborative dialogue, find forms of commemoration that all can share and participate in.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): Your third example was a student who does not want to participate in swimming lessons and justifies this with her religion.

Canan Korucu: That female students refuse swimming lessons for religious reasons is rare. Often, religion is only used as an excuse. So here too the question arises, what is the issue behind the topic? There may be underlying issues relating to specific developments in adolescence, for example, developing one’s own gender identity, learning to deal with physical changes in a self-confident way. This can also be accompanied by feelings of shame during this phase. Am I too fat, too thin, are my breasts too small or too big? What will I do if I have my period that day? Or simply the hassle of doing my hair and putting on new make-up in the short time after swimming lessons. All of this can make female students — even non-religious ones — not want to participate in swimming lessons.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): But how can educators recognise whether there is a real religious reservation, either parental or personal, against participation — and how should they deal with this?

Canan Korucu: Pedagogical professionals should have a conversation with the parents in good faith and try to find out what the reasons are. If there is a personal or familial religious motive at play, having an interested attitude and demonstrating that you honestly do want to understand can be beneficial. A reference to the obligation to participate can be helpful, as can exploring together with the parents the possibilities for their daughter participating in swimming lessons, for example, wearing a full-body bathing suit.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): So you suggest sensitivity toward religious feelings while “cooking conflicts down” to their basic elements?

Canan Korucu: I would like to put it this way: provocative stances can be seen as a starting point to exchange opinions and ideas, to reflect on them in a calm and approachable way, and seek the reasons for these stances primarily in the challenges of adolescence and specific conditions experienced when growing-up (experiences of racism, precarious social situation). In the best case, the provocation or protest should be understood as an invitation to talk. The students communicate in a rebellious way, specific to their age, that they want to belong and be accepted, with all their “peculiarities”. Whether it is wearing the Muslim headscarf, fasting in the month of Ramadan or performing obligatory prayer in a room specifically available for this purpose.

Trust is indispensable for this. Trust in the students, who most of the pedagogical staff will have known for some time, and trust in dialogue, in which it is important to adopt a questioning attitude, not one that aims to change.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): Are there other strategies for educational professionals to deal positively with increased diversity?

Canan Korucu: Pedagogical professionals and schools can signal that they value cultural and religious diversity. Rather than issuing a ban on speaking Turkish in the schoolyard, the disregard of which just recently triggered a punishment for a Year Three student in Baden-Württemberg, multilingualism should be viewed positively ⁠— just as it would have been if the student had been speaking French or Spanish.

The goal of education is to strengthen tolerance of ambiguity ⁠— in other words, the ability to accept inconsistent behaviour without reacting aggressively or by devaluing students. The same applies, of course, to educational professionals. They too should constantly put their tolerance of ambiguity to the test or be aware that their attitudes may be adopted by the students. How do I react to ambiguous situations? Can I tolerate contradictory ways of behaving? How do I react, for example, when a student comes to school wearing make-up and skin-tight clothing, while wearing a Muslim headscarf and making statements such as, “The headscarf protects me from the eyes of men”?

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): We have talked a lot about everyday life on a pedagogical level. How can the competences of the teachers be structurally strengthened?

Canan Korucu: I consider the promotion of pedagogical professionalism in training and further education to be an important building block. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, together with the German Rectors’ Conference, recommends that, in addition to knowledge, talents and abilities, attitudes and behaviour towards diversity should be promoted as professional skills in all phases of teacher training. How exactly this should be done, however, is not regulated. Therefore, demand-oriented advanced training and further training, which is oriented towards the school situation and, ideally, involves the entire teaching staff, is important. However, the appropriate resources should also be made available for participation. If I could wish for something, it would be a participative discussion of the mission statement with the students, the staff, and the school management at every school. From this ⁠— of course lengthy ⁠— process the needs of all participants would become visible and these could be formed into an overall strategy for the school.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): What would be further political and legislative starting points to better deal with the existing religious and ideological diversity in schools?

Canan Korucu: It would be important to review and revise textbooks and other teaching materials with regards to their content. Migration, for example, is often presented as a problem ⁠— even in newer textbooks ⁠— for a society that is predominantly homogeneous. Instead, diversity and living together in a post-migrant society should be presented as the norm. To achieve this, the framework of the curriculum must be adapted to the post-migrant society, and diversity in the editorial offices of textbook publishers must be ensured.

Diversity amongst teaching staff, which is not yet anywhere near as pronounced as in the student body, would also be another important political goal. However, this should not be used to delegate “intercultural issues” and “difficult” students to the teacher with the migrant background or who is taken to be Muslim. Rather, this should be understood as part of an effort to create equal participation ⁠— and as a normalisation of diversity.

Lucie Kretschmer (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung): These points are very important, however, they could be applied to all dimensions of diversity. What are the immediate, concrete goals that you see in relation to religion and belief?

Canan Korucu: For example, the discussion about the Muslim headscarf for female teachers should be objectified in politics and the media. It has been discussed for more than 15 years and has been disputed in the courts. Most recently in August 2020, the Federal Labour Court declared unconstitutional the blanket ban on headscarves for Muslim female teachers contained in Berlin’s Neutrality Act. I very much welcome this ruling because students cannot understand why a trained teacher with a headscarf is supposed to disrupt the peace at school, but people without a teaching qualification are allowed to teach. In addition, the blanket headscarf ban is tantamount to a professional ban for religiously practising women. Young people ⁠— and not only Muslims ⁠— feel that this contradicts the principles of equality between men and women.

Preaching diversity is not enough. It must also become a reality in everyday school life. This would not only have a positive effect on the lives of the pupils concerned, but on society as a whole: if the appreciation of religious and ideological diversity is not communicated and practised in schools, then where?

This article first appeared on the website of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. We thank Lucie Kretschmer and the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their permission to publish the article here.


For further reading

Radical Respect? Reflections on Emotions in Pedagogy and Civic Education Using the Example of Anti-Muslim Racism and Anti-Semitism,, February 2021.

Transforming schools into labs for democracy. A companion to preventing violent radicalisation through education,, March 2019.

The articles on this website are published in the context of Kompetenznetzwerk Islamistischer Extremismus / KN:IX.