Event report: Peace education in formal schools

Caroline Brooks, Programmes Manager at International Alert, shares some of the key messages she took away from a recent webinar she chaired on peace education. Find out more below.

On 27 January 2021, I had the pleasure of chairing a webinar to discuss International Alert’s report ‘Peace Education in Formal Schools: why is it important and how can it be done’. The event was hosted by International Alert, British Council, and the Cambridge Peace and Education Research Group. I was joined by a panel of experts in peace education, all of whom brought great insights and ideas, and provoked lively discussion and participation amongst the audience of over 300 attendees.

Watch full webinar recording

Here are a few of the things I took away from the conversation:

We must start with the ground beneath our feet and build on what already exists

We have to acknowledge the structural, cultural, and direct violence that exists in schools, such as the tendency for rote learning, discipline and punishment, and the “myth of meritocracy.” We heard examples from Dr Hilary Cremin who has worked extensively in the UK school system, and Nomisha Kurian who has carried out research in India, both underscored that violence is often part and parcel of the school environment and how that can be a real barrier to mainstreaming peace education in formal school settings.

However, the promotion of peace education shouldn’t be avoided because of this. Rather it is something to overcome by looking for entry points and working collaboratively with colleagues across different disciplines to create policy, practice and curricula, which are infused with a culture of peace, healing, compassion, and care for young people.

We were urged by Hilary to find the balance between our dreams for peaceful schools and the reality of where we are – “to start with the ground beneath our feet” and go forward from there. In a similar vein, Nomisha advocated for an “assets-based approach” by looking for strengths and capabilities within what already exists, rather than dwelling on what is lacking.

Theory and practice are inseparable – we need collective reflective practice

Theory and practice can sometimes seem disconnected, however Dr Kevin Kester challenged this and argued that insights are gained by reflecting on our practices, this reflection is a form of theorising, which in turn informs our future practices. Theory and practice therefore are inseparable.
Kevin also argued that we need to look more at our collective practices, theories, and assumptions and the broader context, so that we might be better equipped to tackle the structural and systemic issues that need to be changed. As Kevin put it with reference to gun violence in schools, we are “doomed to repeat it if the broader culture and structure of violence is not addressed.”

Surround teachers with an ocean of support

For anyone trying to mainstream peace education, it is important to be attentive to the everyday struggles and turmoil that teachers face, especially in non-western contexts and contexts of adversity. A central component of peace education should be to understand the emotional toll that teaching has, that care givers need care and cross-sectoral systems need to be in place to support this. Essentially, as Nomisha put it, teachers need to be surrounded by “an ocean of support.”

Learn to understand and navigate barriers to peace education

Even if support is provided, there can still be resistance to integrating peace education in formal school settings. Panellist Maria Nomikou found that when working with teachers who experienced intergroup violent conflict in their own lives or within the living memory of their families, they resisted integrating peace education into the curriculum because their personal experience stopped them from engaging with the topic.

However, resistance can be overcome with time and by understanding the perspectives of the teachers and acknowledging the validity of their reactions and emotions. Trainers of teachers need to create a safe environment where ideas and concerns can be explored, expressed, and listened to. They also need to be self-aware – knowing what can and cannot be done in particular circumstances. They shouldn’t “open pandora’s box” if they do not have the time or skills to work with what comes out and are unable to close it again.

Pursue participatory dynamic methodologies that are sensitive to the context

Panellists Dr Phill Gittins, Basma Hajir, and Rhian Webb discussed approaches to teaching which might enable successful integration of peace education in formal school settings. Ideas included needing to shift attention to values within the school setting, create environments of respect where problems are solved peacefully, and viewing students and teachers as co-learners.

Emphasis was put on the importance of investing in participatory dynamic methodologies and on creating communities of practice to help students and teachers access the support they need. For example, Phill talked about the idea of “flip classrooms”, to look at not just a teacher-led approach but a student-led approach to learning. He also talked about “flip curriculum”, which would entail reducing the emphasis on attaining qualifications as the main goal of school and instead prioritise preparing students to be “subjects” – people who are able to understand the world and to change it.

Rhian Webb commented on the importance of exploratory practice – of getting into the classroom, meeting the learners, assessing needs, and contextualising approaches. Basma Hajir also emphasised the importance of creating transformative learning experiences and the need for critical reflection on what pedagogy is most relevant to the context. She also talked of the dangers of outsiders’ interventions in conflict-affected contexts, which may unintentionally do harm if they are not grounded in the lived experiences of the people in that context. Education programmes must be context sensitive; however, this is not necessarily to say that nothing is universal. By focusing on widening the “cognitive complexity of learners” ideas, values, and approaches, concepts such as diversity and pluralism can still be explored.

Create partnerships and pave a holistic path to change

Dr Tony Jenkins highlighted both the difficulty and the potential opportunities of influencing education policy. Speaking with reference to the US context, Tony remarked that we must understand that policy and pedagogical approaches influence understandings of conflict and violence, that the education policy that shapes schooling is created by social and political elites, which can be a form of structural violence that embeds inequitable distribution of power.

Much of the recent socio-political movements in the US, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, have mostly come about non-formally, and have had widespread participation of youngsters. Tony used this example to highlight that you cannot change culture from within a system that was designed to maintain it, and this is why there is scepticism about the effectiveness of peace education in formal school systems.

However, despite the difficulties of influencing policy, there is a ‘holistic path’ that can be taken where collaborative partnerships are essential. When peace education and education policy align it is usually due to pressure from the grassroots. When non-formal efforts are sustained over time, we get a ground swell, which has the potential to influence change at the top.

We also need to think pedagogically too and apply what we know about how change happens with learners and students and apply this to the political context. Rather than becoming adversarial when we are operating in the political space, we should look to build partnerships both formal and non-formal and create spaces for constructive dialogue.

There is still lots more to discuss and discover within the field of peace education. If you are interested to learn more, you can read the report, keep up to date with our Peace Education webinar speakers via this Twitter list and/or connect with our panellist directly via the following platforms:

Caroline Brooks, Programmes Manager at International Alert
Twitter: @CbrooksAlert at @intalertLinkedIn

Basma Hajir, Doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge
Twitter: @basma_hajir | LinkedIn

Dr Hilary Cremin, Reader at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge
Twitter: @hilarycreminLinkedIn

Dr Kevin Kester, Assistant Professor of Comparative International Education and Peace/Development Studies at Seoul National University

Maria Nomikou, Youth Skills & Inclusive Communities Sector Lead, Europe at the British Council
Twitter: @marianomikou | LinkedIn

Nomisha Kurian Doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge
Twitter: @nomishakurianLinkedIn

Dr Phill Gittins, Education Director at World BEYOND War
Twitter: @gittinsphill at @worldbeyondwar | LinkedIn

Rhian Webb, Senior Teacher at the British Council

Dr Tony Jenkins, Managing Director of the International Institute on Peace Education & the Coordinator of the Global Campaign for Peace Education
Twitter: @pttony AT @iipepeaceed | LinkedIn