Better Together: The rapprochement between Peace Education and Social Emotional Learning should be supported wherever possible

Participants in the SEE Learning Educator Workshop, hosted by EdCamp Ukraine, October 2019. (Photo: Uliana Rudich, EdCamp Ukraine)

By Christa M. Tinari and Jakob C. Fürst

If we have learnt one thing about conflict during the last decades, it’s that it is here to stay: our world is naturally full of conflict. What we have also seen is that we frequently deal with conflict through violent means: threats, manipulation, force and fighting. Yet violence, rather than addressing underlying needs, interests, and relationship concerns, further alienates our adversaries and decreases opportunities for dialogue, negotiation and resolution. The moral or legal justifications we attach to our violent conflict management do not limit the damage, ease the pain of survivors or inhibit retaliation. And while some citizens, diplomats, and military strategists have understood these limitations, it is bewildering how easily we fall back on these familiar, though problematic responses to conflict. Although bewildering, it’s not entirely surprising, given the lack of education we receive on alternative, non-violent approaches to conflict in our personal, social, and political lives.

Peace Education

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, “education is, quite simply, peacebuilding by another name. It is the most effective form of defence spending there is.” Indeed, many UN-supported education programs rest on the hypothesis that educated people are more adept at living in a multicultural world, better equipped to engage in participatory forms of government, and better prepared to collaboratively address the most pressing social, environmental and political problems we face. Following this logic, educated people might be less likely to engage in extremism and warfare. Could these outcomes be multiplied by teaching people about conflict dynamics and violence prevention, more specifically? The success stories from the field of peace education (PeaceEd) suggest so.

PeaceEd, described both as a set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values for conflict resolution on all levels, and a movement toward the creation of a more peaceful world, has emerged as a field of research, study and action, over the past 100 years. Accomplishments of the field include the creation of: peace education curricula that have reached thousands of students; university-level programs in peace and conflict studies; and international associations (such as the Global Campaign for Peace Education) dedicated to promoting the theory and practice of PeaceEd, with the goal of transforming cultures of violence into cultures of peace. Over time, PeaceEd dispersed and gave birth to a variety of methodologies, such as peer mediation, restorative practices, nonviolent communication and more –– all competing for a place within schools around the world.

Yet, some might say that PeaceEd does not currently have the combined thrust in educational circles as it had at various earlier times

Yet, some might say that PeaceEd does not currently have the combined thrust in educational circles as it had at various earlier times (such as during the progressivist movements of the early 20th century or during the Cold War). Perhaps the grandeur and inconceivability of “peace” itself, coupled with political liabilities, have been obstacles to the widespread implementation of PeaceEd in public education. Interestingly though, there is another related educational approach, Social Emotional Learning (SEL), that has become more widespread in public schools over the past decade. While SEL shares some of the same goals as PeaceEd, it does not explicitly refer to either politics or “peace.”  

Social Emotional Learning

The idea that the education of youth should include shaping character as well as strengthening the intellect can be traced back thousands of years. However, social-emotional learning, as a distinct field of research, emerged about twenty-five years ago in the United States. In 1994, experts formed an organization called The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), with a mission “to help make evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education from preschool through high school.” One year later, Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence became an international best seller. This sparked wider public awareness and discussion of the importance of emotional intelligence, and its applications in educational, business, and health sectors. Experts at CASEL define Social Emotional Learning as “the process through which people acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” It encompasses a lot of what some in the business sector call “soft skills.” 

SEL has gained significant momentum in the past twenty years and is now a world-wide movement…

SEL has gained significant momentum in the past twenty years and is now a world-wide movement heralded by business leaders, politicians, education experts, and technology companies, NGOs, and international and local foundations. Citing the objectives of improving well-being, fostering resilience in the face of crisis, and developing global citizens, the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, the World Bank, USAID and the International Rescue Committee are some of the global organizations that have drawn attention to the need for, and value of, more widespread implementation of SEL. 

PeaceEd and SEL need each other

Every conceivable education reform is a political act that conveys certain values and beliefs, and as such has advocates and opponents.

PeaceEd, for instance, calls for addressing basic human needs, and identifies their neglect as a main source of violent conflict and war. The questions PeaceEd raises may lead us to challenge the very foundations of our social relationships and societies, revealing structural injustices upon which those systems are built. Therefore, PeaceEd has also been perceived as a threat to the state, capitalism, and the established status quo as it aims not merely to reform–– but to transform –– power dynamics as we know them. It enables critical questioning of our social-political systems, and invites creative re-envisioning of our future. 

SEL has broad aims, but is still more “digestible” for many than PeaceEd, which poses critical questions around the goals of education and socialization.

SEL, somewhat less politicized, has also been perceived as less threatening to the status quo and has thus been embraced by leaders of various political persuasions. SEL has broad aims, but is still more “digestible” for many than PeaceEd, which poses critical questions around the goals of education and socialization. At the same time, the SEL community has had to resist the efforts of those who would attempt to co-opt or narrow its objectives to instead focus simply on creating more attentive and compliant students who score better on standardized tests and who will emerge from schooling ready for work and financial success. The idea that SEL should be used in service of personal and social well-being, with more harmonious global relations as a valuable outcome, is just beginning to gain more traction.

To date, many PeaceEd practitioners have realized that a strong set of social-emotional skills is a prerequisite to the successful application of most peacemaking skills.

To date, many PeaceEd practitioners have realized that a strong set of social-emotional skills is a prerequisite to the successful application of most peacemaking skills. Since conflict is quite often an emotional experience, as well as a relational one, it makes sense that parties with stronger social-emotional skills will have better chances of success in nonviolent conflict resolution and collaborative peacebuilding. Now that SEL has emerged as a distinct field, PeaceEd practitioners have been more commonly integrating SEL skills and practices into their interventions. In a way, SEL provides what PeaceEd has needed more of all along, because engagement in true reconciliation and conflict transformation requires fairly high degrees of emotional resiliency, self-control and a deeper understanding of self and others. And as PeaceEd efforts, in general, remain more overtly committed to preventing conflict and promoting the conditions conducive to global peace, PeaceEd can serve to more boldly broaden SEL’s aims beyond the somewhat limited goals of individual happiness and academic success.

SEE Learning: An example of PeaceEd + SEL

The authors of this article are involved in a new program called Social, Emotional and Ethical (SEE) Learning, developed by The Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics at Emory University, that merges some of the goals and aims of PeaceEd and SEL. The SEE Learning framework is built around the development of attitudes, beliefs and skills in three  dimensions: awareness, compassion and engagement. These three areas are explored within the context of three domains: the personal, social and systems.

The program, called ‘SEL 2.0’ by Daniel Goleman, teaches a variety of social-emotional capabilities such as attending to emotions and skillful communication. Recognizing that so many children have experienced traumatic events –– big or small –– SEE Learning also intentionally integrates a trauma and resilience-informed approach. The curriculum presents “body literacy” practices, including a set of skills students and teachers can use to regulate their nervous systems, mitigate the negative impact of stress, and return to their “zone of well-being.” In addition to “body” and “emotional literacy,” SEE Learning also aims to help students develop “ethical literacy” –– defined as the ability to engage in reasoning and action around issues involving the suffering and well-being of oneself, others, and communities.

SEE Learning includes several other hallmarks of PeaceEd, including: an ethical orientation based on an understanding of interdependence, an appreciation (despite differences) of our common humanity, and an introduction to systems thinking.

SEE Learning includes several other hallmarks of PeaceEd, including: an ethical orientation based on an understanding of interdependence, an appreciation (despite differences) of our common humanity, and an introduction to systems thinking. Systems thinking is a key critical thinking approach often used in comprehensive PeaceEd to understand, deconstruct, and offer solutions to institutionalized forms of violence embedded in society’s systems (political, economic, class, etc.). It is infrequently addressed in SEL programs which focus more on the personal and interpersonal domains. Like PeaceEd, the pedagogical orientation of SEE Learning includes a constructivist approach in which students are encouraged to question, reflect on, and integrate new understandings into their daily life. The culminating project of SEE Learning invites students to use systems thinking and the value of compassion to plan and carry out an action project that addresses an issue of concern to them and their community. 

Since its official launch in April 2019, the SEE Learning curricular materials for students ages 5-18 are being used by thousands of educators in over 15 countries. The program provides a free online orientation course for anyone wanting to use the curricula, which are also free and accessible online. 

How to continue?

Social Emotional Learning and Peace Education look a lot like partners that can greatly influence and improve each other. The rapprochement of the two has already begun, and we have presented one example of this: The Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning program.

Social Emotional Learning and Peace Education look a lot like partners that can greatly influence and improve each other.

At their core, both PeaceEd and SEL seek to address social problems by inviting people to identify their shared values, expand their knowledge and develop the skills they need to create a peaceful future. SEL emphasizes change on personal and interpersonal levels, while PeaceEd often focuses on social, political, and systemic issues. PeaceEd offers a culture-sensitive approach, often involving an analysis of injustice and local conflict dynamics, which may serve to improve the relevance and impact of SEL interventions. Just as importantly, SEL facilitates awareness and skill-building in areas that are universally helpful for increasing personal and social well-being –– skills that are perhaps even more needed in times of conflict, and without which peacebuilding efforts are likely to fail.

We know that many SEL educators are using PeaceEd insights and practices in their classes (and vice versa). We explicitly encourage theorists, practitioners and educators to continue searching for bridges and synergies between these two fields.

Sources:

BIOS

Christa M. Tinari is currently Senior Instructional Content Developer with the SEE Learning Program (Emory University) where she works closely with educators who are implementing SEE Learning around the world. She is also co-author of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School and creator of the Feel & Deal Activity Deck. Christa was formerly Adjunct Instructor of Education at Temple University and Senior Trainer in the Conflict Resolution Education in Teacher Education (CRETE) Project. As a professional Peace Educator and expert SEL consultant, she has trained thousands of counselors, parents, educators and students of all ages in formal and informal educational settings.[email protected]

Jakob C. Fürst is a peacebuilding advisor for the German Civil Peace Service program in Ukraine. With his partners at EdCamp Ukraine, he designs and implements various ongoing peace education initiatives, mainly as professional development measures for school teachers. Over the past decade, he has been involved in dialogue and dealing with the past processes, as well as civic education and violence prevention programs in and around Europe. [email protected]

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