Promoting the Field of Peace Education: Summary of Discussion

El-Hibri Foundation Peace Education Prize Brunch, October 3, 2013

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The following is a summary of a discussion between a dozen experts on peace education with staff of the El-Hibri Foundation.  The discussion focused on two main questions:

  • What is the state of the field of peace education in the US and internationally?  Related to this question we also discussed the impact of social media on the field.
  • How do we know that peace education is making a difference?

Following Chatham House rules, we have not attributed comments made in the discussion to specific individuals.

The State of the Field of Peace Education

Discussants identified a number of challenges associated with the field, with many agreeing that “institutionalization” of peace education—that is, the incorporation of peace education curricula and methods into formal school settings—is the biggest one.  It is made more difficult by the fact that school environments vary significantly in different communities in any given country and from one country to the next.  We need to be flexible in thinking about how we define peace education and pedagogy, and to keep in mind, as one participant put it, that “context is more important than content.”

Integrating Peace Education in Schools: Essential to institutionalization, one participant argued, is teacher training.  While there are many curricular materials now available, their use depends on effective “teacher delivery.”  Teachers often work under stressful circumstances and some view teaching new curricula as adding to their workload.  The challenge is to help them integrate new curricula and methods into what they’re already teaching.  One participant gave the example of grant support provided by the National Endowment for Humanities for three-week summer training programs for teachers to gain the skills to deliver peace education curricula. Yet, as one participant noted, such programs may seem superfluous to teachers in struggling schools where kids have difficulty mastering reading and other basic skills.

Educators can be overwhelmed by the scale of the issues related to the subject of peace and conflict management, and they need help developing the proper vocabulary to discuss it. We need to communicate better to teachers about what peace education is, including helping them understand that their own behavior can model best practices for conflict management and that the world is not in an irredeemable state of crisis.  Another obstacle to building the field of peace education is fear by university students that specializing in peace education is not a winning strategy for employment, and by citizens who believe that the use of force is the only way to maintain a country’s security.

In this connection, one participant noted that we need to define more expansively what we mean by the term, “peace education.”  There is now much focus on bullying in schools and other settings. Curricula addressing other issues that are essential to peace education—human rights, international law, gender equality, sustainable development, climate change and so forth—are other entry points.  One participant noted the importance of inserting perspectives from peace education into multiple academic disciplines, including economics, biology, neuroscience, etc.  Another argued for providing examples of behavior by world leaders that have produced positive results through mediation to end or transform conflict.

Other participants discussed the importance of assessing how peace education can be introduced in relation to core curriculum standards in various states in the US.  These govern how teachers and principals organize their work.  While focusing on content is important, one participant from New Zealand noted that peace education was successfully integrated into schools in that country by addressing not only what is to be taught but by presenting evidence to teachers, administrators, school boards, parents and teachers’ colleges about how peace education can effectively change the climate in schools.  Helen Clark, the UNDP Administrator and a former prime minister of New Zealand, is an excellent resource on school integration.

Community-Level Peace Education Programs: Discussion also focused on the importance of peace education in community settings.  Several participants noted the rapid expansion of “grassroots” community activities that essentially promote peace education but are called something else. They range from after school programs, such as one in the Washington, DC area called “Safe Streets for Kids,” to activities sponsored by the Girls Scouts and similar groups that develop knowledge and skills relating to conflict management, human rights, respect for diversity, etc.

Policy-Level Change: While community-level peace education is flourishing, little of this is reflected at the policy level.  Peace education, one participant argued, needs to be promoted more effectively in the main organizations and institutions that broker innovation in education—the influential teachers’ unions, the National Education Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and similar organizations.  Establishing personal relationships with policy makers is essential, argued one participant.  He described a process of meeting with policy makers multiple times to help them imagine viable alternatives to nuclear weapons.

Noting a seminal shift in US public opinion against the use of violence, after the country has been at war for more than a decade, on participant argued that we need to ask ourselves, “How can we capitalize on this opportunity?” She observed that Gandhi and Confucius both said that the key to success is being prepared when opportunity arises.  We need to be more focused on which audiences we are targeting and to look for allies with similar interests, such as human rights activists and organizations.

The Role of Social Media and Culture: There was much discussion about the impact of social media on peace education.  One participant noted that it represents an “incredible opportunity” to communicate with vast numbers of people, particularly youth, instantaneously and at low cost. One participant indicated that teachers generally welcome an opportunity to incorporate social media in their classrooms as it taps into technologies on which their students are already intensely focused.

Several participants discussed the interface between social media and culture.  The organization Hip Hop and Politics is using music and videos to purvey messages to the Black community.  Ten-year old kids in Washington DC and Istanbul are listening to the same bands transmitted by the Internet and on mobile platforms.  Pen pals have evolved into video bloggers who communicate orally and visually.  The use of photographs and video images extend our ability to communicate, which, one participant argued, is why Facebook has become so widespread compared to other social media.

Clearly, however, social media also have a dark side and can be used for bullying, to perpetuate stereotypes and whip up violence.  At a Congressional hearing in 1969, the TV host Mr. Rogers complained about the influence of cartoons in transmitting violence images to young readers and viewers.  Today, video games represent the same challenge on a much larger scale.  Social media can limit face-to-face interaction between and among human beings and can cause what one participant described as “paralysis and inactivity.” Yet, another observed, “Social media haven’t changed who we are as human beings.  We invent devices that help us express ourselves and activate the innate in us.  They can be used in both positive and negatives ways.” Citing a positive example, one participant described an Israeli couple who posted a positive Facebook message about Iranians that was met with a flood of positive responses from Iranians.

Another participant noted that social media have vastly extended the scope of human communications, but much of that remains relatively superficial in nature.  The recent Arab uprisings have demonstrated that social media can help mobilize demonstrators to overthrow dictators, but they are not substitutes for the acquisition of skills and experience critical to the building of social and political movements that underpin sustainable progress, although social media can be essential to helping different parties and actors coordinate their work.

Meanwhile, as one participant noted, peace education pedagogy hasn’t caught up with new technology. Technology, he said, is really about how we communicate, and we have to live by Elise Boulding’s observation that, “We can’t create a different world unless we can imagine it.” Another participant described how she asked young students to “invent the future” by imagining what the world would be like when they were her age, and then working back from that to discuss how to create that future starting from now.  One participant shared lessons learned from an on-line peace pedagogy course he taught, but noted that it included essential elements bringing the students together, including mandatory phone conversations or face-to-face interactions over coffee.

Assessing Impact

With time running out, the discussion about assessing the impact of peace education was limited. Several participants noted that this is difficult but not impossible.  Impact analysis, one argued, should be based not just on quantitative metrics but also on qualitative information.  With the rise of neuroscience as a field and increasing access to hugely powerful data collection and computing tools, the potential to assess the impact of peace education and convey its positive impact is enormous.

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