No Peace without Peace Education and Education Reform

23 January 2017   ·   Katja Anger

Too often, education marginalizes students rather than empowering them. Peace agreements should provide for educational reforms that channel local knowledge into sustainable education systems. Utilising its comparative advantages, Germany can play a stronger role in both emergency peace education and in long-term education reforms for peace.

Peace and stability are foundational to social progress. And, in turn, economically and socially prospering societies are more conducive to preventing conflict. Education, as a driver for social and economic progress, is one of the key approaches to preventing violence, armed conflict and war. This blog post argues that not only short, targeted interventions focused on “peace education” but also longer-term structural educational reforms need to be at the heart of national and international agendas and strategies aiming to prevent conflict and foster peace (“education for peace”).

Prioritize peace education in humanitarian assistance

Peace education projects tend to concentrate on embedding peaceful conflict resolution techniques into teaching and learning, and organising extra-curricular activities and cultural exchanges between students. Such interventions are certainly helpful in instilling youth with an understanding and relevant skills for preventing conflict and in changing perspectives of the “other”. Indeed, studies show that well-designed formal and non-formal peace education can reduce student aggression, bullying and participation in violent conflict (UNESCO, 2016). Especially during a humanitarian crisis, such interventions can be useful. It is, therefore, particularly unfortunate that education receives less than 2% of humanitarian aid (Education Cannot Wait, 2016).

Toward long-term reforms: no peace agreement without education

Emergency or early recovery education activities need to be sequenced and harmonised with longer-term structural and system-wide reforms in education to counter some of the root causes of violence and to build a lasting peace.

Peace processes provide an important window of opportunity for comprehensive reform and improvement of education systems, for example by defining a common vision for education and identifying priority areas for reform. Of a total of 105 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2005, 57 make some provision for education as a component to post-war reconstruction (Dupuy, 2008). This is not sufficient. Any peace agreement should include context-specific provisions on education in line with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals and particularly SDG 4.7.

A failure to reform education systems invites resumed violence

If an education system remains the same as before the conflict, schools may sustain the conflict, if racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. continue to be practiced. Moreover, fragile states' education systems are oftentimes out-dated in nature and of such poor quality that they can lay the seeds for further violence. And this holds true not just for low-income and conflict affected countries but also middle-income countries that are increasingly fragile (OECD, 2016).

In many countries, discipline remains a priority and children are made to sit still at their desks. While such control, confinement, standardisation and enforcement are intended for the good of the child, they can lead to disobedience and protest. Albeit not necessarily violent protest, it shows through certain behaviours, such as resistance strategies, inattention, forgetfulness or general disengagement. Branded as failures by schools, many students face limited employment opportunities upon graduating from or dropping out of school. This nurtures structural violence. Poor quality education translates into economic and social marginalisation, and hence, frustration. These youth can be more easily lured into joining gangs, organised crime or other armed groups that provide them with an occupation, a belief system and a new family.

Schools shape visions for individuals and societies

It is not the students that are failing – education systems and schools are failing the students. Education needs to move away from handing down knowledge to students and making grades dependent on how well they can articulate what they have been told. Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan identified competence (dealing effectively with one's environment), autonomy (being in control of one's life) and relatedness (having a close affectionate relation with others) as innate psychological needs and central factors for human motivation. Education systems need to nurture all three. Schools need to equip students with a perspective and vision for themselves and as part of their community and larger society. They can contribute to fostering political participation, inclusion, advocacy and democracy, which requires knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to be transmitted to students not just theoretically but practically. Students need to not just know about, but practice respect, empathy, understanding and mutual appreciation. They have to be active listeners, willing to engage in dialogue and to think critically.

A non-biased curriculum that reflects the diverse groups within society is key to fostering peace in the long-run. What and how History is taught, for example, can play an important role in reshaping the attitudes youth can have towards others’ gender, race, religion or ethnicity. Guided by teachers, students can take on different perspectives, triangulate vested interests and explore the underlying drivers for conflict. Such teaching can create understanding for and, thus, contribute to lessen political and social grievances.

Leverage traditional knowledge for sustainable peace

Educational reform strategies do not always have to come from abroad; on the contrary, it is best if they build on local culture and customs, for instance embedding traditional models of learning. Among the Ladakhi people in Cashmere, for instance, learning takes place everywhere at all times. It is immersed in free play, interaction with others and their environment. It takes place by experimenting and experiencing and by observation. It focuses on what is needed to thrive in their environment. The Escuela Nueva in Columbia are a great example of a similar yet institutionalised approach, transforming education to be child-centred, active and participatory, with a flexible curriculum relevant to children's daily lives, and strategies for community participation and involvement in the learning process. Its learning model's success is widely recognized today (Oswald and Moriarty, 2009). Interestingly, top-performing school systems by international standards are also introducing approaches to “deep” learning, which look very similar to such traditional societies’ learning models (Fullan and Langworthy, 2013).

Of course, some changes can be lengthy and costly to implement in conditions of fragility; nevertheless, attention and investments need to be directed towards this longer-term goal. Equipping all students with quality education before, during and after a conflict can empower them to shape their own and their communities' future in a meaningful way, building prosperous societies that are resilient and resistant to reoccurring outbreaks of violence. Considering the impact quality education can have on children and entire societies justifies it being a priority at every stage.

Improve coherence from relief to development

Germany should, in addition to providing strategic investments for peace education projects, ensure that education is firmly anchored in any peace process and related peace agreement, peacebuilding strategy, etc., specific to countries’ contexts and conflicts. Sometimes, a mere lack of negotiators with educational expertise can lead to education not being given the necessary attention in a peace agreement (Dupuy, 2008).

Therefore, Germany needs to ensure coherence and sequencing of its humanitarian projects and its longer-term approaches for peacebuilding and development. One step in the right direction of recognizing humanitarian and development projects as highly complex processes is that German aid institutions require applicants for humanitarian funding to identify links with development aid and potential follow-up projects. On a systemic level, however, the bifurcation in aid architecture between the BMZ/aid delivery and Federal Foreign Office/emergency relief renders general alignment and coherence challenging. Changing the starting point and approach to transition can help facilitate more effective engagement in transition situations (OECD-DAC, 2010). This includes embracing a longer-term, non-linear approach to transition that focuses more on actual objectives rather than on the instruments and approaches available.

Focus on technical and vocational education and training

On the ground, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) is a good example of harmonising transitions. It emphasises transitional education planning, while offering technical advice when needed; the resulting transitional plan can lead to a common framework to align humanitarian and development projects. For Germany, the GIZ could play an important role on the ground, being increasingly active in both the realms of peace and security as well as developmental education programmes. One concrete example for connecting the two would be through Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), for which Germany's system is widely renowned and in regard to which it advises countries, such as Rwanda, on reforming their systems. A well-functioning TVET system can equip youth with relevant competences and meaningfully prepare them for the labour market. But it can also serve as an important pillar for post-conflict demobilization and reintegration of soldiers, particularly child soldiers, providing them with skills and a vocation as an alternative to picking up arms (again). This is one of many areas where humanitarian, peacebuilding and development approaches could be inter-linked to create more robust systems and structures conducive to responding to post-conflict contexts, preventing the reoccurrence of violence and building prosperous societies for a lasting peace.

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Katja Anger

Katja Anger is Research & Project Coordinator for The Future of Education & Skills: Education 2030 at the OECD Education Directorate, Division for Early Childhood and Schools.