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Beginning with children

Preventing conflict is the work of politics, establishing peace is the work of education, said Maria Montessori. NCERT’s National Curriculum Framework 2005 proposes the integration of peace education and the building of peace-seeking mindsets across the entire curriculum, not just in a weekly ‘moral science’ class. It emphasises the interdependence of living beings and the creation of an environment that builds sensitivity to others’ cultures, perspectives and rights. Priyadarshini Rajagopalan explains

“If we are to teach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” -- Mahatma Gandhi

When we say ‘peace education’, what pops into our minds is some form of defence against violence (1). It is not so. One cannot create the identity of ‘peace’ based on the absence of violence but on characteristics and skills that promote it consciously. Educators, developmental psychologists and social visionaries alike have seen childhood as the best moment to intervene, with the objective of teaching children different ways of being, of relating to others, and of dealing with difference and conflict. If the idea of peace is to precede the idea of war, then it has to be nurtured from the very birth of independent thought.

What then is ‘peace education’? It is the learning of skills and building of attitudes that support a peace-seeking mindset. It has often been said that the reason we are losing this battle to violence is because while some people are actively teaching violence, no one is actively teaching peace. This is one of the things that the National Council for Educational Research and Training’s National Curriculum Framework, published in 2005 (hereafter, NCF 2005) proposed to change so that existing lessons and lesson plans would reflect the guidelines and integrate peace education across the curriculum.

The National Curriculum Framework is a document that sets basic guidelines for schools and was proposed by the National Policy on Education (NPE, 1986) as a means of evolving a national system of education. NCF 2005 recommends varying approaches to different subjects, curriculum, teaching methods and examination. With regard to peace education, the NCF recommends creating an environment that builds sensitivity to others’ cultures, perspectives and rights, clearly stating that education must be oriented towards values associated with “peaceful and harmonious coexistence” (NCF 2005: 9). There is also a strong emphasis on reorienting education, so that it does not merely lay down the rules for ethical conduct but also nurtures the need to reason, understand and make informed choices.

Some of the underlying beliefs that come through in the NCF are that education should concern itself with highlighting the interdependence of humans. Students need to be exposed to the concept of living beings, including humans, consciously or unconsciously supporting one another by continuing to perform their inherent tasks. If this is true, then exposure to and acceptance of diversity in gender, religion, culture, language, ability, or economic status, becomes inevitable. Towards this, great emphasis is also laid on individual nourishment of personality, as a disturbed psycho-social environment often leads to stressful relationships as well. Therefore, the focus is on the child’s experience with content and people being positive and encouraging.

Another premise is that non-violent conflict resolution skills can be taught, practised, nurtured and applied to solve individual, group or national issues. This, in turn, means that these skills can be taught to children so they begin using them from the time of petty playground squabbles till adulthood, thus making these an integral part of their interactions.

The view that the need for peace education in the current social/political scenario is compelling is seen throughout the document. It advocates a long-term process of building civic consciousness, acceptance, justice and values which should be a dimension of education.

Significantly, the NCF reflects the concept that peace education is by no means a stand-alone subject or instructional module but one whose principles cut across curricular and extra-curricular aspects of education. This signals a departure from the practice of including one or two classes a week dedicated to moral education where students are expected to spontaneously imbibe all the positive values expressed in a lesson or topic. Here the idea is of peace education permeating the systems, teaching-learning processes, content, behaviour, relationships, environment and policies across the school, thereby helping a child learn through a process of immersion where s/he not only talks about these practices but experiences them in every interaction at school. This then becomes a norm in the child’s daily life instead of being a one-off intervention.

Based on these ideas, the NCF guidelines for integrating peace education in the curriculum focus on the teaching-learning process, and offer many strategies for implementing the same in classrooms as a part of regular instructional time, across subjects.

Some key ideas that are proposed deal with allowing children to make choices, thus building their thinking skills to evaluate situations based on information and sorting between things that are appropriate and those that are not, while keeping the perspective of the common good. There is also a stress on teachers being role models of unbiased thought and action so as to encourage students to construct their own understanding of ethical behaviour. Another area of teacher involvement deals with the relationship between the student and the teacher. Here, the recommended strategies speak of drawing children out in conversations, being non-threatening, not suppressing but allowing the unwanted, improper or unacceptable behaviours to be discussed, and refraining from mere preaching of morals by choosing to have meaningful discussions around them.

In this process, some of the tools that are likely to help include stories and anecdotes that allow for this dialogue to happen. Another strategy that is recommended is to show students the linkage between their immediate social context and the community, and then the global perspective. For this too the teacher needs to be oriented towards peace him/herself and have the knowledge and skill to make the relevant connections.

The NCF also speaks extensively of exposing children to the aspect of ‘work’ as a productive, collaborative, positive effort that benefits the community, as this brings about an appreciation of things other people or living beings do for us. This is not to be confused with vocational training but is valid work done to solve a real situation or fill an existing need. “Through work one learns to find one’s place in society. It is an educational activity with an inherent potential for inclusion.” (2) Since being inclusive of differences is critical to peace it is no wonder that this area has been given prominence for its multi-faceted benefits, like creating interdependence, encouraging focused, controlled, disciplined efforts with a clear goal, building a sense of self-worth, and seeking and acknowledging others’ support to ensure successful completion.

If these are the principles and guidelines we need to work with, the question is how can they be implemented? What needs to happen to put this in place? Based on the present scenario in schools, some fundamental practices need to be altered to allow for this integration. Some of the more obvious aspects that impact this are class size, teacher training, and true integration. If the recommendation is to allow students to interact, discuss, form opinions and share them then it is apparent that such a classroom cannot be crammed with 50-60 students. So, limiting class size to facilitate the level of communication and collaboration required between students and teachers is a major factor in making this approach work.

Another important peg in the process is the teacher, who is expected to make this happen. While teachers do undergo training in delivering a lesson they now need to have the upgraded skills of facilitating learning through dialogue. They need to prepare themselves to either be free of biases or to be able to keep them away from their students to truly help them remain non-judgemental. Students need to make choices based on their knowledge, experience, and understanding.

Taking the integration of peace into every aspect of school education, one realises that it is actually much harder to achieve than just setting aside a class for moral/value education. It brings the added dimension of every person, system and practice in school being inclusive and unbiased. This then is a real challenge in implementation.

Other aspects that aren’t as evident are practices like examinations, admissions, disciplinary action, etc, wherein the manner in which these are conducted needs to change in order to reflect an environment that embraces peace. One cannot truly begin a conversation on non-violent conflict resolution in an environment that condones corporal punishment, for example.

While these are just some of the challenges, it is important to note that for peace education to be integrated into the school curriculum there needs to be a proportionate change in systems, content, personnel, and pedagogy.

In conclusion, the common thread of peace education found in this document runs through all areas from curriculum to teacher preparation to the learning environment. And the single, persistent thought that comes through is that these skills and attitudes need to be built at a young age if we are to see any visible change in the global environment of the future.

(Priyadarshini Rajagopalan directs the Education for Peace Initiative of The Prajnya Trust, Chennai. She has over 15 years of teaching experience in India and the US, having worked with children aged 3-15 using the Montessori method and with elementary-aged children in a school where the focus was conflict resolution skills and effective problem-solving)

Endnotes
1 The Education for Peace Initiative at the Prajnya Trust did a study based on the National Curriculum Framework as part of a series of peace education research projects supported by a small grant from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust in 2008-2009. These studies are available at http://www.prajnya.in/peacepapers.htm
2 NCF, chapter 3, page 59

References
NCF 2005: National Curriculum Framework, National Council of Education Research and Training, 2005

Infochange News & Features, October 2011