Talking about peace isn’t sitting in a circle singing Kumbaya. But we need to do more of it in classrooms.
Over the last year colleagues and I researched, devised and trialled a course for talking about peace in a classroom setting. A mixed group of 30 year 11 and year 12 signed up under our Global Citizenship programme to attend weekly WCPCI sessions. The group was mixed boys and girls, in nationalities and ethnicity: the majority were British, but it also included individuals from Germany, South Africa, Japan, the US, Hong Kong and Australia who brought different perspectives.
We watched videos about historical genocides from Armenia to Darfur, and traced the sad pattern of how societies descend into social and political hate, enabled by wider attitudes of ignorance, denial, indifference and apathy. We focused in more detail on the recent history of Rwanda and Bosnia, which members of the group have visited, to explore how societies end up in situations of genocidal conflict, and the slow painful process of rebuilding in the aftermath. We heard the human stories behind the horrors, and explored the implications of individual and collective bias against outsiders. Over and over, we looked at how prejudice and bias can be manipulated, and we discussed the implications for our own communities and society.
We introduced common cognitive biases, and devised exercises to explore them, such as using data from the Institute of Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index*, an annual report that ranks 163 countries by 23 measurable criteria in an exercise to rank the top 10 most peaceful countries in the world. Sweden (14) was commonly named no 1 (availability heuristic – no. 1 is actually Iceland)) while out tendency to favour the familiar was even more markedly observed in half the groups placing the UK (57) in the top 10.
We did a lot of guided discussion to explore how ignorance, denial, indifference and apathy present in everyday situations around issues of personal identity such as gender, sexuality and race. We used resources such as the Anti-Defamation League’s ‘Pyramid of Hate’ and case studies of exceptional individual ‘role models for peace’ to draw parallels between the common material of PSHE lessons and school assemblies – be kind to each other, stand up against bullies, don’t be shamed into silence – and the genocidal horrors on the videos.
Conversations were often awkward; the connections between everyday acts of ‘othering’ and systemic victimisation of groups weren’t always immediately apparent. Sometimes, when connections were apparent, they met resistance. During one session based on the 2009 Channel 4 documentary recreating school teacher and anti-racism campaigner Jane Elliot‘s famous ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’ exercise, the discussion couldn’t get far beyond expressions of sympathy for the (adult, volunteer) ‘victims’ of the experiment. The lesson about in-group preference and denial didn’t go quite as we planned.
Over the past year, the news cycle presented us with present-day horrors: Tree of Life Synagogue, Christchurch, Easter Sunday. We considered the various intersections of faith and extremism and media representations of those stories.
After Christchurch, the group discussed the Islamophobia that runs through the British press. We reached out to the local mosque, writing letters and suggesting ‘get to know you’ visits.
After Easter Sunday the group had a heated discussion about whether we should reach out to to local churches in a similar way. The secular-minded group struggled to understand how even nominal (or non-existent) faith falls into alignment with historical cultural identity and the White European majority were strongly resistant to the fact of being seen not (only) as individuals but (also) as like it or not representatives of ‘White European Christianity’.
The news continues to provide too many examples that serve as potential sources for classroom discussion; stories of racism and homophobia that only made the diversity columns in the recent past now make mainstream headlines, thanks to a generally heightened sensitivity to extremism in all its forms. In the context of combating ignorance and complacency I suppose that’s progress of a sort.
Ambivalence runs through these conversations. But anxieties we feel about the kids’ ability to handle difficult material is alleviated by consistent feedback which states their appreciation of the time and safe space to discuss the topics we teachers tend to be wary of.
*The GPI ranks 162 countries according to 23 measurable criteria from most peaceful (Iceland) to least peaceful (Syria). Institute for Economics & Peace. Global Peace Index 2019: Measuring Peace in a Complex World, Sydney,