Learning from Research on Peace Education

I recently went to a talk organized by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The talk, by scholar Phil Hammack, was called Can Talking Help? Dialogue and the Politics of Peace Education among Israeli and Palestinian Youth. What he had to say was in many ways a less than upbeat assessment of why peace education programs in Israel have so far failed to yield significant results – as reflected in ongoing political and military events and indeed some of Paul’s reporting from that region.

While we have never framed Out of Eden Learn as peace education, some important questions and ideas were raised for me by this talk – made all the more pertinent by a “blue sky” planning session last week in which the Project Zero team, along with interested graduate students, began a process of reviewing where we’ve come and where we’d like to go with our learning community. In response to the prompt “What would be the best-case scenario to your mind in terms of Out of Eden Learn having an impact on young people and/or the world?” some of the post-its on the wall read as follows:

  • [Young people] learning to value discourse and discussion with people from different backgrounds
  • [Out of Eden Learn being] instrumental in building a new generation that is more open-minded, focused on peace-building, prone to deep thought and self-reflection
  • Young people feeling a sense of connectedness and mutual responsibility to other people who are quite different to themselves
  • [Out of Eden Learn serving as a] powerful bridge between cultures that are taught to be wary of the other – by providing catalysts for conversations and collaborations, participants may learn there are similarities amongst the differences which may lead to peace building and a deeper understanding of how interrelated and connected we all can be

To be clear, these are potential aspirations: I am not claiming that we have peace education all figured out, especially as we are not purposefully bringing students together from different sides of intractable conflicts, nor offering materials that directly tackle such themes as violence or injustice. However, I do think that Out of Eden Learn offers a potentially powerful model for diminishing stereotypes and helping young people to connect with one another by way of exchanging stories and documenting their own lives.

Here are some student voices to provide food for thought:

“I have learned to be friends with people, to be able to actually share my thoughts in a way so people know who I am, what I am thinking. It made me realize that if I just met this person on the street, I wouldn’t know their tale of life, of them on the inside. I love to be able to share these thoughts so openly! “

“I think it’s really important that you have an understanding of the different kinds of people. So you can really communicate with others better. I feel like it’s a good thing to learn. It’s a good way to make new friends and so if you ever come across something that’s different you won’t be scared, you would be “OK, I understand that.”

“I have learned that it is valuable to compare your opinion to that of another person who has a different perspective due to where they live, what [religion] they are a part of, etc. Doing this allows me to see things in a different light that I might not have noticed without doing so.”

Back to Phil Hammack’s talk. He has extensively studied the impact of face-to-face peace programs that bring Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli youth together. These kinds of programs draw their inspiration from the “contact hypothesis” laid out by Gordon Allport in his influential 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice – which, simply put, states that if people have the opportunity to interact with and live alongside people from different communities their prejudices will dissipate. Sadly, Allport’s theory seems to have been overly optimistic, particularly in the context of bitter and entrenched conflict. Phil Hammack found that the residential programs he studied actually seemed to harden participants’ perspectives in the long run. The programs, which sought to have participants self-identify as “peace-makers” rather than as Palestinians or Israeli Jews, had some immediate effects. However, once participants went back to their day-to-day realities and were re-exposed to prevailing community narratives, they felt a renewed sense of loyalty to their own people. This “Coexistence Model” is not the only model: Ifat Moaz usefully lays out four different approaches.

  1. Coexistence Model (the dominant model): emphasizes the common humanity of participants and similarities between them, avoiding difficult or contentious issues.
  2. Joint Projects Model (closely related to the Coexistence Model): focuses on bringing participants together to work on a common goal such as art or science projects, sports teams, study groups etc.
  3. Confrontational Model: in contrast, this model tackles the asymmetry of the conflict head-on, with an emphasis on Palestinian participants sharing their perspectives with Israeli participants.
  4. Narrative-Story-Telling Model: this model, developed by psychologist Dan Bar-On, is designed to facilitate more civil, productive dialogue than the confrontational model. Participants engage in storytelling to share their experiences of the conflict, with the goal of building trust and helping participants to develop a more “humanized” and nuanced view of the other side. (1)

To reiterate, Out of Eden Learn is not comparable to programs seeking to ameliorate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But this framework provides an interesting way of thinking about our efforts to connect youth from very different backgrounds. The Narrative-Story Telling Model resonates with Out of Eden Learn, for example, in that we invite students to exchange stories about their lives in authentic ways and encourage them to see nuance and complexity. Out of Eden Learn also perhaps resembles the Coexistence Model in that we have some tacit assumptions about the good that will likely come from having students from different backgrounds interact. And while we don’t prescribe or restrict the kind of dialogue that unfolds among students, nor do we actively encourage them to engage in critical or potentially difficult dialogue with one another – even if we’ve been talking as a team about the importance of creating opportunities where students can engage around issues that might reveal differences in their perspectives and opinions.

Here are some questions I have:

  • How does the development of social media open up new possibilities for peace education? Online dialogue is in some ways more superficial than face-to-face experiences. Yet at the same time, it allows for ongoing communication in a format that potentially meshes with the communication patterns of contemporary youth. And while people often post things online that they would never say to someone’s face, thereby perpetuating or aggravating acts of hostility – see Out of Eden Learn team member Carrie James’ book Disconnected on this topic – in a well designed and well tended space, it’s possible that considered, thoughtful dialogue can emerge.
  • Is our requirement that students not show images of themselves or reveal their true identities an important factor in our apparent success at connecting youth? In this context participants cannot make quick judgments about others based on their physical appearance or name, for example. I also wonder if the relative privacy that our platform affords, in conjunction with activities that promote slowing down and looking carefully at the world, help young people to interact in different and potentially deeper ways than might be typical on other kinds of social media. Maybe going through the process of looking at their own neighborhood with fresh eyes, for instance, is a particularly opportune moment for them to interact in open-minded ways with young people from communities that are different to their own.
  • What’s the special power and role of storytelling? How can we fully tap into its potential as a means of establishing trust among participants and helping them to see beyond possible stereotypes?
  • Research on peace education indicates that developmental factors are important. For example, a Coexistence Model may be appropriate for younger children but less so for teens who are actively grappling with issues of identity and can view the world more complexly. Do we need to be more mindful of developmental differences in our curriculum design?
  • Does helping students to develop a more nuanced understanding of youth experiences in say India, Brazil, or the United States transfer to other scenarios where there are more “active” stereotypes or negative narratives about others at play?
  • What kinds of tools might we borrow from existing scholarship on peace education to assess the impact of Out of Eden Learn on students’ interactions with others and/or their prevailing thinking about others?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. However, Phil Hammack’s talk has given me renewed excitement about trying to realize the full potential of our learning community. At the very least I think we can and should borrow from the general ethos of peace education and prioritize the fostering of tolerant and respectful cross-cultural exchange.

(1) Ifat Moaz “Does contact work in protracted asymmetrical conflict work? Appraising 20 years of reconciliation-aimed encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Journal of Peace Research, January 2011, 48:1, 115-125.

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