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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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The Qualities of Peacemakers

Associate Professor Di Bretherton
Jackie Bornstein
Professor Margot Prior

The way in which we talk to children about issues of war and peace is controversial.

Some adults think children should be protected from the knowledge of war. It is certainly important to regulate television for young children, respecting the guidelines that are in place, and not, for example, running dramatic and gruesome promos for the news during programs for infants.

However, it is also important to recognise that our efforts to restrict access to violent images will not be completely successful, given the high level of coverage of war on television and in the press, and the ease with which young people can access information through the electronic media.

Research also suggests that attempts to protect children from all knowledge of war is misguided. The effects that images of war will have on the child can be moderated by discussion. Parents and teachers need to be ready to sit down and talk with children about their concerns.

Like adults, children construct a picture of what is going on from the information they have available to them. If this is incomplete and fragmented, as well as emotionally upsetting, then the picture they form might actually be more frightening than the reality. Through representing ideas and feelings in drawing, music and drama, and through discussion and sharing, children can integrate their knowledge and come to terms with their fears. Denial of the opportunity to talk about current events with parents, teachers and peers robs children of the opportunity to learn and grow. Research also suggests that if children see adults being active in addressing the situation which is causing fear, then their own fears are likely to diminish.

There are, however, difficult decisions to be made when teachers introduce issues of war and peace into the classroom. It is discouraging to introduce material about global problems in a way that reinforces the idea that individual people, and more particularly children and young people, are powerless to make a difference. Further, there may be concerns from parents about the appropriateness of discussing conflict as part of the curriculum. Sensitivity to the age appropriateness of materials is therefore crucially important.

The International Conflict Resolution Centre (ICRC) at the University of Melbourne is involved in conducting research and teaching about conflict resolution within and between cultures. The Centre conducts programs in a number of different countries. One project, The Qualities of Peacemakers, suggests a constructive and empowering way to share ideas about war and peace with children. A particular strength of the program is that it begins with the child's own world and then links peace in the home, school and neighbourhood with the international arena.

The Qualities of Peacemakers is funded by the UNESCO National Commission and is part of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project (ASPnet) in Victoria. The aim is to find out how children think about peace, conceptualise the process of peacemaking, and represent the qualities of those people who act as peace makers. The project is based on previous research on the characteristics of Nobel Peace Prize winners, as illustrated in their autobiographies, as well as on interviews with other adults committed to working for peace.

In the program the teachers take on the role of action researchers to collect information about their children's concept of peace. Teachers also learn how to analyse qualitative data.

One strategy for collecting the data is to split the class into small groups which prepare plays to illustrate the role of a peacemaker. The plays themselves give an indication of the children's views on the sources of conflict and the ways in which conflict may be resolved. By comparing the roles played by the different peacemakers in their own plays, the children are encouraged to think more generally about the characteristics of peacemakers and to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies and solutions.

The children do not necessarily, as adults might, choose Nobel Peace Prize winners as their peacemakers. They sometimes choose other public figures, but they also recognise that their classmates can act as 'everyday' peacemakers by, for example, stopping an instance of bullying in the playground.

A follow-up activity is having the children rate the depicted peacemakers. This can give rise to an illuminating discussion. If the children have depicted their peacemaker as using force to stop a fight, this may be called into question by the other children as they discuss the ratings and the relative success of the depicted peacemakers.

Current approaches to peace in the UN and its agencies distinguish the processes of peace keeping, separating warring parties and containing violence, from those of making peace, through treaties and accords, and peace building, which establishes conditions of security and harmony. Peace is seen not as a static concept, but rather as a set of dynamic social processes.

The Qualities of Peacemakers project extends this dynamic approach to schools and explores new ways of helping children understand the aims and functions of the UN. For example, the parallels between a child stepping in to block an instance of bullying in the playground and the endeavours of people like the Nobel Peace Prize winners to create a more peaceful world can be drawn.

Through the ASP structure, UNESCO provides the potential for teachers and children to see themselves as part of an international community. There are already links with ASP schools in Vietnam, and once the methodology is refined, it is hope to extend these links to ASP networks in other countries in the region.

Schools that are not currently members of the ASPnet, or that are ASPnet members in states other than Victoria and would like to learn more about, or participate in, the Qualities of Peacemakers project, can contact the ICRC.

Subject Headings

Conflict management