In a recent visit to Poland, speaking with Ukrainian school children displaced by war strengthened my belief that education can be an important, powerful tool for transformation.
Warsaw, Poland – A third-grade Ukrainian student sits down with her mother’s cellphone and begins her school day by dialing into a Zoom classroom.
Her teacher still lives in Western Ukraine, as do some of her classmates. From her temporary home in Warsaw, she interacts with her Ukrainian classmates and teacher, and tries to keep up with her English vocabulary lessons and even dance steps through the small screen of her mother’s cellphone.
The online connection with her teacher and classmates has become the closest thing to what her life used to be like before Russia’s missile attacks forced her and her mother to flee for safety in Poland.
With the war still grinding on in Ukraine, she and many of her classmates are setting up new homes in neighboring countries or moving from one Ukrainian city to another each week in search of safety. Their learning is periodically interrupted by air raid sirens coming from one or more of the student’s laptops or phones, a warning to take shelter from more Russian shelling.
Despite being categorized as an internally displaced person, host community member or refugee, the members of the Zoom class are all students, each of them trying to learn their place in this world and how to live each day.
As I watched this student and others work through the challenge of continuing their education while being both displaced and victims of a brutal war at home, I was left with many questions about how education could serve them best. No doubt, the parents of these students had asked similar questions already:
What is better, an online education in a Ukrainian school or registering at a local Polish school? Can an extra phone or tablet be bought to provide more online access to school? Will the internet hold out? Can I afford it? Russian is our native language, but should we switch to Ukrainian? What is the difference between the Ukrainian and Polish curriculums? How are teachers speaking about the ongoing war? What happens if the teacher or any classmates are killed? Are the children learning ways to cope with the trauma they continue to see and feel? Does the teacher receive any support or training?
Ultimately, the biggest question is how any education system, but especially those in regions plagued by conflict, be supported to provide individuals and communities with immediate and long-term safety, peace and stability?
Education can be a powerful tool of social transformation for conflict-affected communities. Conversely, teaching methods or content can also perpetuate ideas and practices that contribute to conflict, such as prejudice and inequality. Conflict Sensitive Education provides a way forward to respond to these communities while stymying potential destabilizing influences.
Leading guidance on Conflict Sensitive Education has been developed collaboratively by The Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). INEE is an open, global network of members working together within a humanitarian and development framework to ensure that all individuals have the right to a quality, safe, relevant and equitable education.
There are three main steps to implementing Conflict Sensitive Education, according to research from INEE:
Understand the conflict context. Collect information from a broad and diverse group of stakeholders to understand conflict dynamics, trends, and direct and indirect impacts. All stakeholders—children, caregivers, teachers, school counselors, ministry officials, minority communities— must participate to understand fully how the ongoing or past conflict interacts with the education system for ALL participants.
Analyze the two-way interaction between the conflict context and the education system and policies. This analysis includes the development, planning and delivery of education. How is certain curriculum content embedding bias or anger? Is there curriculum content promoting conflict resolution? Are teachers trained to promote, ignore or refute current events? Is there diversity among the teaching staff? Who and how are teaching and learning materials developed and distributed, and does it fuel one side of a conflict?
Collaboratively act to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive impacts of education policies and programming on conflict. This includes strategies to support the educational system, teachers, caregivers and students with the skills, values and knowledge for responsible citizenship and peacebuilding.
Strategies can include, but are not limited to:
Curriculum reform to ensure no bias and inclusion of topics such as critical thinking, human rights, citizenship education, nonviolence, conflict prevention and resolution.
Training content for teachers that is conflict sensitive and includes competencies on participatory methodologies, human rights, conflict dynamics and transformation, identity issues, responsible citizenship, reconciliation, nonviolent alternatives, multi-grade instruction, and addressing historical memory.
Development of supplementary teaching and learning materials that align and support the curricular reform and infuse Conflict Sensitive Education principles throughout.
Implementing Conflict Sensitive Education in any system is a process not a singular activity. It is a long-term systemic change which requires participation across all sectors of the education system and education system participants, and it cannot take place in a vacuum. It will require open dialogue on topics that are extremely divisive, and the facilitation and leadership of this process requires trusted and neutral leaders who are not perceived to be on one side or the other.
Although Conflict Sensitive Education goes a long way in promoting and sustaining an educational environment that promotes peace, it is also crucial to recognize that it is still the teachers who are standing in front of the classroom or behind that cellphone screen.
The first step in any Conflict Sensitive Education reform needs to focus first on teachers and educators to help recognize their own biases and how they can impact the education system. From there, take steps toward separating personal biases. If we want to work towards a more peaceful and inclusive future for upcoming generations, Conflict Sensitive Education is a critical starting point for engaging young people early on to become critical thinkers and positive forces for peace.
Weeks after returning from Warsaw, I still think of that third-grade student from Ukraine. My hope is that she joins her Zoom classroom each morning with a smile and that the screen gives her an opportunity to learn not only her curriculum subjects, but also how to process this tragic time in Ukrainian history. We in the development and humanitarian community must collectively work together to ensure the education system is able to meet her needs, so that she may maximize her resilience and build hope for a peaceful future.
Emily Durkin is an international practitioner with 10 years of field experience in education in crisis and conflict settings. Emily has served as a Technical Lead, Cluster Coordinator, Program Manager, and Deployment Specialist in acute and protracted crises across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.