Last semester, students in my 4th year Critical Peace Studies seminar worked together to decide on a class project that all 20+ of them could do together. The goals were threefold— a) to integrate/use the critical peace studies literature in an advanced way b) to explore (and potentially critique) the concept of ‘activist scholarship’ that is also prevalent in the field of peace studies through experience, and finally c) to do something that had the potential to build peace locally; to have students challenge, through experiential learning, binaries that persist in our disciplines (including ‘us v them’ ‘peace v war’ ‘peaceful societies v violent societies’)
After a few guided sessions where we explored a range of potential projects, we democratically decided to pursue the creation of a series of online education modules that could be used by high school teachers to teach students about some of the themes coming out of Critical Peace Studies (minus all the academic jargon). In other words, the education modules were meant to transform/crystalize the broader lessons from critical peace studies into something accessible for an interested, but general audience of younger students. The output of these resulted in a student-named and created website that offers the materials free of charge to be used by teachers. Education modules based on an active learning pedagogical model on the following topics were produced: ‘An Introduction to Peace and Violence’ , the ‘Consequences of Consumerism’ and the ‘Complications of Foreign Aid’.
Following the success of this in with my 400 level students, I adapted the assignment and included it as one of the ‘project choices’ in my POLI 370 Peacebuilding course last semester. The course already included a week on Peace Education in the section of the course that addressed different peacebuilding policies—so it was already a good fit. I had approximately 15 students sign up for this option, which resulted in more active learning based peace education modules (on the themes of ‘Reconciliation in Post Holocaust Germany’, ‘Peace Through Media Literacy’ and ‘Indigenous Peacebuilding’).
As there are unlikely to be high-school level courses in peacebuilding, in both of the examples above, students needed to think about building a lesson around a topic that would already be included in a school curriculum (ie it needed to fit into a course that might be taught in a high school such as history, social studies, communications technology, etc). They then needed to integrate relevant concepts from peace and conflict studies into these topics. This was important, as it ensured the students were not simply replicating/simplifying a topic or lecture that I had already completed for our class. Below I reflect on the successes and limitations of this alternative assignment.
Learning Outcomes (expected and unexpected)
Of course some of the most obvious lessons learned by students relate directly to further mastery of course content. As all of us who teach know, you often learn a topic in a much deeper (dare I say ‘alternative’) way when you have to teach it. This is particularly true when thinking about how to teach something to absolute beginners. Yes, I can wax lyrical about agonism or hybridity as it relates to peace studies in 8000 + word academic papers or over conference dinners for hours (some might say ad nuaseum), but having to explain these concepts to novices in my field (even at the 300 or 400 level undergraduate level) has forced me to break down these ideas into smaller constituent parts, think about defining them in several different ways so as to aid in understanding, apply to case studies in a really clear and significant way (that speaks to young people), think about how it relates to other ideas/concepts in my discipline, prepare myself to answer questions and respond to critiques that my dozens of students might throw at me mid-lecture etc etc. By requiring my students to become the teachers and prepare materials in the same way, a deeper learning of content ensued. This was expected and part of the justification for approving it as a final project in my 400 level course and including it as a project choice in my 300 level course.
What is perhaps more significant are the unexpected learning outcomes I witnessed in my students from observing them as they worked towards the final product. For example, class discussions about the integration of ‘critical peace research’ into the first set of lesson plans developed, often centered around concerns that the modules were taking on more of a ‘development studies’ or ‘social justice’ focus rather than a strictly ‘peace and conflict focus’. This, of course, led to fantastic discussions about disciplinary boundaries (or the lack thereof). Students, who up until now had been fairly accepting of the value of critical peace studies and its interdisciplinary history, were now querying potential dangers in muddying the disciplinary boundaries and terminology; they held wonderful discussions about the values and limits of interdisciplinarity. This also brought to the surface potential critiques of the field of critical peace studies (has it become too focused on structural violence as opposed to physical violence, for example?). In both classes, I listened to students express frustration with the limitations of academic language, and through this frustration saw them make incredible moves towards developing their own epistemic stances and concerns about knowledge production. All of this is to note the positive and often unplanned/unscripted learning that came from allowing students to experiment and take charge of their own learning through this particular assessment.
What didn’t work— lessons for future iterations
To be honest, and even though the quality of what was produced in my 300 level course was excellent in many cases, this option worked much better in my smaller class. It was not that my 300 level students were any less driven or intelligent, only that in this course, (where I was managing 8 different types of final projects with 90 students), I was unable to have the degree oversight and input into the production of the education modules that I had at the 400 level (with 20 students, all working on the same project type). In the smaller class, I was able to lead discussions in ways that facilitated the types of learning discussed above. Perhaps more importantly, students who were working on different modules were able to talk to each other, bounce ideas off each other, and think about creating some coherence between modules. Seeing exciting and creative things happening in one group, often led the other groups to ‘up their game’, leading to an improvement in quality across the board.
This same level of peer to peer learning did not happen in the larger class—partly because of my inability to manage discussions and partly because of a lack of shared purpose between the smaller groups working on these modules. So, even though students had been given clarity of what needed to be submitted (a downloadable teachers guide and an accompanying slide-deck), a general qualitative rubric, as well as examples from the 400 level course)—there was a lack of integration and joined-up thinking across groups that I think prevented the type of deeper learning I saw in the smaller 400 level group.
Learning from this, I think it would be worth me dedicating a set time (or assigning a TA) to meet once or twice with these groups so that I could facilitate discussions and create opportunities for learning and sharing between groups. I also think that having the groups work on ensuring some kind of consistency between groups (perhaps through peer review) would also improve the quality of the education modules overall. It would also give these students more experience in project management/dealing with larger group dynamics.
Opportunities for Greater Impact
One of the reasons I’ve decided to blog about this particular assignment (beyond wanting to showcase my students’ work—which they agreed would be up on the site before embarking on the project), is that I feel it is something easily replicated in the broadest range of disciplines (compared to some of my assignments which are much more arts/social science focused). Even the most diverse of high school curriculums will still have gaps, and even though teachers will have limitations in terms of what they can include (due in part to teaching cultures but also simply down to time/having to focus on preparing students for state/public exams), the opportunity to include even the smallest elements of these lesson plans in order to expose younger students to a wider range of ideas is an exciting one. Although reaching out and publicizing these modules is something that I have admittedly not been great at (we had a small ‘outreach and publicizing’ element to this project in the smaller class, which did not really pan out to the extent hped, and I have really only being able to get the website out through my own personal networks), the potential of partnering up with local schools and building in the delivery of these modules to local schools is another option. Having worked more directly with local schools in my previous gig, I’d ideally like to reach out to local schools and have my students consult directly with teachers to help produce and deliver materials that address specific teaching needs of teachers in my local community.