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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Connecting the Dots? From the Classroom to the Field and Back Again

by  Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Harvard Graduate School of Education, USA

I teach a course on Education and Armed Conflict at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition to knowledge and some targeted skills, there are ways of being and doing that I hope my students take away from this course. They are what I call the 2 Es and the 2 Rs of relationships. The Es are seeking to avoid exploitation and exposure. The Rs are fostering respect and reciprocity.

While I originally conceived of these Es and Rs as related to research, I have come to realize that for me they serve as a kind of overarching framework for policy and practice as well. This framework helps me to bring myself as a person – and a parent – rather than only as a technical expert to thinking about the education of children and young people. It prompts me to adopt a critical perspective on the status quo while at the same time to be imaginative and see the positive (and possible) in the way things could be. Conflict and post-conflict settings are conundrums in many ways – we could easily throw up our hands and decide that the problems are too massive and the possibility of success too low to invest money, to commit time, to take action. Yet at the same time, conflict settings are spaces brimming with innovation because the people living there – the individual people – imagine transformation, have a desire to rethink and rebuild, to create new pathways to the future, more often than not with education as the central path.

Yet how do we connect these dots in our classrooms? How do we connect the macro level work we do – in academic classrooms, through research, through policy, through global and national-level practice – to these individual experiences of children, young people, parents, families? I believe that it is through relationships that we can do this well. In designing my course, I have attempted to create opportunities for students to develop field-based relationships that allow them to practice using the framework of the Es and the Rs.

Fostering these kinds of relationships means crossing more barriers that I first imagined. One surprise for me came as we had just gotten off a videoconference where we had an INEE staff member from New York and a UNHCR staff member from Chad on the line. The first comment from a student when we hung up was, “They were so nice.” This student said these words with a sense of almost shock, as if the expectation was for people who work in this field to be hard, distant, and even uncaring. A comment in the course evaluation stated that a valuable part of the course was learning that “there are motivated people who care for creative ways to improve the status quo;” another student wrote that he or she had “regained a measure of idealism about… the measure of good that can be achieved by dedicated, passionate individuals.”

It is easy to demonize institutions. It is easy to believe – especially from afar or about settings where there are so many challenges – that people who work for UN agencies and international NGOs are simply not doing their jobs. It is easy to use blame as a way to minimize the complexities and imagine straightforward solutions.

It was a partnership with UNHCR and Senior Education Advisor Ita Sheehy that allowed my students to see beyond institutions to people. Over the course of a semester in the spring of 2013, my 45 graduate students – assisted by Teaching Fellows Vidur Chopra and Elizabeth Adelman – worked in groups to research the process of rolling out the new UNHCR Education Strategy, 2012-2016 in 13 priority countries. Through analysis of internal UNHCR documents and mission reports and at least two (and often many more) interviews with UNHCR and implementing partner staff, their job was to produce a report for course credit and for UNHCR documenting and analyzing this in their priority country. The relationships that my students built with field-based staff were an ongoing lesson in how decisions are made, how priorities are set, and in the deeply thoughtful work that goes on daily amid immense challenges in conflict settings globally. 

The feedback from students on the engagement with UNHCR was overwhelmingly positive. “Being able to create a product for UNHCR was an amazing experience,” wrote one. “Developing a report for UNHCR,” wrote one student, “was a hard deliverable I can take with me when applying for jobs.” Another wrote that the partnership with UNHCR was a way to “apply what we were learning to real work.” The logistics of this were not easy: students scheduled 6am calls (to my amazement) in order to connect with busy professionals in a distant time zone. Together, my students and I took a leap of faith as they began to email and talk with UNHCR staff; many of the students were only six weeks into their first introduction to the field of education and conflict and with no previous research experience. Amid the excitement of learning by doing, some students expressed hesitation. In class discussion, one student shyly raised her hand but then clearly articulated a concern that was weighing on many: “Do we really know enough to write a report like this? What possible value could it be to people who do this work every day?” As I work together with UNHCR over the coming months to refine our partnership for this coming year’s iteration of the course, I look forward to learning more about the value to UNHCR and to students’ longer-term engagements in the field of education and conflict.

The experience of this partnership raises a larger question for me: How do we connect the dots in two directions between academic teaching and practice? What do students need to know to be well-prepared to engage productively with the staff of organizations working in the field of education in conflict and to contribute to their work? And what do partner organization staff members need to know to enable the development of future professionals? In order to build the future of our field of education and conflict, creating win-win situations that are beneficial both to students and to a partner organization will be critical. How are others attempting to connect the dots? 

The syllabus for this course is available here.


Sarah Dryden-Peterson leads a research program focused on connections between education and community development, specifically the role education plays in building peaceful and participatory societies. She is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a non-resident fellow of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, and Co-Chair of the INEE Working Group on Education and Fragility. Dryden-Peterson has been a member of INEE since 2002.


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