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Teaching about Conflict in Education in Emergencies – How and Why?

By Julia Paulson, Bath Spa University, UK

This summer I’ve been working on designing a new course on Education in Emergencies for students at Bath Spa University who are studying on our MA in International Education.  The process is an enjoyable one that raises almost endless questions.  I’m nearly finished the course handbook now, but the first few weeks of the course still have large question marks in the margins. These questions are all about course content around conflict. What do students need to know about the nature of violent conflict? What should they be reading? How much of our finite time together should we spend on the history, theory and changing dynamics of conflict around the world?

In 2005, I did a Masters degree in Comparative and International Education at the University of Oxford. We spent time investigating what was then early evidence and advocacy around education and conflict. We pondered Bush and Saltarelli’s ‘two faces’ of education and questioned the role of education in post-conflict reconstruction and peace processes. We applied thematic issues that we’d been exploring throughout the degree - like education quality, equity, gender, and inclusion - to situations of conflict. We worked hard to understand the education side of the equation: the unique challenges that conflict poses to educational delivery, the ways that education can affect conflict, the educational experiences of children affected by conflict, etc. The conflict side of the equation, however, we left largely unexplored.

My own graduate experience has some parallels with wider understandings in the EiE community.  We are after all, by and large, a community of educationalists. Our students are passionate about education and opportunities for children; practitioners have decades of experience addressing the most challenging educational questions; our doctorates and research projects draw on and contribute to literature in international education.  We know about education – as a community, we have been arguing for its importance in conflict and emergency situations since the inception of the INEE. And, we can teach about education and its many complexities. But, how best (and how much) to teach about conflict?

For me, this is an important question. Especially when you consider the narrative about conflict that we largely rely upon in EiE conversations and publications. We generally understand conflict as follows: intrastate, mostly in Africa, fought on the ground by identifiable opposing parties, ended by peace agreement, increasing since the Cold War. This is a 1990s narrative. In fact, the kind of ‘conventional’ conflict we discuss has been decreasing since it peaked in the early 1990s (see the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report). Violence and conflict are showing ‘new’ faces – extremism, authoritarianism, organized crime, drug-related violence, long-term disorganized violence, structural violence, ethnic violence, terrorism, regional conflict, technological and remote warfare, violence and insecurity in the West. As a community, we currently aren’t well equipped to understand these changing patterns of conflict, to identify their effects on education, to suggest ways in which education might respond to them.  This could change with our students – future practitioners, advocates and researchers.

So, as an educator, my job is to equip my students for the task of understanding not just the many challenges of education in conflict situations, but the conflict situations themselves, conventional and otherwise. I need to get them asking questions about the changing nature of conflict and to introduce them to theoretical and empirical tools to help to answer those questions. Therefore, the first weeks of my new masters course will be spent talking about and reading about conflict. We will investigate changing historical patterns of violence and conflict, enter into theoretical debates around the role of violent conflict in social change, get to grips with empirical research into the causes of conflict and prepare case studies on ‘new’ forms of violence. I’m hoping EiE students will be keen on entering this less familiar territory together, before we shift our attention back to what we know best: education.

As I finalize the course handbook, I would be thrilled to hear your thoughts. Students and future students what are your priorities in terms of learning about conflict? How important are conflict studies for your future interests and practice in EiE? Practitioners, are there questions you hope your future colleagues will be equipped to answer? Researchers and academics, what ‘core knowledge’ about conflict and conflict studies should EiE students have? How can we best bring this into to our EiE teaching practice?


Dr. Julia Paulson is a Lecturer in Education at Bath Spa University in the UK, where she is also Programme Leader for the University’s Certificate in Global Citizenship. She has published on a range of issues around education and conflict, including post-conflict education policy reform, curriculum development and relationships between education and transitional justice. Julia has been a member of the INEE since 2005.




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