By Megan Chabalowski

Did you know that 2016 was the world’s “fifth most violent year since the end of the Cold War”? That year, there were 49 armed conflicts, many of which are still ongoing.

Displaced people arrive at a security screening center in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ivor Prickett
Displaced people arrive at a security screening center in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ivor Prickett

How many can you name? Even if you follow the news regularly, many of the conflicts are under-represented in what you see in the headlines.

As educators, you know it’s important for your students – and for you – to be following current events, including those surrounding ongoing violent conflicts. But with the speed at which these conflicts evolve, the years or even decades they may endure, the lack of attention many receive, and the sheer number of violent conflicts overall, it can be difficult to keep students interested and engaged in learning about them. When they do manage to keep up with the news about the world’s armed conflicts, the experience can be disheartening. As educator Dr. Sheldon Berman explains, merely gaining additional knowledge about a particular problem, without focusing on actionable solutions, can leave students feeling hopeless and powerless. 

Below are 5 quick ideas from our 2017 Peace Teachers on how to engage your students in learning about current conflicts in a sustained manner, while at the same time offering them a sense of hope. Stay tuned for additional for more insights and guidance throughout the year!

5 Ideas

  1. Students as reporters (or acting as U.S. Department of State desk officers). Have your students select the news “beat” or State Department “desk” (conflict issue or country) they want to cover, and then task them with providing weekly or monthly reports on their assignment. Their briefings would be to their “editor” or to the “Secretary of State,” depending on the scenario. 
  2. Students as gamers. You could gamify the process of information-gathering by turning it into a scavenger hunt: after selecting a conflict to research, students complete weekly tasks, earning credits along the way. For example, tasks could include reading a book on the conflict, and then tweeting at the author, or finding a local organization working on something related to the issue, and then interviewing someone at that organization. 
  3. Students as advocates and activists. After researching an international issue around conflict, have each student imagine that they are a person who has been involved in this issue or conflict. They have been asked to present a peacebuilding speech to the United Nations about their experience and about the impact and importance of the issue. Then, turn the learning into action, and have them design Action Projects to address these issues. You can find a lesson plan for both these ideas in USIP’s Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators – High School Edition, Lesson 3.3 Becoming a Peacebuilder Parts 1 and 2.
  4. Students as project-based learners. What would happen if you posed this problem to your students? What questions would they have, and how would they pursue them? What solutions might they find?  Charge your students with figuring out how to keep youth informed, engaged, and hopeful (maybe they focus specifically on themselves, their peers at school, or your local feeder middle school), then provide them with the opportunity to implement their ideas in your classroom, their school, or their community.  
  5. Students as peacebuilders. Whichever idea you choose, make sure your students conduct an initial conflict analysis, track how the conflict evolves, and look for peacebuilding approaches and actors.  
    1. A conflict analysis helps your students to engage more deeply in the process of understanding conflicts. The framework in this lesson (middle school version and high school version) from the Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators guides your students through identifying key elements of the conflict.
    2. Once they’ve developed a keener understanding of the conflict, have your students track the conflict’s evolution. Conflicts tend to follow a cycle of escalation and recession over time. The Curve of Conflict can help your students to visualize how conflicts typically evolve over time and how different phases of conflict relate to one another. 
    3. In any conflict, and at any stage, you can find individuals working for peace. Challenge your students to look behind the headlines for real life examples of people resolving conflicts and building peace in their selected country or issue. Your students can start with USIP’s Day in the Life of a Peacebuilder. 

With these ideas, you will not only help your students gain knowledge about ongoing conflicts, but you will also encourage them to:

  • Build interest in following news about ongoing conflicts
  • Develop the capacity to critically analyze the news they’re reading
  • Envision creative solutions to the problems they’re seeing
  • Take action to address global issues of conflict and peace

What do you think about these ideas? Have any questions? Let me know at mchabalowski@usip.org.