Reflections on Transformative Education: Toward Peace Learning Systems

Global Transformation through Peace Learning Systems

Over the past 15 years, I have worked on peace education programs in communities in the US and abroad and have personally seen community members, teachers, and students from a diverse array of social backgrounds engage in the work of transformative education. Peace education strives to empower future generations to use “the capacity and inclination to make peace, to bring about a nonviolent and just social order” with an overt normative understanding that the manifestation of these changes will be “the primary indicator of a maturing of our species” (Reardon, 1993, p. 56).1

Peace education trains and supports students in exploring how to more effectively analyze and respond to conflict and social inequality. It aims to develop tools for building a more sustainable and just world for all.

On numerous occasions, I have had the honor to witness young women and men that have experienced lives filled with violence step more deeply into leadership roles in order to bring about nonviolent change in their communities and schools. I have seen young people that lost friends to violence transform the desire for revenge into a passion for teaching their peers about nonviolence and encouraging them to fight for economic and racial justice in their communities. I have seen adults that carry the pain of having lost a close loved one to gang violence regain a sense of hope by teaching younger children how to constructively engage with conflict. I have watched as high school students in a wealthy suburb initiate difficult conversations about racial and religious discrimination in their homes and communities, while challenging the unspoken benefits they received as a result of these discriminatory systems. These are the kinds of moments in workshops and community-based education that provide inspiration for peace educators.

Often transformative education is framed in terms of ‘deep change’ at the individual level, with the focus mainly on moments where large shifts in personal understanding, purpose, and sense of possibility seem to occur. While these moments of change are important, these shifts occur within a larger context, often through sustained engagement within and across various educational communities and through a series of encounters supportive of such change.

A focus on only specific moments in which a shift occurs can be misleading because it misses the larger processes of transformation. Our challenge then is to more deeply understand these snapshots of change (a powerful moment resulting from a single
workshop or training) by widening our view to see these changes as part of the broader educational system of which they are a part. This wider view helps us understand the complex dynamics at play in transformative education.

In this article, I will highlight the presence of peace learning systems that integrate formal and informal education efforts at the community level. My hope is that this article will spark a conversation about the most effective ways to understand and support the growth of these peace learning systems and trace the linkages between local, regional, and transnational peace education efforts. I believe these peace learning systems are necessary to transform the dynamics of violence and injustice.

Transformative Education—A Systemic View

Education and individual transformation always take place in a larger systemic context. This is especially significant for those of us who are interested in preventing violence and playing a role in transforming oppressive social conditions that give rise to violence because it places the educator in a position that demands social action in addition to and as a part of the teaching role. In other words, as the social conditions change, so do the educational possibilities; likewise, as individuals engage in transformative learning, their ideas of what kinds of education and community are possible also shift. If a student goes to a school where there are frequent rocket blasts and where their school could potentially be targeted, this impacts their learning, worldview, sense of hope, and ability to act as peacebuilders. If we stop the immediate violence, new fields of possibilities can emerge for that person.

If we are focused on shifting violence, one of the primary challenges is that violence is an effect of complex systemic dynamics, and therefore, disrupting or transforming those dynamics requires complex multi-level intervention. If we take urban youth gun violence in the US as an example, the need for thinking in more complex terms about the problems of violence is evident. Those dynamics of violence are often fueled by economic inequality and lack of opportunity, by underfunded schools, by the presence of gangs and the underground economy, and by high levels of police surveillance, frequent harassment, and disproportionately high levels of police violence toward youth of color (disproportionate minority contact). These dynamics take place as a result of the historical and continuing practice of racial and economic discrimination not only by individuals but also through institutional practices and policies. We might argue then that to

transform these dynamics, we need systemic solutions (e.g., ways of generating meaningful work that pays a living wage; a movement toward educational change that allows communities to participate in making their schools stronger and to develop education that is responsive and relevant to student needs; creating greater police accountability through community policing and civilian oversight; etc.).

One challenge for individuals and organizations interested in transforming violence is how to develop and sustain multi-level interventions. In all likelihood, no single individual or organization is in a position to respond to all these issues, nor would such a response be advisable given the huge array of knowledge and skills needed to engage in these activities. Widespread community ownership of these processes is necessary for the change to be sustainable over time.

Education plays a potentially important role in addressing this challenge. It can provide spaces and support for those impacted most directly by these dynamics to find solutions to their own problems and connect with allies in the change process. It can also assist with institutionalization of peace processes: generating training for police about nonviolent intervention, offering classes in schools about strategies for peacemaking, and providing spaces for people to think through how best to organize themselves to advocate for their needs. Ideally, peace education can unlock the creative potential of a community to disrupt the cycles of violence.

Emergent Peace Learning Systems

We are often taught to think of education primarily in terms of the classroom environment within a school, a setting where learning is largely set apart from many of the other spaces we occupy in our daily lives. Large-scale education systems in the West initially sought to respond to the need to ‘efficiently’ educate large numbers of people for the routine work that dominated much of production during the industrial revolution. In this model, teachers worked in isolated classroom spaces that were easy to regulate and control; this is what many have referred to as the factory model of education.

Current practices in peace education have moved away from that traditional factory model of education. If we think about all the places where people develop their understanding of any specific topic or even sense of what is possible related to human behavior, it is difficult to pinpoint any social location in which learning does not take place. We learn in our homes, on the street (sometimes with strangers), when we travel, and through a host of institutions we engage with and are embedded within. Even if we just narrow our view to formal and informal education there are a wide range of spaces that are dedicated primarily to education. We can think of pre-schools, public schools, and higher education as examples of formal education, as well as community programs, museums, and community organizations that frequently use democratic and participatory processes of organizing and learning as examples of informal education. Recognizing the breadth of locales where learning occurs and the variety of forms it takes, peace educators continue to develop new approaches to education.

In terms of formal education, schools are at the center of a growing movement for peace education. There are numerous programs with proven results in reducing violence in schools and inspiring young people to lead change in their communities. Programs offering restorative justice2 create opportunities for students, teachers, and administrators to develop their conflict resolution skills and provide alternative approaches to punitive discipline. There are also highly successful peer mediation3 programs where young people take the lead in helping other students to talk before interpersonal conflicts spiral out of control. These programs4 have already resulted in high levels of student engagement and a reduction in the number of fights in schools.5

What I have found in my work is that peace educators and others engaged in education with a focus on violence prevention operate in a highly varied array of environments that include but are not limited to schools. Many people know that the problems of violence require broad, collaborative responses across multiple levels of systems. It is the rule, not the exception, that people engaged in peace education collaborate in networks that weave together formal and informal educators in dynamic and complex ways.

There are hundreds of examples of these forms of emergent and novel collaborations amongst peace educators. For example, while working in Japan, I learned that in the decades following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, peace educators there committed to develop and share nuclear disarmament education globally—to be a center for understanding the risks of nuclear war and the strategies for disarmament. In recognizing a need to learn from other peace educators, Japanese practitioners saw the need to engage other educators outside of their immediate locale; they engaged with educators from China, Korea, Singapore, and India to learn alternative educational practices. In the process, some of these educators were then challenged to more deeply recognize the negative impact of Japan’s imperial past on their neighbors and were moved to engage more deeply with other educators in the region to address these injustices. Their curriculum shifted as a result of these encounters, as did some of their priorities and sense of possibility for the field.

As result of local, regional, and international collaboration, peace education has moved toward more integrated interdisciplinary approaches and amassed an eclectic body of pedagogical work and curricula. Increasingly, peace educators have sought to understand “the relational processes impacting on conflicts, poverty and wealth, human exploitation, destruction of ecosystems, weapons proliferation, terrorism, and so on.”6 These collaborations on such a wide variety of concerns continue to spur growing numbers of peace educators to build alternative visions of education that address the complex, fluid, and interrelated nature of local and global problems.

Planetary Education and Action

In developing methods to support the cultivation of ethical, analytical, and creative approaches for addressing violence and building a more sustainable world, peace educators continue to develop new forms of collaboration and educational innovation. The interrelated nature of the social and environmental problems peace educators work on demand systemic and multi-level responses, especially as linkages between the local and global become more clear. This development of networks of affinity and interest is also facilitated by technological advances that allow for greater contact between people via high-speed travel, increased sharing of cultural symbols and values circulated via global media, and the ability to have real-time conversations across great distances via the Internet.

I contend in this article that systemic problems need systemic responses and peace education networks may already provide some of the social infrastructure for those responses. This diversification of collaboration and communication that is happening within the field carries with it increased possibilities for transformative action within complex systems. In particular, peace education networks increasingly have the capacity for more complex social organizing, and they demonstrate in their daily practices that alternative forms of education that are critical of systems of
violence and proactive in their responses to that violence are not only possible but are already present globally.

These networks have the ability to generate multiple spaces for the convergence of people from very different backgrounds, to expand the points of intervention within systems, to multiply the diversity of responses and, when necessary, the power to disrupt and challenge institutions where power is consolidated. Perhaps peace educators are playing their role in the development of what Graeme Chesters and Ian Welsh have termed planetary action systems7 that are developing within larger global social movements.

While a focus on supporting a single intervention or organization in response to violence is unlikely to be effective in the long run, it is not enough to point out these shortcomings. We need to develop more comprehensive approaches for supporting peace education. Numerous researchers of social movements have deepened our understanding of how nonviolent social change occurs. However, more systematic thinking and theorizing about the role of peace education within larger movements for change is necessary to advance this effort, especially when based upon experiences of people engaged in the work of peace education and their allies.

The task is to better understand how people involved in peace learning systems are collaborating and learning together, where the spaces for convergence and collaboration are, what processes are being used to build understanding across lines of difference, and when and how people within peace learning systems mobilize to take action. While the challenges that peace educators seek to respond to are great, so is the opportunity. The growth of these systems will be fueled by the creativity of an increasingly diverse and connected community of people around the world.

If you would like to share your experiences and knowledge on this topic, visit and join to contribute to this user-populated site that I host along with international peace educator Daryn Cambridge (

1 Reardon, B. (1988). Comprehensive Peace Education: Educating for Global Responsibility, New York: Teachers College Press.
2 ryoyoakland.oega/restorative- justice
3 makes-a-good-peer-mediator/719.html
6 Synott,J. (2005) Peace education as an educational paradigm; Review of a changing field using an old measure. Journal of Peace Education, 2(l):3-16.
7 Chesters, G., & Welsh, 1. (2005). Complexity and social movement(s): Process, 211.