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Panel 6

How Sri Lanka educates children for peace

Sri Lanka has suffered from a civil war for the past 11 years. This is a struggle that has permeated the life of the whole country, including the education system: most schools are now segregated along language lines, except for a few in urban areas.

To help children learn non-violent ways of resolving disputes, the Government, with UNICEF's help, launched a programme called 'Education for Conflict Resolution' (ECR). Initially, a core group of resource persons were trained at the National Institute of Education in some of the different forms of conflict resolution being used in other countries. They subsequently adapted these and developed their own methods appropriate to Sri Lanka—producing 10 different training manuals aimed at principals, teacher trainers, teachers and pupils.

Photo: Young Sri Lankans in school, where conflict resolution is part of the curriculum. ©

Although some of the techniques were innovative, many of the ideas of conflict resolution struck familiar chords in Sri Lankan culture. For example, the methods of conflict resolution present aggression and passivity as two extremes and suggest that a better, middle, way is assertiveness. Buddhism, one of the major religions in Sri Lanka, is very much in sympathy with this: it, too, emphasizes the importance of taking the middle path. And Sri Lankan village life has traditionally operated on cooperative principles, so when the trainers suggest cooperative behaviour, it is more a question of helping people reinforce old skills, rather than teaching them new ones. The Buddhist and Hindu emphasis on harmony with the natural environment is also in tune with this approach.

Similarly, Hinduism and Buddhism make extensive use of meditation. ECR has incorporated meditation, though not for religious purposes; its aim, rather, is to calm and concentrate the mind to create a sense of inner peace. A typical lesson for primary schoolchildren, for example, would start with meditation, and then cover issues such as decision-making and conflict resolution. Role-playing is an important part of the approach, and children are encouraged to express emotions through stories, songs and poetry.

The focal point for training teachers in these principles is the Nilwala College of Education. Here, student teachers learn to integrate ideas and methods of conflict resolution into all subject areas. For example, a social studies lesson might focus on how different groups need to work together for a community to function. Within that lesson, students would be encouraged to act out a traditional story with a theme of peace and cooperation. In one such story, students pretend to be birds that have been captured by a boy with a net. When the boy goes home to find a sack in which to put the birds, they twitter with alarm at the prospect of being eaten and wonder what to do. Then one bird suggests that maybe they could fly away if they all worked together. The children then flap their arms like birds in flight and lift the net above their heads until everyone is free. Teachers learn to discuss the messages of stories with their students and help them to draw parallels between them and their own lives.

In 1992-1994, the ECR project trained 3,500 principals, 500 master teachers, 3,000 teachers and 7,500 student leaders, who in turn have reached approximately 420,000 of Sri Lanka's 4.5 million schoolchildren.

ECR is not limited to particular lessons on 'conflict resolution'; rather, it is integrated into the entire curriculum. Nor will ECR be confined to schools. In 1995, ECR began a media campaign to extend these ideas to parents and to the community as a whole.

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