Education, the Path to Peace?

By Bill Overton, EdD.


Our present world needs a paradigm shift; one that has co-existing peacefully as the main goal. While people from all over the world have different theories about the challenges involved, most can agree that education is at the center of making any long-term changes. Education has been touted as one of the most powerful tools we can implement in our global efforts to promote world peace.

Since the early 20th century, “peace education” programs around the world have represented a spectrum of themes, including anti-nuclearism, cultural awareness, environmental responsibility, nonviolence, conflict resolution, and gender equality. Each of these have had some success but fall short in creating a centralized paradigm shift.

Many of today’s peace education programs begin at an early age. Educators worldwide know the value of intervening in early years to stem an array of childhood issues from correcting reading disorders to providing a foundation for social and emotional skill development to value clarification and even to assisting with physiological challenges. The more successful programs have had success by integrating the study of peace into everyday classroom behaviors, lessons, and activities. Educators have been able to connect peace-building skills and behaviors into everyday lessons in all subjects.

It is clear to this author that changes in today’s conflict-centered worldview can be accomplished through education. The following article will examine some of the different thinking regarding peace education as well as present some strategies for integrating them into classrooms everywhere.


Our world needs a paradigm shift; one that has co-existing peacefully as the main goal and focus. While people from all over the world have different explanations for the challenges that face us and possess theories and ideas on how to achieve peace, they can mostly agree that education is at the center of making any long-term changes. Education has been touted as one of the most powerful tools we can implement in our global efforts to promote world peace, (Central Asian Institute, CAI). It has also been said that peace education is “tricky”. It incorporates a host of variables, like: the history of the country or region, differences in values, hurtful behaviors towards others past and present, “us and them” thinking, differences in socio-economic status and competition, religious beliefs, and so many others.

Peace Education

Since the early 20th century, “peace education” programs around the world have represented a spectrum of themes including anti-nuclearism, international understanding, environmental responsibility, communication skills, nonviolence, conflict resolution techniques, democracy, human rights awareness, tolerance of diversity, coexistence, and gender equality. While each of these have had success of some sort, the abundance of different subtopics has also played a part in fragmenting any consolidated efforts.

There are some who question why peace has not been achieved globally as of yet (Chopra, 2005). It appears that everyone wishes for peace but for some reason it eludes our collective grasps. There have been many theories written explaining this. One of these theories is that we continue to be distracted by our own personal wants and desires, often supplanting efforts towards peace, i.e. helping to reduce poverty, for our own materialistic and/or power-driven desires.

Peace education is most often considered the process of acquiring values, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors to live in harmony with oneself, others, and the natural environment. Today there are an abundance of peace education programs and schools. They each tend to fall in one of four categories:

  1. peace education as a means to change peoples’ mindset
  2. peace education as a means to introduce a set of skills, i.e., EQ skills
  3. peace education as a means to promote human rights equity
  4. peace education as a means to increase environmentalism, disarmament, and a culture of peace, Salomon, (2002).

One of the concepts in these that we can agree upon is that all four groups depend on the nature and quality of relationships for success.  Our children are the ones that have many different experiences related to relationships on a daily basis. Many feel that these experiences must be used to teach them not only the causes of conflict, violence and war and the ways of preventing and resolving them, but also the dynamics of love, unity and peace at individual, interpersonal, inter-group and universal levels. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961) once said, “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfil them…” There are those that question, with the increasing levels of bullying, intimidation, and more, whether or not our schools are embedded in love. Some search for schools that explicitly focus on unity. The latter are difficult to find.

James Page suggests that peace education be thought of as “encouraging a commitment to peace and helping individuals to see themselves as agents of peace and change. He also suggests that educators inform students on the value of peaceful interactions and in that way encourage students to love the world and to imagine a peaceful future. And finally, he encourages students to care for all of their peers and others they come in contact with.


Theory holds that all human states of being, including peace, are shaped by our worldview—our view of reality, human nature, purpose of life and human relationships. Most people of the world live with conflict-oriented worldviews, whether ethnically, religiously, or environmentally based (Van Slyck et al., 1999).

Our worldview influences much of our everyday thinking. Our daily experiences as we grow, any transgressions done to us through our own eyes, and any accepted beliefs by groups that we belong to all become part of our worldview. One of the main functions of education is its considerable contribution to the formulation of our worldview, which in turn provides the necessary framework for all our life processes—our thoughts, feelings, choices, and actions. Every individual and every society have a worldview shaped by religious beliefs, philosophical concepts, political ideologies, particular life experiences, and environmental characteristics.

In reality nearly all segments of society train, directly or indirectly, every new generation of children and youth in accordance with their worldview. Unfortunately, many look through a lens of conflict. The reason why peace education is ‘such a difficult task’ Ruth Firer (2002, p. 55) observes, is ‘the continuous war education that youngsters and adults have been receiving since the beginning of mankind’. It becomes clear that most current approaches to education revolve around the issues of conflict, violence, and war. Major global conflicts, many important wartime politicians, and the successes and failures of the military have all gone on to become fodder for hero-making and becoming an integral part of each country’s history.

In school, children are introduced to conflict‐based views through actual school experience—with its “lack of unity” thinking. Examples of these can be observed in the form of conflict, competition, aggression, bullying and violence—and through concepts provided by teachers and textbooks that further validate these conflict‐oriented ideas and experiences. H.B. Danesh (2002a, 2002b, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008a, 2008b) proposes an “Integrative Theory of Peace” in which peace is understood as a psychosocial, political, moral, and spiritual reality. Peace education, he says, must focus on the healthy development and maturation of human consciousness through assisting people to examine and transform their worldviews.

History textbooks, by and large, are the accounts of conflicts, wars, conquests, and defeats, with men as the main actors on the stage of life. Similar messages are disseminated to our kids through the literature they read and the video games they participate in. These messages promote a conflict-centered worldview. In addition, these lessons reduce the importance of girls and women and show them as being insignificant members of each country’s cultures. We teach our children that the world is a jungle, and that life is the process of survival in this jungle.

Many adults teach their children that the most important forces in life are those of competition and struggle. Children receive the same message from other influential sources of education in their homes, namely television, the Internet, and games. When I was growing up, we played army, pretending like we were WWII soldiers that we read about and watched on television.  Of course, during our play, friends who willingly played the role of Germans, Italians, or Japanese always lost during the simulations. One can’t help wondering whether or not racist seeds were sewn then too. More evidence that we live in a conflict-directed worldview lies in the fact that many of America’s past leaders have had significant military careers. Even today, such experiences, or the lack thereof, become strong evidence for the viability of a political candidate. Today’s children may/not dramatize history, but they are certainly using various internet games and real-life look alike simulations.

The sources of influence don’t stop there. In addition to parents and the media, religious leaders, athletic coaches, teachers, and other kinds of educators contribute to our worldview’s belief that life is conflict-ridden with few alternatives to that thinking. Any examples of hierarchies, competition, and collective evaluation can be traced to conflict-directed worldviews.

Even in the context of families, parents often find themselves facing conflicts that they are often unable to resolve effectively and positively. Many parents also—intentionally or inadvertently—provide their children with the notion that the primary purpose of life is to ensure one’s own survival, security, and success in a dangerous, conflicted, and violent world.

Effective peace education can only take place in the context of a unity‐based worldview. That is, the attitudes, beliefs, memories, and historical experiences people bring to peace discussions must be include ones of unity and love. Truly effective peace education can only take place when the conflict‐based worldviews which inform most of our educational lessons are replaced with peace‐based worldviews.  What many experts believe is that a comprehensive, all‐inclusive, and sustained curriculum of education for peace is the only way to change the current attitudes and worldviews that contribute so greatly to conflict. Duffy (2000, p. 26), who worked in Northern Ireland some time ago was quoted as saying that, “it is difficult to be optimistic about the long‐term possibilities of promoting change in conditions of conflict in Northern Ireland unless a ‘dynamic model of education’ is introduced that will encourage young people in Northern Ireland to question the traditional sectarian values of their homes.” Similar thinking has appeared from different places around the globe such as Serbia, Bosnia, Israel and Palestine, Columbia, and others.

There are some positive and hopeful signs, though, that a new consciousness regarding the need for a change in our approach to education is emerging. An example is the work of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1998) that sees ‘education as the key means to spearhead the movement towards a culture of peace’. The importance of changing the mindsets and behaviors that come from them is not only a social and political necessity but is also strongly needed in religious thinking and by their leaders. It is a fact that religions have always played, and continue to play, an important role in the worldview and behavior of their followers. Directly or indirectly religions have even been the cause of conflict and war in human history. “Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth”, (1961). Abdu’l-Baha goes as far to say, “if religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred, and division, it would be better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. Any religion that is not a cause of love and unity is no religion”, (1961, p. 130).

Educators, as well as religious leaders, hold an important key to unlocking and rebuilding people’s worldviews. Worldviews are usually expressed at a subconscious level (Zanna & Rempel, 1988; et al.). Worldviews can also be unity-driven, though. This is a necessary ingredient in successful peace education programs. Rarely do we find schools that teach children and youth the principles of peace, including that:

  • humanity is one.
  • the oneness of humanity is expressed in diversity.
  • And that a truly civilized society is united, diverse, equal, just, free, and peaceful.


Conflict appears to be a human characteristic. It is defined as the absence of unity and that peace is the process of creating unity in the context of diversity. It is my opinion that conflict comes basically from two directions. One is Karl Marx’ Conflict Theory and the second is whether or not humans have a fundamental predisposition towards violence.

In the early 19th century Karl Marx first defined “Conflict Theory”. In this theory he states that societies will always be in conflict due to the competition for limited resources. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. As a result, conflict becomes an “us and them” mentality, from a lack of unity. Conflict can be seen as a view that the world is a dangerous place where fighting for survival and security is necessary. Conflict can also come from a belief that life is an ongoing process of competition and power struggles in a quest for superiority. We certainly see this occurring in the United States as well as in other countries.

As humans have a penchant for either/or choices. Whether in politics (red vs. blue, capitalist vs. socialist), religion (heaven vs. hell, Christianity vs. Islam, etc.), or framed in the media (jobs vs. the environment, Left vs. Right), we often choose our camp and take a side, (Weil, 2019). Researchers challenge this by pointing to the fact that many communities live quite well without any form of aggression and secondly, he argues that there is no evidence to support that there exists an innate aspect within people that makes them behave violently. Research that has been done indicates that people become violent in part by consistently watching or taking part in violent deeds. This is attributed to the fact that engagement in aggression enables one to react aggressively. If one has not accumulated violent scenes in his mind as a result of watching or practicing violent deeds, they cannot become violent.

Physiologists have indicated that our brains have some hormones that are related to aggression and for these reasons, biologically, man can be violent. But as others contend, it’s important for us to draw a line between ourselves and animals since human beings are much more complex than animals. There are many aspects in humans which are absent in animals. For example, humans have the ability to reason whereas animals are unable to think critically and reason (Kurtz and Turpin, p. 57). Likewise, there lacks any kind of evidence of large, remediated acts of violence or genocide in animals. According to a Rutgers University-Newark study, there is no scientific proof that war is ingrained in human nature. R. Brian Ferguson, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University-Newark concluded as such. In a paper published in Scientific American, Ferguson argues that war may not be in our nature at all. People might fight and sometimes kill for personal reasons, but homicide, he argues, is not war. In his research, Ferguson reached back thousands of years to look at the historical roots of warfare to shed light on whether humans have always made war or if armed conflict has only emerged as changing social conditions provided the motivation and organization to collectively kill. A large group of scientists finally concluded in 1986 that there isn’t any scientific evidence to prove that aggression and violence is inborn. It appears that violence is more of a choice than a need or a habit.

Contrary to belief and research, societies continue to embrace Marx and his Conflict Theory or that we are all naturally predisposed to violence; destined to continue to compete for power and wealth often through violent means. In my mind, this is a very pessimistic viewpoint that appears to be an easy explanation for any acts of violence or intimidation. It seems that these are “lazy” ways of thinking that don’t demand any kind reflection or thoughtful consideration before acting. It also appears to me that the lessons that might help these inaccurate beliefs lie in emotional intelligence lessons and an educational paradigm shift that moves them to forefront of our educational experience. Noting that attitudinal and cultural changes can occur, a good example is Sweden which in past years was a violent nation but at the moment it’s ranked among the most peaceful industrialized nations.

There is an abundance of conflict resolution programs. Typically, they attempt to train individuals to resolve inter-personal disputes through negotiation and (peer) mediation. The main elements of these programs include learning to manage anger, “fighting fair”; improving communication through skills such as listening, taking turns, identifying needs, and separating facts from emotions. Participants are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and to brainstorm together on compromises. These are all excellent concepts to introduce and discuss during EQ lessons in classrooms everywhere.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that there are two kinds of violence: passive and physical.

Passive Violence includes creating waste & pollution, allowing inequities to occur including poverty, not sharing wealth, lack of empathy, not helping those in need, bullying & intimidating others, being unkind or disrespectful, acts of racism, sexism, agism, conforming to negative practices, and being close-minded and prejudiced.

Gandhi believed that physical violence included: hurting others, including physical & sexual attacks & assaults, emotionally hurtful attacks, participating in warfare, participating in the creation of weapons and materials for war, fighting with others, arguing, and committing suicide.

He also believed that conflict erupts when, “Greed and wasteful habits perpetuate poverty which is violence against humanity.” Power is often believed to ensure safety and peace for oneself and one’s group. However, power provides limited peace due to its dichotomous concepts of “otherness” and contention. It is also often open to abuse and gives rise to new conflicts and wars.

When love is either absent in human relationships or expressed in a limited prejudicial manner, it causes discontent, disunity, rebellion and/or conformity. These are potent breeding grounds for conflict and violence. Many researchers look to the increase in bullying in schools for evidence of a lack of love in our educational institutions.

Cultures of Peace and Healing Trauma

It’s difficult to consider a culture of peace without examining any existing traumatic residue that might continue even after conflicts, local and global, have faded. The establishment of a peaceful culture, whether in a country, classroom, or family has been found to be critical in the rate of success of attitude and mindset changes. The quest for peace must be in every home, religious center, school, and workplace. It must also include addressing existing trauma. Helping with reducing the level of fear and trauma has also proved to increase success in war-torn countries. Ervin Staub (2002), reporting on his work in Rwanda, points to the importance of healing from trauma. He states that, “without such healing, feeling vulnerable and seeing the world as dangerous, survivors of violence may feel that they need to defend themselves from threat and danger.” He goes on to point out that oftentimes survivors become new perpetrators of violence.

To reduce this potential cycle of violence, educators must look to reducing trauma in their classrooms and in their homes. There are a multitude of strategies for doing this, some more in-depth and time consuming than others, but all critically important if peace is the goal. Researchers point to the importance of helping children to internalize peaceful strategies through the integration of peace-related concepts into their daily lives and routines. Giving children the opportunity to share their perspectives openly and honestly and in a safe, judgment free environment is a good starting point. Giving credibility to their stories and trusting what they share is important. Seeing and hearing that their thoughts and emotions are shared by others helps children reconnect with their worlds. Helping these stories come to light can be enhanced through expressing their stories in works of art.

Reconciliation is a difficult thing to do for most everyone. It is especially challenging for countries or other large groups of people. Hamber, (2003), identified three stages in the process of reconciliation. They include:

  • replace fear through nonviolent co-existence
  • create conditions in which fear no longer rules and confidence and trust are being built
  • involve the community in moving towards ‘empathy’

All steps in the process of reconciliation entail the reconciling of not only individuals, but also groups and communities as a whole. These conclusions, drawn from recent experiments with truth and reconciliation in South Africa and elsewhere, point to the need for the creation of special environments required for the process of healing the wounds of conflict and violence. The notion of creating a culture of healing includes the realization that ‘healing is inevitably a lengthy and culturally‐bound process’.

(The institution of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions) (Hamber, 2003, p. 78).

Peace Education Programs (PEP)

Peace education programs (PEP) have risen in number globally in recent years. They are spread universally throughout the world from Columbia to Israel and Palestine to different countries in Europe and Africa and more. Each of these programs has different characteristics and areas of focus, but most, if not all, start their education at early ages in childhood. Each tends to embrace the words of Boutros-Ghali (1992) that point to the importance of peace-making activities that will “solidify and strengthen peace and consolidate a sense of confidence and well-being.” The goal of PEPs is to break the cycle of violence and provide alternatives for the youth and future adults to solve challenging global problems.

In 2002, Ian Harris identified ten goals for effective peace education. They are: to appreciate the richness of the concept of peace; to address fears; to provide information about security systems; to understand violent behavior; to develop intercultural understanding; to provide for a future orientation; to teach peace as a process; to promote a concept of peace accompanied by social justice; to stimulate a respect for life; and to end violence. While Harris has a different theoretical path to peace than some, his goals give people throughout the world, especially parents & educators, an initial point of departure.

According to Clarke-Habibi (2005), “A general or integrated theory of peace is needed: one that can account for the intrapersonal, inter-personal, inter-group and international dynamics of peace. An essential component of this integrated theory must also be the recognition that a culture of peace can only result from an authentic process of transformation, both individually and collectively.” Confucius said it as far back as 500 B.C.: “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.” Confidence has been defined as the belief that you can succeed at something and a sense of self-assuredness. Knowledge is a key confidence builder; it allows one to feel a sense of accomplishment, to be more fearless, and to grow in unexpected ways. This confidence and self-assuredness in turn sparks motivation and optimism—or hope as Confucius says— to work towards peace.

Another of education’s benefits towards peace is that students can learn critical and independent thinking skills and how to solve problems. It’s been found that educated students might be less likely to join militant groups or be followers and may instead be leaders towards positive change and action.

And yet another of the benefits of education is that education, has been proven to reduce poverty and child labor. This is one driving force behind education for peace. With education comes knowledge, power, safety, security, and peace. One study by UNESCO found that income around the world would be 23 percent higher per capita in countries with education for all. If poverty were reduced, violence would follow suit.

Education has an enormous impact on the presence of violence in every new generation. As John Dewey (1897) observed, ‘education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform’. Given the importance of education, we need to review what and the way we teach, and not limit curriculum and pedagogy to standards-based, traditional concepts and strategies.  Harris, states that, “… traditional education tends to glorify established political power and uses force to oppress people and to legitimize its authority.” He goes on to state that traditional education does not usually challenge structural forms of violence that keep people at the below poverty levels of living, nor does it often challenge our use of Earth’s resources. Creating a peace‐based curriculum demands a total paradigm shift. Our approach to education must include the ultimate aim of creating a civilization of peace, which is at once a political, social, ethical and spiritual state. Researchers believe that peace education curriculum should be engaging, hands-on, and relevant.

PEPs in Elementary Schools 

Sample Strategies that Can Be Used in Schools and Homes

Most global peace education programs (PEP) begin at an elementary age or even earlier. The more successful programs have had success by integrating everyday classroom behaviors, lessons, and activities with the education and the application of peaceful ways. Some have taken such simple activities as physical education games and used them to demonstrate the connections between playground behaviors and larger global challenges. Successful educators have been able to connect peaceful skills and behaviors into everyday lessons in all subjects.

In language arts, for example, characters and plots in books of all sizes and for all ages can be used as models and springboards for discussion. Even cultural myths and legends can be explored through an emotional and social intelligence lens, identifying, and discussing character values, behaviors, and consequences good or not so good. Even rewriting stories with children creating better, or more peaceful solutions can be a good peace-promoting lesson. Writing personal letters to fictional characters, or even political leaders or newspapers, can be appropriate writing lessons where peace again can be the focus.

There is no doubt in my mind that class discussions might be the greatest, and easiest, method for helping young children to understand sophisticated and complex concepts.

~ Bill Overton, EdD.

I’ve personally had an abundance of success with young children, understanding some of the conflicts and other challenges that face our world. We, as parents and teachers, need to at times “scaffold”, or help to define and explain vocabulary and the topics, though. If these strategies and opportunities for open and frank discussions with children occur frequently, students learn to trust their thoughts, strengthen their relationships with teachers and their fellow students, and realize that they have a voice worth sharing. This is an extraordinarily valuable, potentially lifelong lesson for kids.

Other similar peace-related lessons can be explored when looking at scientific innovations that contribute to people’s health and lives worldwide is an interesting and inspiring subject. Examining the statistics of each country and what they mean to daily life in different countries can add to understanding and increased empathy for the lives, challenges, and plight of people who live in countries other than our own. The United Nations supplies many statistics on each country and region of the world. Always starting with a question often engages students. A question like, “what does the GNP (gross national product) mean to a country and how its people live?  What does ours say about us? If teachers don’t know the answer themselves, it becomes a great opportunity for students to see their teachers learning alongside their students.

Relating social studies and history lessons to emotional intelligence studies can add to student empathy and understanding the qualities and characteristics of leaders past and present. Asking students to consider alternatives to past wars and conflicts can help children to see that there are alternatives to violence if we choose that path.

There is an abundance of activities that can be connected to the concept of peace. Studies on the cultures of other countries, discussions, and debates about global challenges past and present to name a few. The arts can also be used as a springboard for discussion and application of peace concepts for example, includer peace flags, artistic visions of what a peaceful world might look like, and posters, to name a few.

As mentioned before, discussing what happened at recess or during physical education (PE) is a way to make peace relevant to young children. Questions like, “What happened at recess today?” “What did you do if there was a disagreement?” “What could you do next time?”

Do These Programs Work?

Several of the peace programs that exist today have been scrutinized for their level of success. Programs such as the Integrated Theory of Peace (ITP) has undergone an abundance of scrutiny. Their results have shown that there is marked improvement of understanding and at least temporary retention of concepts presented. Unfortunately, most if not all of the assessment has been self-reporting. While this is helpful information, in my opinion, it really doesn’t demonstrate the internalization of peace concepts and the changing of behaviors. So much of what peace education includes is the changing of mindsets, beliefs, and attitudes. We need other methods, in my opinion, for analyzing success of peace education programs related to changed behaviors. These are required if PEP programs are going to be replicated and successful. The focus on helping relieve trauma in students’ needs to be in this equation as well.

What can we do?

The information presented in this article suggests some possible answers to peace and peace education. There are a few premises and things we must also do to achieve it though. The main paradigm switch is to believe that global peace is possible and that we are responsible to create it. It’s not something that we can find.

If we want peace to become a reality, …

We have to believe and behave the way we want it to be.

We have to look to compassion, forgiveness, & nonviolence to solve problems.

We have to share resources equally for everyone.

We have to treat everyone and everything with respect.

We have to move away from competition and divisiveness and towards unity.

We have to move towards erasing poverty.

We have to reduce the number of violent visions our children see and interact with.

And finally…

What are you going to do?


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Bill Overton, EdD. has been in education since before 1979. During his tenure as an elementary school teacher and principal, he was known for his integrated social-emotional programs, leadership, and developing his version of project-based learning. The latter he put into a book, “Going Beyond Project-based Learning”. Bill and his wife presently live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, USA, with his children and grandchildren nearby.

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