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October 1, 2002
Vol. 60
No. 2

A Curriculum for Peace: A Conversation with Sir John Daniel

    Sir John Daniel is Assistant Director-General for Education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1994, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of the leading role that he has played in the development of open and distance education. Before joining UNESCO in 2001, he served for a decade as Vice-Chancellor of the Open University in the United Kingdom, and since 1998 as President of the United States Open University.Here, he talks with Educational Leadership about promoting international understanding and improving education for children around the world.

    A Curriculum for Peace: A Conversation with Sir Jo…
      What trends do you see in education leaders' attitudes toward global education?
      Ministers of education around the world are putting more focus on learning to live together and less emphasis on straight student performance. This trend predates September 11, by the way. On September 7, 8, and 9 of 2001, UNESCO's International Bureau for Education held the International Conference on Education in Geneva, bringing together about 18 ministers of education. I was really quite surprised, listening to them, at their commitment to educating students to live together.
      That commitment was accompanied by the recognition that multicultural diversity has to be accepted. States that had been trying to force their population into one worldview based on the dominant ethnic group and one national language were saying, “We realize this approach is not working. If we want to have functional societies, then we've got to do more teaching in the students' mother tongues, at least to start with. And we've got to allow greater diversity.”
      And then, of course, September 11 came along, and the idea that we must learn to live together became rather a cliché.
      What role is UNESCO playing in promoting this commitment to diversity and international understanding?
      For many years, UNESCO was a voice in the desert talking about education for a culture of peace. Now that more and more countries are getting on board, we're looking at advising countries on what you might call the hands-on culture of peace—in other words, how you teach kids to cope with conflict in their own lives.
      How can we go about teaching a hands-on culture of peace?
      You teach children to live together much less by what you hammer at them in the classroom than by the way the school is run. If the school is a democratic, peaceful kind of place, the chances are that this culture will rub off on students, whereas if they have the culture of peace drilled into them in an autocratic and violent environment, it won't work.
      Of course, you can also teach conflict resolution directly. For example, my daughter went to Vermont to do a one-year program at Woodbury College, a college focused entirely on conflict resolution, alternative dispute resolution, and mediation. Now she's in an international leadership center in Scotland, where they are teaching these techniques to kids from the inner cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It seems to have quite a powerful impact.
      Does UNESCO have a role in this?
      No, but we're gearing up to play a role. UNESCO is not an institution that teaches directly. We're a multi-governmental organization; what we try to do is find some governments who are interested in working with us to try new things. Our task is to get the experts together. We drop rocks into the pool and let the ripples go outwards. UNESCO is a neutral forum to get people together to discuss issues that can lead to better education programs.
      Historically, UNESCO has played a role in helping countries work together on textbooks. We've worked in the Balkans region developing partnerships between governmental and intergovernmental institutions to develop new materials and methods of history teaching that can foster reconciliation rather than nationalism. Part of this effort is to encourage experiments in which countries in the region work together on history textbooks and other education materials to remove any prejudices or stereotypes they might contain about other nations or groups.
      Another effort with Israel and Palestine has unfortunately been brought to a halt. You can't do much to improve controversial textbooks until all the parties in dispute about them agree to work in good faith to revise them. Ideally, the parties can then do the work themselves. But sometimes the involvement of an external party such as UNESCO can help to facilitate the process.
      I don't think we should have excessive faith in textbooks, however. Some people seem to take the view that “if we just get the text right, then everyone will live happily ever after.” Whereas what we need to do is teach all students to ask questions, develop their own answers, assess those answers, and come at everything with a constant skepticism. Because by the time you've got a text that no one could object to, it's so boring the kids would fall asleep over it.
      In the United States, especially since September 11, there's much more discussion about teaching tolerance and teaching about other countries, but it's mixed with a counter from some people who say, “No, we should be teaching students to be proud to be Americans.” What would you tell teachers in the United States about the balance between these two?
      From an international perspective, schools in the United States already go to the extreme in pressing national identity instead of knowledge of the rest of the world; any kind of rebalancing would be a good thing.
      Of course, you've got to be rooted in your own culture to understand and appreciate other cultures. There's no point in trying to wallow in internationalism unless you have a basis in your own culture. But you have to have a critical assessment of your own culture. You have to admire the U.S. Constitution while realizing that when it was written, it papered over slavery.
      That, in summary, is what UNESCO's pushing—that globalization is a good thing, but for goodness' sake, let's root kids in their own culture. The evidence is now clear that kids who start school in their mother tongue, and then later move to a national or international language, will, after a fairly short time, be more competent in that national or international language than the kids who are made to start their schooling at age 5 in a language that is completely incomprehensible to them. Being rooted where you are helps you go somewhere else rather than washing that away.
      What role should technology play in improving education for all countries?
      One of my fundamental beliefs is that quantity is important. It's always better to teach 1,000 people than 100. Throughout history, there has been this insidious link between quality and exclusivity, but technology may help us reduce that link. Institutions like the Open University have demonstrated that if you use technology intelligently, you can improve quality and access. And if you're operating at a reasonable scale, you can decrease costs at the same time.
      The place to start using technology is with teacher education. The biggest underlying challenge in achieving education for all is the fact that the world is going to need between 10 and 15 million new teachers over the next 10 years. We won't be able to cope with this shortage through conventional means of teacher education. You can't just add 10 students to every teacher education class.
      Even in the developing world, you can use Internet technology to train teachers by grouping them in centers that have technology infrastructure. In contrast, the idea that you can solve the problem of education in Nigeria by giving all the elementary school kids laptops is just fantasy—we're a long way off from that.
      All countries have found that you can forget about introducing technology into the classroom unless the teachers are comfortable with it and see some real benefits in the outputs that they have to achieve.
      What is UNESCO doing on a practical level to help educators learn cross-culturally from one another?
      The most practical thing we're doing is in our associated schools program network of about 7,000 schools in 170 countries. UNESCO develops curriculum enrichment materials, which are widely translated and diffused into those schools. The most recent program was on the transatlantic slave trade. These materials are meant to help multicultural understanding. We may well develop similar materials dealing with conflict resolution.
      Seven thousand schools worldwide is a lot of schools in one sense, but it's a drop in the bucket in another. So when asked by governments and when given an impetus like the Geneva conference I mentioned, we try and work up policy papers and expert meetings. We just put out a CD-ROM called “Educating for Citizenship,” in three languages, which is intended to help teachers by pulling together resources that they might find useful.
      The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984. There is a movement now in the U.S. Congress to consider rejoining. Why should the United States reenter UNESCO?
      The United States needs coalitions. It needs places where it can talk to people. In an era of globalization, education, culture, and science matter more than military prowess. The absence of the world's most developed country from the forum where important educational, cultural, and scientific issues are discussed is a problem. There is, I'd have to say, pretty well universal desire among the 186 UNESCO member countries for the U.S. to return.
      End Notes

      1 More information on the Balkans textbook initiative is available at the UNESCO Web site at

      2 Copies of the CD-ROM “Educating for Citizenship” are available at no charge from UNESCO's Documentation and Information Service. Send e-mail requests to

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