The Understanding of Peace among Children and Adolescents: A Critical Review of Research

Ron Smith


Despite the existence in Northern Ireland of an internationally endorsed Peace Process (the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Agreement), the need for education to play its part in developing a new peace culture and peace consciousness remains as important as ever. In December 1998, the Education Minister established a working group concerned with the promotion of tolerance in schools. The report of this group recommended that there needed to be greater encouragement to regard the development of respect for diversity as a core rather than peripheral element of the school curriculum (DENI 2000).

However, earlier research suggested that the received discourses and assumptions about school effectiveness and school improvement were inappropriate to meeting the challenges of improving school effectiveness for peace within a conflicted society (see, Smith 2001 a; 2001 b). This research confirmed that there was a pervasive "culture of silence" within schools with regard to open discussion on the causes and consequences of social division. There were also other silences and gaps in the story forms available to teachers within schools. When, for example, it came to having a say or being allowed to air their views on issues of relevance to school-based community relations policy and practice, the voice of students and parents were mostly silenced, disqualified or subjugated.

Consequently, I decided to examine the theme of school improvement for peace from a Narrative psychology perspective. That is, from a perspective which gives a central role to the storied nature of human conduct. This stance is a special case of the wider perspective called social constructionism (Wagner and Watkins, forthcoming). A critical review of relevant extant literatures, including the developmental literature on children's and young peoples' understanding of peace, strengthened my view that new paradigm methodologies and methods were required to investigate and make sense of school improvement for peace.

Abstract: McClernon (1998) suggested that some insight into children's perceptions of the meaning of peace was essential if educators in Northern Ireland (N. Ireland) were to avoid perpetuating the suspicion, bigotry and prejudice that had led to so much violence in the past. However, whilst children's understandings about peace and war had been the subject of developmental research for at least three decades, a critical review of the extant literature revealed a number of shortcomings. For example, only one study having an explicit focus on children's and adolescents' ideas about peace was identified in N. Ireland.

Furthermore, in recent years, our understanding of human development has profited greatly from research focusing on the exploration of narrative and language as the principal means through which people make sense of themselves and their experiences (see Daiute and Lightfoot 2004). The extant research appeared to reflect none of this scholarship. Rather, it had been conducted within a “natural science" paradigm dominated by oversimplified theoretical underpinnings. The remainder of this paper sets out to develop these issues.

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