Categories Archives: newsaction

A better curriculum through journalism and peacebuilding

This is an article I wrote for the National Peace Academy newsletter in April 2012.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), an educational organization consisting of representatives from business and government founded in 2002, has sounded an alarm bell: “There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.”

This declaration is troubling but likely comes as little surprise to most educators, and to readers of this publication.

What may surprise you, however, is that P21, a group whose strategic council includes, among others, Apple, Disney, Ford, and Verizon, recommends peace education as a critical higher-level skill that should be woven into the core subjects we all recognize.

I’d caution that the authors don’t use the term “peace education.” Instead, they speak of “global awareness,” which they define in the following way:

“Learning from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts.”

Does that sound like a decent working definition of peace education? I would say so.

The P21 program has gained some ground over the last decade. Fifteen states, including Illinois, Ohio, and North Carolina, have partnered with the organization, adopting frameworks and assessments based on those devised by P21.

The movement has gained the attention of a number of educators. They, too, were alarmed, but for a different reason. In response to what they saw as P21’s emphasis on skills at the expense of knowledge, more than thirty prominent academics and thought leaders, including Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, formed the Common Core in 2007.

“Skills,” noted the Common Core signatories, “can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects. Attempts to teach skills apart from knowledge have failed repeatedly over the last century because they do not work. Unless it is fundamentally revised, the program put forth by P21 also will fail.”

The Common Core recommended a renewed commitment to teaching history, the arts, literature, civics, and language — subjects its members consider critical pieces of a complete liberal arts education.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative, released in 2010, is not directly affiliated with the Common Core but is in close agreement philosophically (the Common Core has devised curriculum maps based on the CCSS). More than 40 states are in the process of aligning their educational programming with the CCSS, and P21 has published a toolkit to help educators align the CCSS with its own skills-based framework.

I will not go into the criticisms of the CCSS, except to say that it has presented challenges to educators already struggling to meet the mandates of the 2001 No Child Left Behind act. Both P21 and the CCSS have their detractors, as, of course, does the current state of education in the US.

I do not pretend to have a panacea, but may I make a suggestion? Student journalism based on a solid understanding of global issues neatly synthesizes many of the recommendations of these groups. It is also a powerful program for peace education.

I spent nearly ten years teaching journalism to 11th and 12th graders at Washington International School (WIS), a K-12 independent school in Washington, DC that teaches the International Baccalaureate curriculum. The school had a strong journalism program with dedicated students who gave up weekends to lay out their newspaper because the school day was consumed by the IB’s own core programming and the school’s deep commitment to multi-lingualism.

Journalism was a non-IB elective, an optional weekly class that appeared on the schedule along with physical education and chorus. Despite its relative unimportance in the curriculum, the journalism the students produced demonstrated a powerful base of global awareness on subjects from failed states to education in post-earthquake Haiti to de-facto segregation in Washington, DC.

Much of this found its origins in the work the students were doing in other classes, but unlike standard class assignments, it was by its very nature interdisciplinary, made to be consumed by a general public, and, indeed, published. And, unlike the heavily scripted CCSS exemplar units, the work was student-directed, collaborative, and actually interesting to the students. (And probably a lot more interesting to read than their class work.)

The tools they used to publish their articles and videos were industry-standard systems, such as the Adobe Creative Suite and Web technologies including Ning and WordPress. They used Google Analytics to track their work and AdWords and Facebook to promote it. They worked as a team, not just within their school, but with students in other schools in the US and overseas. In other words, the skills they learned were congruent with P21 recommendations, but it was knowledge, the primary concern of the Common Core, that lent substance to their journalism in the first place.

The average American high school student is not fortunate enough to attend a school with global awareness (which I’ve tried to suggest is approximately synonymous with peace education) built into the curriculum, as it is at WIS. Most kids are not up on international news, and in any event do not have a core of knowledge about the world to help them make sense of it. They are at an educational disadvantage, poorly prepared for the complex global problems they will surely inherit. What can we do to make these students global citizens?

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, where I am education coordinator, is a non-profit journalism organization that has funded more than 200 international reporting projects since its founding by Jon Sawyer in 2006. These projects seek to shed light on under-reported global issues such as fragile states, women and children in crisis, and food security. The work has been published in major news outlets, but is also available for free on the Pulitzer Center website at pulitzercenter.org.

Our educational mission is to bring this work, often in the person of the journalists themselves but also through innovative online outreach, into classrooms to explore the issues with students and help them understand how these international conflicts connect to their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. We think good international journalism that presents complex issues through intimate stories revealing our common nature, rather than showing the “other,” is a powerful way toward wiser, more compassionate kids.

And when the kids, having absorbed these lessons, can be empowered to contribute their own observations to a global conversation through their school newspapers or, better, online student journalism outlets such as the Student News Action Network (www.studentnewsaction.net), we have something more powerful still: peace education that aligns with the knowledge emphasis of the Common Core, as well as the skills emphasis of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.