When my husband, John, and I first visited Belarus in 1991, The Belarussian Association of a UNESCO Clubs invited us to work with teachers and psychologists to develop methods for teaching peace education and conflict resolution to children. One or both of us have visited Belarus every year since then and for the last two years we have been doing the same work in a Ukraine.
We have developed a process of including children in the programme so that we can demonstrate as well as explain our methods and later in the programme giving the participants the chance to work with a second group of children. We believe that far more is learnt by active participation in a workshop than from a whole lot of theory. In fact our friends from the a former U.S.S.R. are astonished that the theory that we base our work on is simple, namely what is needed is to learn better communication, more co-operation and increased respect of a each other, which are the essential skills needed for handling conflict constructively. Sometimes we have asked our friends there why they are so keen to learn methods of conflict resolution in a country that does not have an ongoing ethnic conflict. They tell us that in their a former totalitarian states education was very structured and predictable; a question of learning the "correct" answer by heart. They know that in today's world this just won't do any more. Children have to learn to think for themselves and to be able to look for the answers to problems co-operatively. They also need, as well as we do, to be able to negotiate and respond a creatively to conflict. Teachers have told us they see this work as education for democracy.
Our aim is not to create dependencies but to empower our partners to carry on this work when a we are not there and to begin to create their own exercises and methods. Local groups have a developed in Minsk and Grodno, and we aim to encourage and strengthen these groups on each visit as well as introduce the work in new towns. In 1995 we saw the emergence of a
strong "Conflictologists" Group", dedicated to mutual support, the development of new approaches and materials, and propagating the ideas more widely in schools. A year later we where delighted to find they had embarked on a programme of writing and publishing their a own materials. This will mean they will not have to rely so heavily on translating materials
which we have brought and that what they publish will be culturally appropriate. They are now preparing the third national conference to which they invite teachers and psychologists. These are so successful that we hope there will be an international conference in Minsk in 1998.
All this is very encouraging as life in Belarus today is far from easy. When we met them to assist at their first conference, we found them dispirited and demoralised. In 1996 the political and economic situation had deteriorated further so that families were struggling to survive. Many teachers had simply not been paid for about three months. And yet, against all odds, they not only keep this work going but have developed it further. One teacher in Grodno said that other teachers were envious of the atmosphere in her class and that she was sure that this was due to her continuing use of peace education methods. There is still great scope for developing this work further in other Belarussian centres and for setting up support systems so that they a can all encourage each other. We hope to involve members of the Minsk group in any new work we start in other cities so that a network can develop.
Though we have made seven visits in all to Belarus, we try to take care each time to bring new ideas and resources and work on different themes within the overall topic. We also try to show show the material can be adapted to different age groups. The underlying principles are the same, whether we are working with five year olds, teenagers or adults. The content of the programme has to be adapted to the age group; but the style is always playful and participatory. What you have experienced and enjoyed you are much more likely to remember than what you have been told. We try to make sure that we model what we teach by being careful listeners and showing real respect for each person's contribution. We always stress that our mistakes are our best teachers so that no-one needs to be afraid to make a mistake. For some adults this discovery is the most liberating aspect of this work.
So, when I was invited to present our work at The Second European Education for Peace Congress, I knew the best way to do this was to ask some of our Belarussian colleagues to lead the workshop with me. This team gave some time to painting the background of life in Belarus today. This meant first showing where it is on the map, showing coloured slides and then answering a lot of questions. Then we explained our conviction that experience is the best teacher. So we invited the participants to pretend they where children again and take part in a typical peace education workshop.
As always, we made sure the programme included .exercises on communication, co-operation, problem solving and affirmation or respect for each other. We opened with a game to set the informal atmosphere. After the game we did a favourite listening exercise, in which the participants are paired and told to think of a topic that they want to talk to their partner about. Then they both had to talk at once and try to make their partner listen. Although there was much laughter, all agreed that this was not a satifactory experience! Next, while one talks, the other does everything possible, except talking or leaving the room, to show that she is not interested . Finally, each in turn talks while their partner gives them total, undivided attention, but without saying anything. All agree that this time the experience is totally different and much more satisfying. Next a very fast game with about eight balls teaches communication in a quite different tway, because the game only works if each person pays complete attention to their partner, making sure thet he or she is ready to receive the ball.
As a co-operation exercise we chose Broken Squares, in which each person in a group of five is given an envelope containing some pieces of a square. There are not the same number of pieces in each envelope. Then without talking or gesticulating or taking from another person without their permission, the task is to try to make five equal sized squares. A sixth person observes the process and afterwards tells us all how the group managed. This exercise? of course, depends on co-operation if it is going to succeed. It can be very frustrating, especially for the person who is able to make a square and then has to break it up to enable the whole group to produce their five squares.
For affirmation, we labled each other with positive qualities. Then we divided into two groups for what seemed an impossible problem to solve, once again using balls. After much discussion both groups were proud to discover they could solve it co-operatively.
One of the most important things in a workshop is to leave time for evaluation, to make sure that the intended lessons have been learned. In Belarus they call workshops seminars, and in Russia a seminar is a place where you get seeds: an apt name for such a session. After the workshop at Lillehammer I overheard someone say, "I never knew I could have such fun and learn so much". This is what peace education work is all about: learning by doing and enjoying the experience.
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