Can Educational Materials Support SEL and Inclusive Identities?

By Margaret Sinclair

In January, NISSEM co-conveners Jim Williams, Andy Smart and Margaret Sinclair took part in a high-level workshop convened by the Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory (CELL), entitled Narrating our Violent Pasts in Curricula and Textbooks. This is the first of three posts, one by each, stimulated by the workshop.

One year ago, a workshop on textbooks and education materials was hosted and led by Prof James Williams at George Washington University (GWU). It followed a CIES 2017 workshop supported by USAID’s Education in Conflict and Crisis Network (ECCN) and Education Above All, my then employer. After a session at CIES 2018 and another in New York, led by Prof Aaron Benavot of the University of Albany at SUNY, NISSEM was formed. The initiative – Networking to Integrate SDG 4.7 and SEL skills into Education Materials – focuses largely but not exclusively on education systems in low or middle income countries and post-conflict situations. As a NISSEM co-founder, I'm thrilled to help launch this NISSEM blog page, to share approaches to SEL and its application to SDG Target 4.7 themes around "learning to live together."

NISSEM caters to all sorts. I began as an education planner, and later worked for UNHCR. I saw enough of refugee camps to call on education decision-makers to support education for the prevention of crisis and conflict. As a planner, I saw a role for ministries of education and other education managers in using textbooks as a tool for prevention of conflict and violence. Even under difficult conditions, Ministries still have a role in approving textbooks and other education materials. As a retiree, wearing a NISSEM hat, I see the training of textbook writers in the basic intrapersonal and interpersonal skills or social and emotional learning (SEL), starting with empathy and respect for all, as a no-brainer. For adolescents especially, SEL can be linked to content in different subject areas that can help give them a sense of agency and ownership in building a more peaceful and inclusive society. And this must be done in-country, taking advantage indeed of generic guides, but with training workshops for national writers to develop contextualized and motivational materials.

This may seem like tilting at windmills: developing expertise for national textbook writers to contribute to peace is rarely given priority by ministries of education or international donors. Textbook development often sits in no-man’s-land, or – to use a different metaphor – it falls into the crevice of the humanitarian–development divide. In times of peace, there is little impetus to use textbooks as tools for reducing societal divisions that threaten national security and prosperity. In times of crisis, existing textbooks continue to be used, whatever their limitations. In post-conflict reconstruction, who will champion funding for textbook renewal to promote local, national and global citizenship and sustainable development, and personal life skills, when donors and politicians want new classrooms to show their paymasters or to gain votes? The limited funding for textbook renewal is often insufficient and time-frames too short.

Textbooks have often contributed to divisions in society. How can we convince planners of their potential as a channel for peace, and the need to budget for developing and trialling new content to motivate young people to build an inclusive society? These and other issues emphasized by NISSEM in its early meetings and workshops were welcomed and discussed in January 2019 at a workshop on "Narrating our violent pasts in curricula and textbooks," organized by the Conflict and Education Learning Laboratory (CELL), in partnership with UNESCO and the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, and with support from ECCN. CELL’s workshop underscored the potential for textbook renewal to constitute a nexus between education for development and education in emergencies. Speakers at the workshop called for investment in a new generation of textbooks devoid of negative stereotypes and biased, divisive accounts of the past.

I skyped in to the workshop to argue that prevention of conflict or its recurrence is the stage at which textbooks can help. NISSEM was represented in person at the event by Professor James Williams spoke on the prejudiced or biased depictions of real or imagined pasts in textbooks across the world. His take on the discussion and his recommendations are the subject of the next NISSEM blog post. NISSEM was likewise represented by co-founder Andy Smart, veteran textbook and education publishing specialist. His reflections, notably on inclusion and pedagogy, will complete this set of linked blog posts. Andy will consider how textbooks can embed pedagogies that lay the foundation for engagement in positive classroom behaviours, and how they can transmute these into positive citizenship behaviors help build social cohesion.

So, what are our options? Twenty-five years ago, I called for "turning up the volume of discourse" on "Learning to Live Together" themes.[1] I hope that NISSEM and CELL can help build that discourse. Funding is key. Textbook production is a multi-year process, ideally with preparation and trialling of prototype materials.[2] Research should accompany and follow new materials. Where is the budget for all this? Who will teach planners to include this in their schemas?[3] Who will champion this within the ministries of education and finance? ​​

A quick glance around the globe shows many divided countries, with previously stable societies falling apart metaphorically or blowing themselves apart with explosives. Past conflicts have often subsided into under-reported insecurity with a real risk of large-scale conflict resuming – a 50 percent chance, according to some estimates. In the coming decades, huge numbers of youth will be seeking a meaningful life when workplaces are becoming more automated and with extremists selling false dreams or preaching hatred. All power to the elbows of CELL and NISSEM.

[1] Sinclair (2004) Learning to Live Together: Building skills and values for the twenty-first century. Geneva: UNESCO International Bureau of Education.
[2] NISSEM and local partners have developed proposals for development and trialing of sample lesson content incorporating SEL and SDG 4.7 themes, and are in search of interested donors. See also NISSEM’s Position Paper.
[3] For previous explorations of these questions, supported by Education Above All, see UNESCO IIEP and EAA. (2015) Safety, Resilience and Social Cohesion: A guide for education sector planners; Safety, Resilience and Social Cohesion: A guide for curriculum developers. Paris: UNESCO IIEP; and for samples of supplementary education materials prepared jointly with the Uganda National Curriculum Development Centre, using this guidance, see Mainstreaming Conflict and Disaster Risk Management into the Uganda curriculum.


About the Author

Margaret Sinclair, Independent Consultant with record of contribution to the establishment and development of field of education in emergencies, now with particular interest in conflict-sensitive education policies and SDG Target 4.7.

This blog post was jointly published by CELL and NISSEM.