Issue 31 - Article 11

Education in post-conflict settings:

October 4, 2005
Christopher Castle, Katharine Elder, Pamela Baxter and Christophe Cornu, UNESCO

Conflict can have a devastating impact on children’s education. Formal and non-formal education structures are corroded, communities displaced and fragmented and educational inputs threatened. Maintaining a sufficient educational corps, recruiting educators and ensuring that they are properly trained and remunerated becomes a challenge; physical structures may also be affected, and may not be safe environments for learning. This combination of factors may significantly reduce the quality of education offered to learners.

In rebuilding education systems in a post-conflict situation, there is a unique opportunity to approach the process in an integrated manner. Rebuilding is typically undertaken in a piecemeal fashion, but educators should seize the opportunity of reconstruction to develop, revise and improve educational components in a holistic manner. In an effort to promote quality education and provide a forum for dialogue on these issues, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) piloted a course in Monrovia, Liberia, in January–February 2005. This article describes the structure of the course, the rationale behind it, the challenges encountered during implementation and its potential future application in other post-conflict situations.

Course structure and participants

When discussing educational needs, it is critical to remember that learning takes place in both formal and non-formal learning environments, and that both environments must be conducive to the learner’s needs. In times of conflict, non-formal learning systems may take on new significance as traditional formal schooling structures weaken. In planning the course, the primary objective of the design team was to promote the concept of quality education, and to develop skills among participants whereby quality education and universal rights-based values could be reflected in their work as educators.

The course involved over 30 participants, almost half of whom came from the Liberian Ministry of Education, the remainder from NGOs working in the education sector and in humanitarian relief. A paper drafted by the Division for the Promotion of Quality Education at UNESCO, Quality Education and HIV/AIDS, and the Interagency Peace Education Programme, were used as the foundation for the course. Six modules were developed, as well as two ‘case study approaches’ (on HIV/AIDS education and peace education), which presented the group with the opportunity to analyse the process and structure of a rights-based approach to education.

The course opened with discussion of how learning takes place, and what elements must be present to ensure effective learning. Participants analysed a learning experience of personal significance, then explored how the process had transpired, including factors such as what they learned, how they learned and from whom they learned. Through this exercise, the group arrived at the conclusion that, in order for the learning process to be effective, learning must be active, the environment must be conducive to learning and the educator must acknowledge and respond to the learner’s needs. Educational theorists such as Benjamin Bloom, Abraham Maslow and Lawrence Kohlberg were discussed in relation to ensuring a holistic approach (cognitive, affective, ethical and physical), and exercises were conducted on the application of these methods. Through these methods, the group was able to move towards defining a system of learning, and the values that good-quality education should reflect and promote.

In a quality education system, learning should always be at the centre. If systems of education focus on ‘educating’ or ‘schooling’ rather than ‘learning’, they neglect the needs of the learner and are not effectively responding to the environment in which the learner lives, the challenges the learner faces, the context of their lives and other essential factors that encourage or hinder learning. Within the system of learning, the various components are linked through their potential to affect one another and alter the environment in which learning takes place. In the context of Liberia, the group discussed how the situation in their country could affect the learning system, and what factors could enhance or hinder the implementation of a quality education approach. Many of the constraints listed by the group included specific obstacles faced by teachers within the country, such as a lack of training opportunities and support for teachers. However, participants also recognised that there were enhancing factors, and this encouraged the group to explore opportunities for utilising a quality education approach.

Quality education is not only about cognitive development (basic numeracy or literacy): it should also include the development of a sound values system that reflects universal values and human rights. To illustrate this idea, and to provide participants with an opportunity to think through what this means to them and their work, two exercises were developed. In small group work, the first activity encouraged participants to discuss the values that were particularly relevant to Liberia. Those listed included equality, respect for others, tolerance and honesty. This reinforced the idea that even values considered culturally specific are, in fact, universal. An exercise was developed to better illustrate the concept of values in education, involving a ‘values die’ with each face of the die representing a value, and a floor chart representing the learning system. The idea was to explore how the values could be developed and reflected in the education system. For example, if the die showed ‘tolerance’ and landed on ‘teaching’, the participants were asked for a quick example of how tolerance could be developed and reflected in the teaching process. This was followed later in the course with small group work to develop strategies reflecting the values. Both these exercises were well received by the group, and allowed the participants to engage in brainstorming about methods that could be used in their work, illustrating how values can and should be reflected and promoted throughout a quality education system.

The values defined by the group are intrinsically linked to human rights as embodied in a rights-based education approach. Universal values are defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights education is typically understood as education about human rights. Rights-based education embeds human rights in the structure of the system and the pedagogy, not just in the content of certain curricula. Thus, rights-based education is different from human rights education: a rights-based approach to education is rights in education, rather than education on rights. Although the principle of a rights-based approach to education is relevant to all education systems, it is particularly important in conflict-affected areas, where people may have suffered human rights abuses. In these circumstances, rebuilding an education system is the prime opportunity to ingrain these concepts within the structure, helping to safeguard against future abuses.

Although resources may be scarce in post-conflict environments, some pedagogical methods can be employed at little or no cost to reflect quality education. Course participants spent a significant amount of time discussing these teaching methods and techniques, and developing the idea that learning is a participatory act. Learning is most effective when the learner is an active part of the discovery process. Traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods, though perhaps viewed by educators as a safe way of keeping a class or group under control, do not engage learners as effectively as dialogue between learners and educators. This dialogue requires interactive methods of questioning and listening, where both learners and educators play a critical role in the learning process.

To illustrate these ideas, exercises were conducted to develop an appreciation for active listening and questioning skills. A ‘question step’ activity demonstrated that it is possible to ask questions that assist the learner in reaching the intended learning outcome. A facilitator acted as the learner, and the course participants were asked to help the ‘learner’ to reach the desired learning outcome through a series of questions. Irrelevant questions prompted the ‘learner’ to take a step sideways, thus putting them off track; successful questions that assisted the learner resulted in a step towards the desired learning outcome; and unproductive questions prompted the learner to take a step back. Through this exercise and others, the group had an opportunity to discuss why using a diversity of teaching methods and techniques, coupled with active listening and questioning skills, can result in more effective learning.

A key premise of the course was that the methodology used by the facilitators would be an example of the content presented. The facilitators thus conducted the discussions and exercises in a participatory manner, reflecting the values inherent in a quality education approach. The course was well-received by the participants, and the Minister of Education asked that it be offered for all district and county education officers. Although the course was designed for countries in post-conflict or reconstruction phases, UNESCO believes that it could be applicable to other education settings. The principles of quality education and a rights-based approach to structuring the education system are relevant to all learning systems, and the course has possible future application in diverse settings. In order for quality education to be realised, and a rights-based approach to education institutionalised, stakeholders, educators and learners alike will have to come together and discuss these issues. Although the ‘Planning for Quality Education in Liberia’ course was an initial step in the movement to engage people in dialogue on the necessity and relevance of quality education, much more needs to be done to promote it not only in conflict-affected areas, but also in places with more developed education systems.

Christopher Castle ( and Katharine Elder ( work in the Division for the Promotion of Quality Education, UNESCO. Pamela Baxter ( is part of the Division for the Promotion of Quality Education and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Christophe Cornu( is a Consultant for the Division for the Promotion of Quality Education. For a copy of the course curriculum, contact UNESCO, Division for the Promotion of Quality Education, 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07-SP, France. The course, ‘Planning for Quality Education in Liberia: how do we translate the vision of quality education into the practical work of reconstruction?’, was funded as part of a grant from the US government to UNESCO in support of reconstructing education systems in post-conflict countries.

References and further reading

M. J. Pigozzi, Quality Education and HIV/AIDS (Paris: UNESCO, August 2004).

Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies:

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation:

UN High Commissioner for Refugees:

Education for All:


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