The following material is adapted from his 2002 book, Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood), a text that is being used for the infusion of sustainable peace studies into the curriculum at the University of Ngozi and other campuses in Burundi. These ideas are equally relevant for schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. as well as in our churches, organizations and businesses. Everyone can benefit when conflicts are resolved through improved cooperation.


Argentina’s Adolfo Perez Esquivel was awarded the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his courageous and tireless work coordinating Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Peace and Justice), an organization dedicated to nonviolent social change and human rights protections in Latin America. Despite widespread harassment, persecution, imprisonment and killings, the response of repressive and military dictatorships to any dissent, Esquivel and his colleagues have eschewed any armed retaliation.

At the heart of their effort has been a core commitment to cooperation along with the communication and coordination necessary to bring diverse viewpoints to the table for meaningful discussions and reconciliation. Yet, those are only their short-term goals, for at the core has also been a commitment to addressing widespread inequities as a foundation for sustainable peace in the region. As educators, there is much we can learn from the use of cooperation for such large and meaningful efforts in the real world.

Bishops, priests, pastors and laypeople were seeking a “way of liberation” consonant with the gospel; situations of injustice were clamoring for attention. Efforts—often limited and isolated—to bring about change nonviolently were being made; there was a need for coordination, communication, and collaboration among persons and groups concerned for nonviolent change…Because of this reality of the systematic, widespread, and prolonged violation of human rights, Servicio was led to make human rights a principal program emphasis which was Latin American in scope and won worldwide interest and support. It was while active in that effort that Adolfo was arrested in April 1977 and imprisoned without charges for fourteen months, after which he spent another fourteen months in “restricted freedom” (Chartier, 2000, p. 100).

In the context of an increasingly interdependent world, cooperative groups represent one way for you to teach peacemaking at a skill level that is both practical and meaningful, where people work together to achieve common goals, assisting and supporting each other’s learning while resolving any issues that arise along the way. As an instructor or group leader, you also get to interact with them in their small groups on more of a personal scale.

By grouping individuals with different abilities, backgrounds and viewpoints, you can ensure a diverse perspective on the content under study as well as a diverse context for the use of prosocial skills—for example, listening, empathy, consensus seeking—so essential for a vibrant society and a healthy democracy. When managed effectively, groups can also provide a social foundation for the development of critical and creative thinking (Timpson & Doe, 2008).

Learning groups also represent a powerful alternative or supplement to the traditional lecture or presentation format. By augmenting large class or group meetings with small cooperative group activities, you share some of the responsibility for instruction with students and shift authority from a strict hierarchy to one that is more horizontal. Solutions and conclusions are not just imposed from on high. Each small group assumes some control over a particular domain of the curriculum. Students and group members generally become much more active. They must take initiative, even risk.

Active learning

Cooperative groups require that people engage actively with the material, topic or project. The learning process becomes more personalized as everyone interacts with the other group members in ways which are personally meaningful, offering ideas, listening to the others, reaching for agreement, dividing up responsibilities, checking on progress, attempting to resolve differences and tensions. A learning group is also a place where people can speak about ideas they do not yet fully understand. By sharing, listening and reflecting, they can become more aware of their own thinking and beliefs.

People can also discover what they don’t know. Unlike the lecture or presentation format, where information is presented in a sequential and orderly manner, group learning can help people identify their own intellectual blind spots, where their thinking may be unformed, flawed or confused.

Collaborative projects can encourage members to experiment with ideas and eventually deepen their understanding of core concepts, integrating new material into a more meaningful, coherent and defensible system. With this kind of constructivist learning, people make new information their own.

This quality of action has been important to the peace movement despite the inference of inactivity in the very notion of pacifism. In truth, pacifism has been difficult for many to accept in the face of hostile threats, for example, the rise of Hitler and Fascism. Written in 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. describes one of his most important insights, when he realized how active Gandhi meant nonviolent resistance to be. The “other cheek” would not be meekly turned when slapped. Instead, a campaign would be mounted to appeal to a higher moral code of behavior and shame the aggressor.

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resistor, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplied the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart (King, 2000, p. 69).

Cognitive and affective outcomes

For the peace movement, it has also been important to raise public awareness, build support and influence policy makers through rallies, petition drives, teach-ins and the like. In the classroom, David and Roger Johnson (1994) have reminded us of the power of cooperative learning. In the cognitive domain, they can point to thirty years of research demonstrating the superiority of group learning across a wide range of factors: for mastery of concepts and principles, enhanced verbal abilities, reasoning, problem solving skills, creative thinking, and general self- awareness as well as an improved ability to view ideas in proper perspective.

By engaging actively with factual information, concepts or principles, people in groups can show an increased ability to retain, apply and transfer new knowledge. In addition, they can develop democratic values and a greater acceptance and appreciation of individual differences. Conflict resolution and peacemaking certainly draw on these same skills and abilities.

When groups function well, the Johnsons also claim that improved interpersonal communication will improve. With some guidance on your part, people can use their groups as mini-labs for learning how to listen and express themselves better, how to address problems, negotiate and reach consensus. Leadership abilities can develop. The involvement of group members often produces more varied input, and here diversity can provide a distinct advantage.

As people from different backgrounds contribute, discussions can expand and deepen. Better and more creative decisions can result. Without these kinds of cooperative experiences, of reaching across divisions, it is easy to see how isolated and antagonistic groups, whether inside or outside schools, will only deepen their dislike for each other and sharpen their differences.

The role for the instructor or group leader

Admittedly, collaborative learning has its own inherent challenges and complexities. Bouton and Rice (1983) point out that the success of individuals in mastering course content or material correlates positively with the quality of the interaction taking place among members of the group. Using group learning, however, does not mean abdicating your responsibility; rather, you shift your focus toward designing and managing activities where people can be active in supporting each other’s understanding. Michaelsen (1983) describes the tasks facing teachers who choose to use learning groups. They include:

  • Forming the groups
  • Building and maintaining group cohesiveness
  • Sequencing instructional activities
  • Organizing material
  • Developing and managing group-oriented classroom activities
  • Evaluating performance
  • Providing feedback.

In all of this, your role as manager of the group experience is vital. To do this well may take time. If you are used to more traditional lecturing, you will need to develop a different set of skills for effective group facilitation. For example, you will want to monitor groups closely so that workloads are distributed fairly and all students contribute to the communal effort. Some groups may require regular supervision in order to stay on task. You may also have to watch out for “collaborative” misinformation where incorrect “solutions” are passed around unchecked.

As for assessment, most instructors or group leaders who use cooperative learning establish mechanisms for measuring individual and group progress. If you decide to assign a group grade or evaluation, you can expect a mixed response: on one hand, individuals will typically appreciate the support and assistance they receive from other group members. On the other hand, they do not want to be held hostage to slackers who fail to follow through on their promises.

Ask people about their experiences in groups and you will often hear frustration from some about feeling exploited. While this anxiety can create tensions within groups, it can also promote greater effort and enhance performance, both collectively and individually. Good communication skills as well as a sound understanding of group processes can make even difficult situations a viable laboratory for meaningful learning.

When the time comes to evaluate a project, it is a good idea to require group members to evaluate their own performance. After assuring everyone that the information they provide will be kept confidential, ask them to identify positive aspects of the group experience, individuals or situations which were problematic, and what insights or recommendations they can offer. In addition, you might try requiring students to maintain a journal where they can explore their own reactions to this assignment and, thereby, develop greater awareness about group process. All of this information can help you fine tune your future use of the group-learning format.


Because group assignments provide valuable support and assistance for individual group members, they serve as a kind of instructional infrastructure, empowering people to assume greater responsibility for their own learning. Through interdependence, they can learn to communicate more effectively with peers, to work efficiently with others, to define a task, to divide up labor, to resolve conflicts and more. The mutual support students experience can encourage risk-taking, another quality that supports learning.

Well-managed group projects can also contribute to a sense of community and camaraderie, resulting in a general boost in morale for everyone. Apathy, absenteeism, and poor performance often decline. In a similar vein, Maimon (1983) recommends collaborative groups as a means to overcome the isolation and loneliness experienced by some. Unlike scientists, who commonly work in groups in the laboratory, others often spend many solitary hours at work. At the undergraduate level, however, the situation facing students may be very different. Tobias (1992), for example, notes that many talented students often report feeling discouraged in large introductory science classes which are information driven, graded competitively on a curve and, accordingly, are inherently isolating.

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