Jack Williams: Reaching out Within and Beyond the Classroom

by Jack Williams

In their article Burgess, Burgess, and Kaufman (BBK) make a compelling case outlining the paralyzing harm caused by deep divisions in developed democracies and the urgent need to address them. They offer a range of goals and activities to pursue and argue that at the heart of their proposed ‘massively parallel problem-solving’ would be self-organised projects that tackle specific conflict challenges. There is already significant work in this area being done including freely accessible teaching resources[1] and podcasts[2] as well as dialogue facilitation organisations.[3] These demonstrate that the dangers of polarisation and destructive conflict are not being taking lightly, however, there is certainly more to do. In this commentary I expand upon some of the ideas outlined by BBK and the accompanying commentaries with some proposals for further reflection and action.

Education, Technology and the role of universities

The central role of education in tackling the polarisation identified by BBK and others cannot be understated. Though organisations have developed teaching materials on conflict resolution for certain age groups, these often rely upon teachers or parents actively searching for them and implementing the training themselves. Within higher education, courses on conflict resolution, negotiation and mediation are usually confined to specialised programs or else as electives at certain faculties. The institutionalisation of conflict resolution skills within all academic programs should be a central goal of any MPP initiative and one where conflict resolution scholar and practitioners are uniquely placed to act. Launching a campaign to encourage this  – with accompanying syllabi, resources and facilitation guides – would allow the conflict resolution community to pro-actively promote the skills rather than waiting for interested stakeholders to come to them.

As BBK note, technology offers an opportunity to reach people on a greater scale, including those outside of classrooms and lecture halls. In her game ‘The Evolution of Trust’, Nicky Case illustrates in a fun and engaging way, how game theory can explain why trust in society is so fragile. At the Institute for Global Negotiation we recently received initial funding to design open access e-simulations for the teaching of negotiation and conflict resolution. These will include solo simulations that individuals navigate on their own like Case’s – including an update to the Peacebuilding Simulation in partnership with Beyond Intractability – as well as multiparty simulations where individuals interact with one another. The simulations will be able to be integrated into curricula or used independently.  

While emphasising the importance of education we also need to recognise that universities must serve more than the students who attend them. In his commentary, Barney Jordaan advocates for the creation of ‘peacebuilding “hubs”’ that bring together a host of local organisations to prevent, limit and resolve conflicts. This reimagining of universities as local peacebuilding actors offers opportunities not only for the community but also for the university’s students. The development of our e-simulation project will be led by a group of technology students from ETH Juniors – the student consultancy of ETH Zurich. I see no reason why a similar model, with students playing a leading role, could not be applied to local community projects aimed at reducing conflict. Not only would students gain valuable experience while contributing to the community, but it might also see them interact with demographic groups (particularly the elderly or economically disadvantaged) who they may otherwise have little contact.


During the EU referendum campaign in the UK, I setup a series of debates across the country in pubs. The ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaigns sent speakers while local university debating societies provided moderators. Some events attracted a dozen people others up to a hundred. At one particularly lively session, which I moderated in my hometown, the landlord asked if we could do it every week. The events didn’t allow for the reasoned debate and reflection I’d hoped for, but they did engage with the local community and draw on the talents of students. Instead of debates,[4] democratic innovations like citizens assemblies[5] have shown us the potential of what happens when ordinary citizens come together to come up with a shared solution to a common problem. I firmly believe that there is an appetite to reimagine our discourse away from simply polarised positioning and that we have the tools to achieve this. We just have to get to work.   



[1] For example: United States Institute for Peace ‘Classroom Resources’ and Conciliation Resources ‘Learning Hub’.

[3] A list of Dialogue Facilitation Organizations compiled by the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict.

[4] Drawing on my own experience I share the concern outlined in Carrie Menkel-Meadow’s commentary regarding the usefulness of debates. 

[5] For more information on climate assemblies specifically check out KNOCA (Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies): https://knoca.eu/