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Education's Impact on Social Harmony

By Jill Anderson on September 17, 2013 9:22 AM

Mulimbi and PetersonWhen Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Ed.D.’09, and doctoral student Bethany Mulimbi, Ed.M.’12, met in 2003, Dryden-Peterson was the doctoral student at HGSE and Mulimbi was a sophomore at Harvard College. Even then, they had something in common: a mutual passion for Africa. Now, 10 years later, it is fitting that Dryden-Peterson and Mulimbi have found ways to combine their research efforts. This summer they spent time working on preliminary research projects in Botswana mining the role of education in citizenship, national identity, and achievement in fostering stable and peaceful countries.

“I knew that Bethany’s passion for teaching and learning in southern Africa would be a real help to my research in Botswana, and a pleasure for me,” Dryden-Peterson says.

While Dryden-Peterson’s research usually focuses on access and quality of education in conflict settings, she selected Botswana — a country that has been stable and peaceful — to understand how education can foster such environments. “This really fits into my larger research regarding education in conflict settings as Botswana serves as an ‘anti-conflict’ example,” she says. “It’s about looking at what is possible in a non-conflict setting — a setting that is quite opposed to conflict — and what might be done to prevent conflict elsewhere.”

In the years since gaining independence in 1966, Botswana’s government has focused on building a climate of kagisano, or social harmony. Despite there being 12 to 15 different ethnic groups within the country, it has remained remarkably peaceful and stable compared to many other African nations. According to Dryden-Peterson and Mulimbi, its stability may be due to Bostwana’s education curriculum and its emphasis on a cohesive national identity.

Despite these efforts, the country’s national exams reveal that a gap exists among ethnic and linguistic minorities in the country. Little research up to this point has examined how the curriculum, and the ways in which it is taught, may play a role in achievement gaps. Dryden-Peterson and Mulimbi, who work on separate, but overlapping, research projects, aim to change this.

This summer, Dryden-Peterson spent six weeks in Botswana initiating research on civic engagement of young people, particularly on spaces for youth to voice dissent. She conducted interviews with professors at the University of Botswana, authors of social studies textbooks, and teachers particularly active in civic education, as well as a key thought leaders. Additionally, she collected materials including social studies curriculums and different national reports.

Mulimbi focused her research efforts, as part of a Dean’s Summer Fellowship, on reviewing nationally used social studies text books in Botswana. In particular, she conducted an analysis on the depictions of minority ethnic groups in the books. While Mulimbi is still determining her findings, she says that many of the books adhere to the goals of social harmony, but often contain little to no inclusion of ethnic minority groups’ languages or traditions.

“Working together, Bethany and I have been able to follow several ideas and lines of thinking from the literature and previous work. Her work on social studies books has been one of these explorations. Her analysis is shaping the overall project in important ways,” says Dryden-Peterson, who will cowrite a paper with Mulimbi on the research as part of the Dean’s Summer Fellowship. “I’m thoroughly enjoying a return to these conceptual ideas in this new project.”

For her part, Mulimbi admits that doing international fieldwork can be a struggle, and she thinks the addition of Dryden-Peterson to the HGSE faculty will provide more incentives for students to pursue this kind of work. “She is really committed to making that [international fieldwork] a reality,” says Mulimbi, who plans to conduct case studies examining classroom instruction and minority students’ perspectives on citizenship in Botswana next year as part of her dissertation.

In the next year, Mulimbi and Dryden-Peterson plan to continue working together and researching in Botswana.

“The way I do research and what I study is built on relationship,” Dryden-Peterson says. “It’s is never a quick endeavor. Sustaining work over time with the same people and communities is important to me. It allows me to do better research and eventually have the kind of impact I seek to have on practice and policy.”

Dryden-Peterson's preliminary research in Botswana was funded by the Junior Academy of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.