From criminology, psychology and political studies degrees, to university courses for the social workers, lawyers and schoolteachers of the future, restorative justice and restorative practice increasingly appear on higher education curricula. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Education for Justice (E4J) initiative recognises the importance of restorative justice, and has developed a module to promote and strengthen its teaching in higher education institutions globally.
Further recent developments in restorative justice teaching in higher education include the publication of The Little Book of Restorative Teaching Tools (Pointer, et al., 2020) and a corresponding website, and efforts by academics in Ireland and Australia to encourage their colleagues from around the world and across different disciplines to share restorative justice syllabi.
While many collaborations and discussions focus on restorative justice research, few seek to bring the field together around its teaching in universities. In light of this, Dr. Wendy O’Brien (UNODC, E4J) and Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University Department of Law) co-organised a series of three online roundtables to enable those who teach restorative justice and restorative practice in higher education to learn from each other’s experiences of doing so.
These roundtables took place in mid-May 2020, involving around 70 academics from 30 countries. Each session began with a welcome from Dr. O’Brien who introduced participants to the tertiary component of E4J and the University Module Series on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Next, Jee Aei (Jamie) Lee from the UNODC Justice Section shared information about the publication of the revised UNODC Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes. The roundtables were then dedicated to discussions on different themes related to teaching restorative justice in universities. These discussions were chaired by Dr. Marder who used restorative practices to give everyone present an opportunity to speak.
Participants discussed teaching restorative justice in Asian and postcolonial settings, in light of efforts to take a more global and holistic approach to teaching within criminology and other disciplines. They spoke about the extent to which criminological and restorative justice literature were Western-centric and the breadth of indigenous and non-Western texts that they used to help open their students’ minds to alternative ways of thinking about justice. They also discussed their experiences of teaching about indigenous justice practices and the ways in which they compared and contrasted these approaches with restorative justice. Finally, the group shared the challenges they faced in incorporating restorative justice into their curricula and their experiences of teaching restorative justice online.
The second roundtable, which involved participants from the Americas, focused on the use of restorative practices and principles within the teaching of restorative justice and the role of experiential learning in this field. The group spoke about the importance of class climate in the learning process and the value of building positive relationships and a sense of community among students at the beginning of and throughout a course. Many participants described how they used circle processes to structure dialogue in a way that built positive relationships and enabled students equitably to participate in classes. The conversation covered power dynamics in the classroom and the benefits of using games in teaching, as well as the wider role that restorative approaches may play in universities, and the benefits and challenges of teaching restorative justice and practice through distance learning.
The final roundtable explored the role of restorative justice instruction in the development of students who will work in the human services. The group listened to academics from a number of disciplines – primarily criminology, law and education – explaining how and why their students benefitted from these courses. They commented on the punitive and retributive assumptions with which students often entered the classroom, and which restorative justice instruction helped them ‘unlearn’. Participants also described how they brought their experience of practitioner training and restorative justice practice to teaching. Finally, those who had developed bespoke restorative justice or practice programmes described their history, materials and cohorts, and commented on the difficulties with sustaining such programmes.
Dr. Ian Marder (Maynooth University) – I co-organised and facilitated the three online roundtables. It was heartening to see how many people were committed to teaching restorative justice in universities, and to hear the range of ideas for its improvement and expansion. As someone who often uses circle processes to teach restorative justice to master’s-level criminologists, I enjoyed learning from others who use this approach and who had developed other tools and activities to enable interactive learning. The main lessons for myself were the need to innovate in engaging students on theoretical concepts, and also that academics who taught other subjects might benefit from learning about the principles of restorative pedagogy, insofar as its relational and participatory approach translates to any classroom environment. There may also be value in further discussions on how to build community in classrooms, how best to use circle processes in teaching, and how to design and administer a restorative approach to assessment – all of which are conversations that I hope to have in the near future.
Dr. Wendy O’Brien (UNODC) – I was delighted to organise these sessions with Dr. Marder, following his response to an invitation that I shared with E4J academic champions about collaborative opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m so pleased with the result. The three webinars highlight the very best of the E4J initiative by fostering a rich intellectual exchange among an outstanding, interdisciplinary group of academics from around the world. While our intention was to facilitate discussions that would strengthen the practice of teaching on restorative justice, the reflections and practical strategies shared by participants offer a valuable resource for tertiary educators more generally, with advice on approaches to addressing power dynamics in class, building community, and creating trust and equal voice in the classroom. I’m particularly pleased that we can make the recordings of these discussions publicly available as an additional resource in our E4J university module on Restorative Justice.
Jee Aei (Jamie) Lee (UNODC) – It was a pleasure to share information about the revised Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes with restorative justice academics and to learn more about restorative justice pedagogy. The great wealth of information, tools, and reflections shared at each of the sessions was remarkable and a testament to the wide ranging and continuously developing nature of restorative justice in all spheres, whether in education, research, practice or policy. The roundtables were a perfect example of how constructive group discussions can continue, and even thrive, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Congratulations to Dr. Marder and Dr. O’Brien for the successful initiative!
Rowan Sweeney (York St. John University) – I attended all three sessions because they coincide with my research interests, and Dr. Marder sought my support in taking notes and reviewing each session. My Ph.D. examines the extent and form of restorative justice inclusion within undergraduate criminology in England and Wales, exploring criminology students’ and lecturers’ understandings of restorative justice and approaches to teaching restorative justice within criminology curricula. I was extremely fortunate to be part of these truly unique sessions, involving such insightful and experience-driven discussions about restorative justice teaching in the contexts of numerous countries and subject areas. In exploring the interdisciplinarity of restorative justice, these sessions emphasised the value and potential of both teaching restorative justice, and teaching restoratively. Restorative justice pedagogy within restorative justice education, and in many other learning environments, centres on relationship building, fairness, equality, community, and participation. This can empower students to imbibe these values and practices for use in their future roles and relationships, enabling a restorative society to develop. The optimism, experience sharing and reflections in these sessions were extremely inspiring to me as an early-career researcher and lecturer interested in restorative justice.