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Everybody is different, and while we celebrate and embrace difference, this also means that disagreements can occasionally arise. IB World magazine explores how teachers can help their students make sense of conflict.
Martin Luther King Jr once said: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” According to the UN, conflicts displaced almost 60 million people in 2014, which is the highest displacement level ever recorded by their High Commissioner for Refugees.
Education could play a vital role in preventing conflict. Global children’s charity Save the Children reported that every year of formal schooling that boys undertake reduces their risk of involvement in conflict by 20 per cent. And poverty, a common driver of war, can also be reduced through education. A 2006 study by Save the Children discovered that an effective education system could raise the living wage by 10 per cent. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty by teaching students from low-income families basic reading skills.
Teaching about conflict itself could also help children understand the world. Bernie Mayer has written numerous books about conflict and is Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Werner Institution, Creighton University, Nebraska, USA. He recommends that teachers discuss conflict as a wider concept, rather than forcing it into a standalone unit.
Conflicts are a basic part of understanding the world. When we study history, it is basically a story of conflict. When you study psychology, you’re studying developmental stages, which are ultimately about conflict with oneself. It’s important not to isolate this to just one thing. It is part of everything.
PYP Teacher Bart Miller, at K. International School of Tokyo, Japan, agrees. He believes teaching students that disagreements are often a natural and even inevitable everyday occurrence is vital for their development. “Most conflict occurs when parties engage with each other to negotiate their mutual or opposing interests,” he says. “These are opportunities to practice communicating, learn about each other, and reflect to better understand their own needs and motivations.”
Miller has been proactively teaching conflict resolution throughout the syllabus. “I have designed inquiry activities to practice cognitive empathy by emphasizing the conflicts in literature, utilizing drama through role playing, interpreting photographs depicting various forms, causes, and consequences of conflict, and by encouraging students to share and defend opposing viewpoints,” he explains.
Activities in which students research and defend an opinion with which they disagree, a common debate tactic, are especially effective.
“I have also designed music activities to examine how harmony arises from the careful balance of consonance, representing ‘peace’, and dissonance, representing ‘conflict’,” he adds.
How to handle classroom conflict
There are various tools teachers can use to help students handle conflicts. Non-violent communication, a dialogue style that was developed during the 1960s by Marshall Rosenberg, focuses on using empathy and honesty to promote understanding and effectively manage disagreements. Its core premise is that violence only occurs when people fail to understand and empathize with other’s needs.
Meanwhile, active listening involves the listener repeating back to the speaker a paraphrased version of their statement, to make sure both people accurately comprehend what has been said. Again, by promoting understanding, this method reduces unnecessary clashes.
But Mayer strongly dislikes one particular tactic. “What concerns me sometimes is when teachers take a ‘cookbook’ approach,” he says. “They’ll advise students that, if they follow a set of instructions, then everything will work out fine. I don’t think that works very well.
What does work is teaching students that they have a right to their feelings and a right to say what they think. But they have to do that in a way which is respectful of other people’s right to do the same thing,
He goes on to say that “we have needs that are not always compatible with others and have to do our best to try to understand, experience and advocate our needs and, at the same time, respect other people. But, in the process, you’re going to run across times where you want different things to others. It’s the nature of the human condition.”
Understanding conflict is also important for nurturing internationally-minded learners and a part of the IB Learner Profile and Mission, adds Miller. “The IB aims to develop and encourage ‘learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right’,” he says.
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