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Conflict Resolution

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Conflicts may be resolved or managed. A conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur (Deutsch, 1973). An activity that is incompatible with another activity is one that prevents, blocks, or interferes with the occurrence or effectiveness of the second activity. Conflict resolution is solving the problem so the conflict is ended. Conflict management is handling the conflict so it is under control. Conflicts are constructive to the extent they (a) result in an agreement that allows all participants to achieve their goals, (b) strengthen the relationship among participants, and (c) strengthen the ability of participants to resolve their future conflicts constructively (Deutsch, 1973; Johnson & F. Johnson, 2006).

Whether constructive or destructive outcomes result from conflict depends largely on the context in which the conflict occurs. In situations dominated by cooperation, conflicts tend to be viewed as problems to be solved. Individuals tend to communicate effectively, accurately perceive the other person and his or her position, trust and like the other, recognize the legitimacy of the other's interests, and focus on their own and others' well being. In situations dominated by competition conflicts are viewed as “win-lose” situations. Individuals tend to focus on gaining an advantage at the expense of others, communicate misleading information, misperceive the other person's position and motivation, be suspicious of and hostile toward others, and deny the legitimacy of others' goals and feelings.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION PROGRAMS

Conflict resolution programs are aimed primarily at teaching students the competencies they need to regulate their own and their classmates' behavior so that conflicts may be resolved constructively. Conflict resolution and peer mediation programs have been generated by (a) researchers in the field of conflict resolution, (b) groups committed to nonviolence, (c) anti-nuclear war groups, and (d) lawyers.

Table 1Table 1ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES. CENGAGE LEARNING, GALE.

While there are numerous programs, some of the most historic and important are discussed below.

Research Theory-Based Programs. The Teaching Students to Be Peacemakers Program (TSP) was developed in the mid-1960s at the University of Minnesota by researchers in the field of conflict resolution (Johnson, 1970, Johnson & Johnson, 2005). Beginning in 1966, teachers were trained to teach students how to resolve conflicts constructively. The Peacemaker Program trains all students in the school in the value of conflict, the five strategies for managing conflicts, the integrative negotiation procedure, and the peer mediation procedure. The training may be integrated into curriculum units. It is repeated every year at an increasingly higher level of sophistication as a 12-year spiral curriculum. The Peacemaker Program has been implemented in schools throughout North America, and in numerous countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Columbia University's International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) focuses primarily on research and training in conflict resolution (Coleman & Fisher-Yoshida, 2004). Their program is implemented by training school mediators, placing conflict resolution concepts and skills into the curriculum, using cooperative learning and constructive controversy as pedagogical methods, changing the school culture from competitive to cooperative, and involving the broader community in the program.

The Conflict Resolution Model (Davidson & Wood, 2004) was developed in Australia. It consists of four components: (a) developing expectations for “win-win” solutions by teaching that cooperation is the most effective means of managing conflict, (b) identifying each party's interests, (c) brainstorming creative options, and (d) combining options into win-win solutions.

The Constructive Controversy Program, which was first taught in the early 1970s, consists of teaching students how to engage in intellectual conflict, either in academic or group decision making situations (Johnson & Johnson, 1979, 2007). Constructive controversy occurs when one person's ideas, information, conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another and the two seek to reach an agreement. Students are trained to prepare the best case possible for their position, give a persuasive presentation to convince others to agree with them, engage in an open discussion in which they attempt to refute opposing positions while rebutting attacks on their position, engage in perspective reversal in which they present the best case for the opposing position, and then reach a joint consensual decision based on their best reasoned judgment. The program has been implemented in schools and universities throughout North America and in many countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Nonviolence Advocacy Groups. In the early 1970s, Quaker teachers in New York City became interested in conducting nonviolence training with their students. Their efforts, known as the New York Quaker Project on Community Conflict, resulted in the founding of the Children's Creative Response to Conflict in 1972 (Prutz-man, Stern, Burger, & Bodenhamer, 1988). Priscilla Prutzman was named its first director. Weekly workshops in public schools are given to teach that the power of nonviolence lies in justice, love and caring, and the desire for personal integrity.

Anti-Nuclear War Groups. In 1985, in partnership with the New York City public schools, the Educators for Social Responsibility began the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) (Selfridge, 2004). The program is aimed at implementing (a) a 10-unit curriculum with lessons on intergroup relations, cooperative learning, and dispute resolution procedures; (b) 20 hours of training in how to be a peer mediator, and (c) 10 4-hour workshops for parents.

Lawyers. In 1977 trial lawyer Ray Shonholtz established the Community Boards in San Francisco to mediate conflicts in neighborhoods. In mediating conflicts among adults, the mediators had to teach conflict resolution skills. Considering prevention, Shonholtz approached local schools with the idea of beginning a peer mediation program in schools. In 1982 Helena Davis wrote a conflict manager curriculum for elementary schools that was piloted in 1984. In the 1985–1986, middle and high school curricula were developed and implemented. The curriculum has been extended and modified by Gail Sadalla (Sadalla, Holmberg, & Halligan, 1990).

Large-Scale Implementation. The Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management and the Ohio Department of Education created a statewide model of teaching conflict resolution education (Batton, 2002). Each school year, they award competitive grants to Ohio's K-12 public schools to design, implement, and evaluate conflict resolution programs. They also make training, technical assistance, and age-appropriate lesson plans and resource materials available to grantee schools. In 2002 more than 1,400 public schools in 380 or more of Ohio's 612 school districts reported having a conflict resolution program.

Age-Appropriate Implementation. Some conflict resolution programs are aimed at specific age levels such as elementary or high schools. Other programs are aimed at all ages. There are developmental differences that the programs have to take into account. Young children may be more rule oriented, less able to be empathetic, less able to understand concepts such as reciprocity, and less able to engage in higher-level reasoning. There are also individual differences in self-efficacy, self-regulation, and other characteristics that influence how individuals of all ages manage their conflicts.

Table 2Table 2ILLUSTRATION BY GGS INFORMATION SERVICES. CENGAGE LEARNING, GALE.

CLASSIFYING CONFLICT RESOLUTION PROGRAMS

There are at least three ways to describe conflict resolution and peer mediation programs in schools. First, the programs can be described as either cadre or total student body programs. The cadre approach emphasizes training a small number of students to serve as peer mediators. The total student body approach emphasizes training every student in the school to manage conflicts constructively. Second, conflict resolution programs may be divided into pre-planned lessons that teachers take and teach or a conceptual framework that teachers use to plan lessons specially adapted for their students. Third, conflict resolution programs may be divided into skills-oriented approaches in which students are taught the interpersonal and small group skills needed to resolve conflicts constructively; academically oriented approaches in which students can be taught the intellectual procedures and cognitive skills for managing conflicts; and structural change approaches which emphasize changing the school structure to provide a cooperative context for the management of conflict.

While these and many other programs are being implemented, there may be only two conflict programs that are (a) based on principles formulated from theory, (b) extensively and systematically validated by research, and (b) integrated into academic lessons to enhance achievement. These programs are the Teaching Students to Be Peacemakers Program and the Constructive Controversy Program.

Teaching Students To Be Peacemakers. The Peacemaker Program begins with twenty lessons of thirty minutes each. These lessons may be divided into six parts (Johnson & Johnson, 2005). First, students learn the nature of conflict and the potential constructive consequences of conflict. Second, students learn that in conflict they should focus on two concerns: achieving their goals and maintaining a good relationship with the other person. The importance of the goals and relationship determine whether a person should withdraw (giving up one's goal and relationship), force (achieving one's goal while giving up relationship), smooth (giving up one's goal to enhance relationship), compromise (giving up part of one's goal and relationship), or negotiate to solve the problem (achieve one's goal while maintaining relationship). All five strategies have their place, but the most important is problem-solving negotiations, which form part three of the program. The procedure consists of (a) describing what one wants, (b) describing how one feels, (c) describing the reasons for one's wants and feelings, (d) taking the other's perspective, (e) inventing three optional plans to maximize joint benefits, and (f) choosing one option and formalizing the agreement.

Fourth, students learn how to mediate schoolmates' conflicts by (a) ending hostilities and cooling off disputants, (b) ensuring disputants are committed to the mediation process (introducing mediation and setting the ground rules of agreeing to solve the problem: no name calling, no interrupting, be as honest as possible, abide by the agreement made, keep anything said in mediation confidential); (c) helping disputants successfully use the problem-solving negotiation procedure, and (d) formalizing the agreement (disputants sign a Mediation Report Form and shake hands as a commitment to implement the agreement and abide by its conditions).

Fifth, the peacemaker program is implemented. Once these initial lessons are completed, the peer mediation program is implemented. Each day two class members serve as mediators. The role of mediator is rotated so that all students have the opportunity to mediate. If peer mediation fails, the teacher mediates the conflict. If teacher mediation fails, the teacher arbitrates by deciding who is right and who is wrong. If that fails, the principal mediates the conflict. If that fails, the principal arbitrates.

Finally, teachers continue to teach the problem-solving negotiation and peer mediation procedures to refine and upgrade students' skills, integrating them into academic lessons. Each year, the program is retaught in an increasingly sophisticated and complex way.

Benefits of the Peacemaker Program. Eighteen studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the Peacemaker Program in eight different schools in two countries (Johnson & Johnson, 2005). The studies included students from kindergarten through ninth grades and were conducted in rural, suburban, and urban settings in the United States and Canada involving both majority and minority students. In most of the studies, students were randomly assigned to conditions and teachers were rotated across conditions. Sixteen of the studies were included in a meta-analysis.

Before training, students tended either to force the other to concede or withdraw. The training resulted in the students learning the negotiation and the mediation procedures and retaining their knowledge up to a year after the training had ended (see Table 1). After training, students applied the procedures almost perfectly and were still quite good at them months later. As a result, the number of discipline problems teachers had to deal with decreased by about 60% and referrals to administrators dropped about 90%. The attitudes of trained students toward conflict became more positive. Students used the negotiation and mediation procedures in classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds, and family settings. Teachers, administrators, and parents tended to perceive the peacemaker program as constructive and helpful.

The Peacemaker training was integrated into both English literature and history academic units to determine its impact on academic achievement. Students who received the Peacemaker training as part of an academic unit tended to score significantly higher on achievement and retention tests than did students who studied the academic unit only. Students not only learned the factual information contained in the academic unit better, they were better able to interpret the information in more insightful ways.

Constructive Controversy Program. Teaching students how to engage in constructive controversy begins with randomly assigning students to cooperative learning groups of four members (Johnson & Johnson, 1979, 2007). The groups are given an issue on which to write a report and pass a test. Each cooperative group is divided into two pairs. One pair is given the con-position on the issue and the other pair is given the pro-position. Each pair is given the instructional materials needed to define their position and point them towards further information. The cooperative goals of reaching a consensus on the issue and writing a quality group report are highlighted. Students then (a) prepare the best case possible for their assigned position, (b) present and advocate their position to the opposing pair, (c) participate in an open discussion in which they attempt to refute the opposing position while defending their own, (d) reverse perspectives and present each other's positions, and (e) synthesize and integrate the best evidence and reasoning from both sides into a joint position. They finalize the report (the teacher evaluates reports on the quality of the writing, the logical presentation of evidence, and the oral presentation of the report to the class), present their conclusions to the class (all four members of the group are required to participate orally in the presentation), individually take the test covering both sides of the issue (if every member of the group achieves up to criterion, they all receive bonus points), and process how well they worked together and how they could be even more effective next time.

The process of constructive controversy is most effective within a certain set of conditions. The more cooperative the context, the more skilled the students are in engaging in the constructive controversy procedure, and the more able students are in engaging in rational argument, the more constructively the controversy will be resolved.

Research Results. A meta-analysis was conducted on the 28 studies involving elementary, intermediate, and college students that were conducted to assess the effectiveness of constructive controversy programs (Johnson and Johnson, 2007) (see Table 2). The results of the research indicate that compared with concurrence-seeking, debate, and individualistic efforts, constructive controversy tends to result in higher-quality decisions (including decisions that involve ethical dilemmas) and higher-quality solutions to complex problems for which different viewpoints can plausibly be developed. Controversy programs tend to promote more frequent use of higher-level reasoning strategies, more accurate and complete understanding of opposing perspectives, more continuing motivation to learn about the issue, and more liking for the task. In addition, constructive controversy has been found to promote greater liking, greater social support, and higher self-esteem than debate, concurrence-seeking, or individualistic efforts.

Conflicts may be resolved so that an agreement is reached that solves the problem or manages it so that the conflict is controlled. Whether constructive or destructive outcomes result from conflict depends largely on the context in which the conflict occurs and the competencies of disputants. Conflict resolution and peer mediation programs have their roots in research in the field of conflict resolution, advocates of nonviolence, antinuclear war activists, and lawyers. While numerous conflict resolution programs are being implemented, the two that have been most thoroughly researched and validated (as well as implemented most widely) are the Teaching Students to Be Peacemakers and Constructive Controversy Programs.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Batton, J. (2002). Institutionalizing conflict resolution education: The Ohio model. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 19(4), 479–494.

Coleman, P., & Fisher-Yoshida, B. (2004). Conflict resolution at multiple levels across the lifespan: The work of the ICCCR. Theory Into Practice, 43(1), 31–38.

Davidson, J., & Wood, C. (2004). A conflict resolution model. Theory Into Practice 43(1), 6–13.

Deutsch, M. (1973). The resolution of conflict. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Johnson, D. W. (1970). Social psychology of education. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. (2006). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (1979). Conflict in the classroom: Controversy and learning. Review of Educational Research, 49, 51–61.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2005). Teaching students to be peacemakers. Edina, MN: Interaction Book.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2007). Creative controversy: Intellectual challenge in the classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book.

Prutzman, P., Stern, L., Burger, M. L., & Bodenhamer, G. (1988). The friendly classroom for a small planet. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Sadalla, G., Holmberg, M., & Halligan, J. (1990). Conflict resolution: An elementary school curriculum. San Francisco: Community Boards.

Selfridge, J. (2004). The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program: How we know it works. Theory into Practice, 43(1), 59–67.

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