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Home > 2021 > Conflicts in a classroom: Forbidding or Empowering | Nupur Rastogi

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 50, New Delhi, November 27, 2021

Conflicts in a classroom: Forbidding or Empowering | Nupur Rastogi

Saturday 27 November 2021


by Nupur Rastogi*

"Hey, you back seats, don’t fight."

"Are you fighting? Do you want punishment? No, right? Then sit silently."

"Whosoever won’t fight all this week would be the star student of this week."

Have you heard such phrases (ultimatums) in classrooms when you were a child? Were you one of those students whom the teacher would call and threaten not to fight again? Or were you were beaten unnecessarily by a teacher over a fight that you did not even start?

I was a teacher of forty students for about two years, and I have experienced such instances in my class. My students would fight with each other on petty (big for them) issues like sharing a notebook, stationery, someone drinking water from someone else’s bottle, one sitting on another’s seat, one saying something about the second person to the third person, and so on. Honestly, I was not interested in these fights because my training involved using behavior management strategies to lead to a behavior-controlled class. It was to ensure that Chaos does not happen in the classroom so that a smooth flow of ’learning’ could occur. Most of the time, the solution was to present incentives for the affirmations of sincere behaviors. As a student, I always saw teachers neglecting our conflicts and dealing with them through threats, shrieks, and corporal punishments. The ’sincere" students meant those who did not fight and received recognition and incentives. The students who were "problematic" were treated with shame, guilt, and humiliation.

Asking students not to create unrest in classrooms is so familiar that we usually forget that students must be dealing with their kinds of conflicts like adults do. In Schools, power structures among administration, teachers, and students put the latter under surveillance, expecting a specific behavior to be demonstrated later in the larger society and work arenas. These power structures overlook the humane aspect of students’ life which have all sorts of emotions and experiences, and narrow it to some mechanized and robotic version of life which is supposed to be "silent, "calm," and "disciplined." The repeated conviction that ’good students do not fight’ alienates the students from a real world that exists beyond the extremes of good and evil. This non-recognition of significant experiences of students’ lives informs them that their experiences hold no value and that they are better to be hidden or avoided than to be learned from.

Does it mean that we want to thrust upon students that Conflicts are forbidden? Do we want to convey that only bad people engage in Conflicts or that Conflicts should not happen at all? Do we only validate Conflicts that are related to adults and not children? As teachers and educators, our roles are to empower students to develop into human beings who might later contribute to changing this world into a better one. Such growth needs a lot of space, freedom, and a sense of safety so that our children feel free to convey their conflicts like they convey their joys. Acknowledging and accepting the conflicts in the lives of students is the essential step towards this empowerment.

Need of Alternatives to settle disputes

As educators, we need to understand that Peace is not the absence of Conflict, that "sincerity" does not reflect Peace of mind and Peace in life. Asking students not to fight without giving them an alternative to settle their disputes overlooks the long-run transformative opportunity that each Conflict brings along. Educators can use these classroom opportunities to talk about the difference between destructive and constructive ways of dealing with Conflicts. It is the space to teach students to disagree with each other’s ideas while confirming one another’s competence, which Aristotle calls ’deliberate discourse,’ It is to acknowledge that each of us can have different opinions, perspectives, and ways of thinking. One need not be absolute about which one is right and wrong. The children must learn to co-exist with different opinions while also expressing their perspectives on any issue.

The tendency of adults to make a conflicting personal rather than keeping it to issue is another crucial issue that teachers can address in classrooms. In his book’ Ich und Du,’ Martin Buber, a German theologian, introduces the concept of I and Thou. Buber roots his idea not on the individual or others but rather on the relationships and the relational attitudes between two beings. He says that humans look at the world with an ’either or’ perspective, and so his concept deals specifically with the two types of speaking and interacting, described as using two-word pairs: I –Thou and I –It. He suggests being aware of transitions in Conflict from Issue to People/relationships. Any conflict should address the issue of why it happened (I-It), rather than turning it to between people, i.e., who did it (I-Thou). We, as educators, need to walk with the ideas of Buber and be aware of such transitions in classrooms.

Teaching Conflict Resolution Techniques in classrooms

Several academicians and scholars have suggested the effectiveness of educating students about Conflict Resolution Techniques and how it has transformed how they respond to conflicts. For example, a group conducted a study by implementing a peer mediation training program in three midwestern, suburban, middle-class elementary school classrooms of Minnesota. There were several disputes involving teasing, playground activities, academic work before the program. Students would reach out to teachers frequently for solutions to their conflicts because they did not have the procedures and interpersonal skills to manage conflicts constructively. The training program brought out effective results. The study reported that the frequency of student-student conflicts that teachers had to manage dropped by 80 percent. In addition, the training reduced the number of disputes referred to by the principal to zero. The students generalized their conflict training by spontaneously applying the negotiation and mediation procedures and skills to situations outside of the classroom. There were instances when students managed disputes by themselves without the involvement of adults (Johnson, Johnson, and Dudley, 1992).

Students’ ideas of managing conflicts primarily come from pop culture, television shows and movies, media, or peers and family. So it varies on an individual basis in a classroom. The role of an educator here is to teach students some basic negotiation procedures and mediation techniques that would help create a sense of community in the school that believes in problem-solving and peacemaking. By working for Education for Peace, which means acknowledging conflicts and educating to manage these conflicts, each educator in each classroom can contribute towards a transformed global social order.

Suggesting Alternative Ways

It is crucial to present alternative ways of dealing with conflicts in front of students. Few potential skills include teaching students to value listening actively. It is to remember not to address and teach these skills at the high time of any conflict. Instead, these are supposed to become a part of classroom processes and academic teaching. Teach students how students feel when they are listened to attentively. Teach students to negotiate when in a dilemma about any resource or values. Teach students to keep the Conflict limited to the ’issue,’ let them know that disputes have to be managed and resolved, not ’won.’ They can learn the ways like neutral talking and asking exploring questions. For example, a fight over pen may lead to the formation of two groups in the classroom who do not talk to each other. Can we discuss why this fight is essential? What are these groups trying to achieve from this fight? Can we explore the reason, intention, and objective of these conflicts in the classroom and create some contextual alternatives of dealing with those conflicts, a d teach those during classroom processes? Another example of a student who is dealing with some intrapersonal conflict. She/he/they may not have ways of dealing with the Conflict or expressing it? Can we use classroom processes and pedagogy to empower students to deal with such disputes, share, talk and tell while also creating attentive and empathetic listeners in a classroom?

Conflicts in classrooms present a golden opportunity for educators to teach skills and values to help these ’soon-to-be adults negotiate with the world. However, it is not to deny that educators have many responsibilities and duties that force them to overlook these possibilities. Here, the educational structures need to understand the dangers of overlooking classroom conflicts and their impact on the larger communities. Betty A. Reardon, a widely published feminist peace educator and activist, says that peace education can transform the global social order. Here the question is, how efficiently is our educational system trying to transform this social order, IN PRACTICE?

* (Author: Nupur Rastogi is a Research Associate, Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

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