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September 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 1

Turning Conflicts into Learning Experiences

When classroom disputes occur, one popular trend is for students to mediate the incidents. Another possibility, with wider implications, is to view conflict as a teachable moment for social learning.

Social-emotional learning
A few years ago, I had an experience that illustrates some of the complexities of conflict among children, the wider implications, and its use in social learning. In this particular situation, my class approached a dispute as a challenge to be solved.
The setting is a primary school of approximately 700 middle-class children, mainly Caucasian, from reasonably affluent suburban homes. I had been visiting the class regularly throughout the year to observe the efforts of the teacher, one of my students in a University of California Extension course. When the teacher was promoted to principal of a nearby school, he asked me if I would teach his class for the remainder of the year. The children were acquainted with me, and I saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate some of the things I had been teaching and writing about.
That's how I became a substitute teacher for a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom with 32 children.

Something in the Air

It was a practice at the school for the children to line up outside their classroom doors before school opened and following recess and lunch breaks—boys on one side, girls on the other. The teachers appointed line leaders, who were responsible for calming the children before they could enter the classroom.
I believed that the children should be able to control themselves without being brought in line by a peer. I brought up my concern with the children. They suggested that the class elect the two line leaders rather than my appointing them. Further, because student leaders are under stress, the children wanted each one to have an assistant. The backup position, they added, would provide training for future line leaders.
Then a situation occurred that allowed us to open discussion of the practice from a much wider viewpoint and, along with it, examine individual behavior and its effect on others.
The day had been quiet but not peaceful. The group meeting we'd held that morning to plan the day had gone off fairly well, but several of the older boys seemed to be preoccupied by something else.
"Would you like to work on something different today?"
"No," they answered in unison.
At the end of the day, when we held our regular meeting to discuss how the day had gone, the boys remained silent. Instead of being scattered around the room as they usually were, they were gathered around John. Handsome face, black hair, bright brown eyes, John had shown leadership qualities from the first day. Like a queen bee, he carried their silent secret with labored dignity.
Under the dark fringe of hair that stuck out like a peak, John's forehead tightened into wrinkles.
All during the discussion, Peter, his henchman, kept whispering into John's ear. And once I thought I caught the words, "Go on, tell him." Then John twisted his mouth to one side, uttered a single syllable, and Peter was quiet again.
I couldn't help but be curious and to some extent worried. "John," I said, "is there something you want to bring up? Something ..."
"No," Peter cut in.
I decided not to press the matter.
When the meeting broke up, there was a feeling of something left unsaid.
I had hoped our daily meetings could be times when we could seek to understand differences, to work out the problems that absorbed the children at that moment. It was our practice, even in a crisis, to be able to talk about these things and turn destructive situations into positive ones without fear of punishment. We made decisions by consensus. Everyone had a veto. I tape-recorded our meetings so that the children could listen to the discussions and I could review what had transpired.
The silence that had invaded our meeting was disturbing to me. The bright sun and the scent of the southern California vegetation hung in the corners of our pre-fab classroom, but no one acknowledged the third presence.
But soon the day was over. The pages of books fluttered as the children pushed them into their backpacks and desks. Most of the children were gone in less than a minute.

A Strange Turn of Events

A silent group of boys still gathered inside near the door. Most unusual for the boys to be hanging around after class—ordinarily they were the first to leave. The lure of the sunshine in May for these active youngsters was the proverbial pot of gold.
"Oh, Mr. B.," said John with calculated casualness, "Could you use some help cleaning up?"
"I'll get the broom," he said without waiting for my reply.
"You want me to give the room a scrub?" Peter, tall and blond, contended for John's leadership position. But he used his persuasive powers with intelligence instead of force.
Peter and another boy appeared with buckets and began to swab the water across the floor before John had even finished sweeping. Two other boys were washing down the chalkboards while another child took out the trash.
In short, the room had been transformed from one kind of chaos to another.
I thanked them, still bewildered by this strange turn of events. It was reminiscent, curiously, of the way I had, in a former career, seen inmates in prison act just before trouble broke out.
I gathered up my things and walked cautiously to the door. The boys hesitated, but didn't go out.
Finally John said: "Mr B., do you suppose we could have a group?"
"Without the girls. Just us," said Peter.
"Right now?" I looked at the small, tight circle of serious faces gathered about me.
Seven voices and nods affirmed the seriousness of their request.
"Okay," I said, taking off my jacket. We made our way to the front of the room, where we held our meetings, and sat cross-legged on a large rug.

The Showdown

"You see," John began, looking nervously about and clearing his throat,
"There are these two guys in another class who...."
"Tell him who they are," interrupted Peter. "Let me. Mr. B., it's Robert and Chris. You know them. They want a fight and think we won't fight them."
"And we've got to do something about it. Things are getting kind of out of hand," concluded John.
"What do you mean 'out of hand?' " I asked.
"Well, they got some of their gang waiting for us behind their prefab."
John edged closer to me.
"Yeah, and they got a lot of stones and some boards, too," one of the boys blurted out. "Those guys aren't fooling around." He eyed a bat that was standing in the corner, and I could imagine him swinging it.
The gist of the meeting was that two boys from the other class, who were known to tyrannize younger children, had been challenging the boys to a fight. When the boys had tried to reason with them, the two had called them sissies.
Peter said: "And that's not all, Mr. B. They're saying bad things about you, too!"
The boys revealed that the two older kids had said that I was brainwashing them by trying to talk things out. I had left them powerless.
John, a transfer student, was an aggressive youngster who had been raised in a tough neighborhood in Chicago. I believed the task was to recognize his leadership abilities and legitimize them—to normalize his power. The conflict with the older boys, who also dominated their room and the playground, was a splendid opportunity (a teachable moment) to allow John to examine his own controlling behavior and for the class as a whole (Jones 1968, Jones and Stanford 1973, Briggs 1988, Briggs 1991).
When I asked what they planned to do, the boys appealed to me to intervene as an adult to stop the crisis. I pointed out that the consequences of this solution could make matters even worse.
"Ah, they're not all that tough—without their gang," said John. The boys reiterated their frustrations that Robert and his gang didn't know how to discuss problems and try to solve them by peaceful means. They didn't have group meetings in their class.
Little did I know that the boys, as a precaution, had also gathered weapons—stones and boards—and hidden them in the open spaces between the foundations of our building.
Convinced that they had run out of resources, I agreed to accompany them to where the battle was to take place. Robert and his mercenaries were waiting, displaying a calculated casualness.
But not for long. Amid all the catcalls, we advanced to the battle line, sat down, and invited them to join us. Robert and his group retreated a safe distance to continue their gibes. Such sudden disarmament left them bewildered and a bit frightened. And then all but Robert and Chris ran away.
The situation had been defused. They were outnumbered, yet curiosity brought them closer. Robert looked taller and thinner than I'd remembered, with a mop of hair nearly down to his eyes. His deputy, Chris, was shorter and stocky. The four boys took over, and I became the observable, yet dormant, male authority, hoping to sanction the use of peaceful tactics.

A Novel Solution

The outcome of our gathering was certainly not one I would have imagined: after accusations and counter-accusations, the boys invited Robert and Chris to visit our room and see for themselves how we did things.
To our surprise, they seemed interested. But first, John and Peter had to take the plan to the whole class. They did so and won guarded approval.
Next we met with the principal and Robert and Chris's teacher (who seemed relieved) and arranged to have them spend a week with us.
The two boys were swiftly absorbed into our class and its routines. They picked up the idea of the group meetings quickly enough—faster and with more directness than some of the others would have liked. Their presence opened up new areas for discussion.
On their second day, for example, John opened the meeting, "Quiet everyone! Robert has a problem."
"What's your problem, Robert?" Peter asked.
"It's John. I think he shouldn't be line leader of the older boys anymore because he shoves you when he wants the line straight and then he smacks you. And that's not polite!"
Amid utterances of agreement from some of the girls, John at first denied the accusation—then added hastily, "I only do that when it's needed, Robert."
To my surprise, Robert suggested: "If it's something that really deserves a smack, then their mouth should be smacked or on the face. But only when it's needed."
Then someone added, "But John also kicks people."
"Only when it's needed," he admitted.
The class echoed loud murmurs of disagreement. One student added, "You slapped me two times." Another said, "You walked up to me and slapped me for no reason at all!" And still another, "You kicked me."
Then Robert said: "When we were lining up yesterday, you pushed me so hard I fell ..."
"Fell! Ha! That was because you pushed me!" said John.
"Don't lie, John. I saw you," said a girl.
The discussion became heated with denials and counter-denials. Then a small boy spoke up: "Why don't we vote on it?"
"What is it you want to vote on?" I asked, thinking that this was an attempt at a quick solution.
"On John being line leader, or should we have someone else?" the boy replied.
"That's possible," I said, thinking about the effects of John's encroaching impeachment. "But what other tactics could he use that would be better in his job?"
"It can hurt somebody's eardrums real bad when John yells at them. He could just ask them nice like he does—once in a while," said Robert. "I'd like that a lot better if you'd do just that."
"Okay, I will!" said John, fidgeting and looking uneasy.
A boy who seldom spoke in the meetings said, "You know why John doesn't get much respect and Mr. B. does? It's because John slaps, and he can't help it. He needs to stop. Mr. B doesn't slap anyone."
"If he was line leader, he might!" said John, defending himself as the group laughed. He now jumped to his feet, and I motioned for him to take a seat—next to me.
Someone suggested that John needed some helpers, but another child said they all should help him.
Now Robert addressed me: "I think we should give John another chance, but that's all. If he ruins it by yelling, then we elect someone else."
Robert and Chris remained with us for the week, as agreed. They had found a place for themselves, and their bullying stopped not only in our room, but on the playground and outside school. I knew they must have taken a good deal of teasing from their own classmates, where their reputations were in jeopardy. I heard they were taunted as being in class with babies.
Even though they were a few years older than the boys in our room, the age difference didn't seem to matter. In fact, in a short time, they became good models for constructive leadership.
Despite the age differences, despite the rebuffs from their friends, and despite the interruption from their own routines, Robert and Chris had found a place where they could both learn and contribute. At the end of the week, they approached the group cautiously, "Can we stay?" Only a few weeks of school remained, so I made the arrangements.

A Win-Win Situation

This incident indicates to me the importance of creating classrooms that encourage social learning as part of the total learning experience. The situation became one in which the students acknowledged aggressive behavior, allowed it to emerge, and then through the group's efforts, modified what was potentially destructive into socially productive endeavors.
Although much has been said about the use of simulation exercises in the classroom, there are more than enough real-life experiences to use for learning. A form of conflict resolution training (where conflict came to be seen as a mutual problem to be solved, in Morton Deutsch's formulation) enabled this class to take on the strife between the boys as a challenge (Deutsch 1993, Rubin 1980).
Beginning with face-to-face interaction and then by acquiring interpersonal skills, the children were able to work out an alternative to violence. They had turned the conflict into a win-win situation and hence an opportunity for learning. One of the primary differences between solution of a dispute by arbitration—for example, where one or both parties must give in—and social learning is that both parties benefit from the solution.

Briggs, D. (1988). "Social Learning—A Holistic Approach: A Conversation With Maxwell Jones." Journal of Holistic Nursing 6: 31-36.

Briggs, D. (1991). "Reflections on an Incident at Dingleton: A Dialogue with Maxwell Jones." International Journal of Therapeutic Communities 12: 145-154.

Deutsch, M. (1993). "Education for a Peaceful World." American Psychologist 48: 510-517.

Jones, M. (1968). Beyond the Therapeutic Community: Social Learning and Social Psychiatry. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jones, M., and G. Stanford. (November 1973). "Transforming Schools into Learning Communities." Phi Delta Kappan: 291-203.

Rubin, J. Z. (1980). "Experimental Research on Third-Party Interaction in Conflict." Psychological Bulletin 87: 379-391.

End Notes

1 Students' names are pseudonyms.

2 When John's term as line leader expired, rather than elect a successor, we decided that we would try having each person act as his or her own leader. Any disputes would be brought up in the daily group meetings.

Dennie Briggs has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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