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Conflict as a Constructive Curricular Strategy

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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If faculty think of classrooms as places where students are prepared for engaging in the inherent conflict and messiness of political life, they need to frame disagreement as opportunities to learn, not opportunities to win over others. They need to prepare students for value-laden, conflict-ridden situations with tools that allow them to engage, learn, and take action. The rest of this chapter outlines some of the ways to accomplish this and introduces teaching cases by Kathleen Yep, Becky Boesch, and Thomas Van Cleave showing what this looks like in diverse college and university settings.



The posting below, a bit longer than most, good advice on how to introduce and deal with topics that lead to conflict and disagreement in courses.  It is from Chapter 12, Conflict as a Constructive Curricular Strategy, by David M. Donahue in the book, Democratic Dilemmas of Teaching Service-Learning: Curricular Strategies for Success, by Christine M. Cress, David M. Donahue, and Associates. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright© 2011 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. [] All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Turning up the Learning Thermostat



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Conflict as a Constructive Curricular Strategy


In the film A Single Man (Ford, 2009), the main character, a professor of English during the early 1960s, delivers an impromptu lecture about fear of difference and the way politicians, corporations, and others in power take advantage of such fear for their own ends. In the lecture scene not one student discusses these ideas with others in class and not one disagrees with or raises a question about these provocative remarks. For faculty teaching in college and university classrooms today, particularly those committed to service-learning and democratic education, such sense seems foreign to thinking about classrooms as places where understanding is not silently received and where talk and disagreement, even uncomfortably contentious talk and disagreement, are considered tools for learning.

Disagreement and disequilibrium and contention and conflict in the classroom are valuable because they are inherent elements in democratic life. Democracy, like the classroom where students are actively engaged in examining ideas about real issues and building their own understanding, can be acrimonious. While some commentators and many citizens bemoan partisanship and the sharp elbows of politics, political conflict is as old as the nation itself. Politics and conflict can also be framed as an opportunity to engage with others, examine new ideas and perspectives, and challenge one's own assumptions, even if that is not always the approach taken by politicians, organizers, bloggers, and opinion writers where winning and shouting louder than others can take precedence over consideration and open-mindedness.

If faculty think of classrooms as places where students are prepared for engaging in the inherent conflict and messiness of political life, they need to frame disagreement as opportunities to learn, not opportunities to win over others. They need to prepare students for value-laden, conflict-ridden situations with tools that allow them to engage, learn, and take action. The rest of this chapter outlines some of the ways to accomplish this and introduces teaching cases by Kathleen Yep, Becky Boesch, and Thomas Van Cleave showing what this looks like in diverse college and university settings.

This chapter beings with a description of Dewey's (1938) notions of continuity and interaction as criteria for thinking about the difference between negative, or miseducative, and positive aspects of conflict, or conflict as a source of learning and motivation to continue engaging with others. It also describes strategies that allow conflict to be productive rather than destructive in learning and democratic engagement and addresses ways to diminish the negative aspects of conflict, particularly where differences of opinion coincide with stereotyped ideas about identity like race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. In considering strategies to address conflict, this chapter highlights the importance and difficulty of modeling for our students how to engage in conflict ourselves, even when-and perhaps especially when-contentious issues are difficult for us to manage.

Continuity, Interaction, and Learning from Conflict

John Dewey (1938) describes two conditions for learning-continuity and interaction-that are useful for thinking about whether and how conflict in a classroom can serve learning. Continuity refers to whether an experience leads to more experiences that promote growth or learning. Of course all experiences can lead to some kind of growth or learning, but some kinds of learning are more worthwhile than others. Dewey notes that one may grow as a burglar, gangster, or corrupt politician. He continues,

\"From the standpoint of growth as education and education as growth, the question is whether growth in this direction promotes or retards growth in general. Does this form of growth create conditions for further growth or does it set up conditions that shut off the person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions, stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?\" (p.36)

Because growth is not only intellectual but also moral, growing as a corrupt politician does not exemplify continuity. Such growth represents shutting off oneself from opportunities for growth in new and individually and particularly socially productive directions. By contrast, an experience can be considered productive or contributing to growth if it \"arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future\" (p. 38).

Interaction is the second criterion contributing to growth or learning. Dewey (1938) wrote, \"An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment\" (p. 43). For those of us teaching in colleges and universities, that environment is our classroom, and the important interactions are the ones our students have with each other and with us. As faculty consider whether their classrooms are places for growth and learning, they should consider whether they are promoting interaction as a key constitutive component of learning, or whether, like the professor in A Single Man, their classroom is a place operating on a different conception of learning, one that Paulo Freire (1970) labeled the banking model, where knowledge is deposited by faculty for future use by students as opposed to a place where, through social interaction, students construct knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978).

Conflict in the Classroom: When It is Productive

Conflict in the classroom is inevitable. In fact, given the rich, relevant, and provocative content of many college courses, it is noteworthy that classrooms are most often devoid of conflict. This lack of conflict might reflect a lack of continuity or a lack of interaction, conditions that ultimately mean a lack of learning. The job of instructors then is to think about how conflict-intentional or not-can serve continuity and interaction and, ultimately, growth or learning. Especially in service-learning courses where multiple points of view are valued and the teacher does not have total control but shares it with community partners and students, diversity of ideas and conflicting opinions should be expected. As students engage in reflection on service, particularly as they examine issues related to causes of inequity and injustice or political solutions to social problems, conflict is not only inevitable, it can be a prime opportunity for learning.

For example, students reflecting on their service of tutoring young people in an after-school program may disagree on the causes of the achievement gap and the mix of personal and social responsibility in addressing that gap. They may disagree also on whether legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is part of the solution or part of the problem. These kinds of classroom disagreements can be productive. They reflect the disagreements that exist in the larger society and represent different philosophical and political worldviews with which students must contend. Managing such differences in opinion with an appreciation for inquiry and respect for others is the work of preparing for democracy where conflict is also inevitable. While many classrooms have rules or norms for talking, learning norms for listening to those one disagrees with fosters a democratic disposition serving a lifetime of openness and dialogue across differences. When students learn to listen to others, consider multiple viewpoints, and inquire into the basis for thinking that differs from their own, they are benefiting from interaction with others. They are also benefiting from situations that contribute to continuity, to a desire to learn more, and to understanding why others think differently. When students are generous to others' ideas, they set up conditions for further interactions with others and continuity in their own and others' learning.


For faculty leading service-learning classrooms, promoting continuity and interaction for learning from conflict means, first, understanding and managing one's self and, second, understanding and managing classroom dynamics. In regard to one's self, while instructors personally hold deeply to their own views, they also want students to develop their own well-articulated and well-defended points of view. Faculty recognize that such points of view may well vary from their own. That said, hearing opinions different from one's own, particularly when they are not well thought out or are insensitive or lacking in generosity to the experiences of others can be difficult, as Yep describes in Chapter 13. Faculty need to recognize these situations and remember to model thoughtful dialogue and also model how to examine controversial issues in ways leading to growth through continuity and interaction. They can ask students to say more. They can ask them to draw on the subject matter of the course to deepen understanding. They can ask questions that help students revisit their thinking or strengthen their arguments. They can say, \"I hadn't considered that perspective,\" and demonstrate flexibility and open-mindedness in their own thinking, They can also work with colleagues who represent different opinions, experiences, and identities to share the responsibility of facilitating classroom dialogue and how they communicate across differences.

Managing one's self has its own set of challenges. Managing a seminar of 12, a classroom of 30, or a lecture hall of 150 has different sets. In some cases, especially in larger classes, not only is conflict absent but so is any student-to-student interaction. In such cases, the instructor may need to foster interaction and even instigate conflict or disequilibrium. While lecture halls present obstacles to interaction, students can talk with someone next to them for one or two minutes at key points during a lecture to connect information from the class to political thought and action. Such conversations allow students to interact with course content and can potentially shake their assumptions about self and others.

Faculty, as Boesch describes in Chapter 14, may also find unexamined uniformity of opinion in their classrooms. In such cases, conflict and its beneficial potential to promote further reflection leading to continuity of learning happens only when faculty instigate it. This faculty responsibility is important not only in classrooms where homogeneity exists but in diverse classrooms where only those holding one point of view or representing one set of experiences dominate classroom discussions.

 In smaller classes, faculty may instigate useful conflict through dialogue and interaction by asking students to reflect first on their experiences before sharing them with others. For example, faculty may ask students to develop cases based on their service-learning experiences. Framing and writing a case requires a level of reflection and forethought that might not be present in a free-flowing class discussion without such preparation. Cases allow students to examine their own experience as a text, to step back from experience, and to hear how others read such texts. Faculty can also suggest protocols for reading cases. One protocol requires students to present their case, answer clarifying questions from others, and then listen without comment as others discuss the values and alternative framings they see in the case. The presenting student then has the final word about what he or she learned by listening to a variety of opinions and readings. As the example of cases illustrates, asking students to think ahead of time and listen to others with an open mind makes conflict or disequilibrium that grows out of differences in discussing value-laden situations generative and productive of further growth and continuity of learning.

Conflict in the Classroom: When It Is Unproductive

Even with the best of instructor scaffolding, conflict in the classroom can sometimes be personal, uninformed, and counterproductive. Less useful conflict results, as Yep points out in Chapter 13, when students share unexamined opinions, seek to blame, or make broad generalizations based on stereotypes and limited information. These kinds of conflict are miseducative, leading to student learning that is counter to faculty goals. In miseducative scenarios, students shut down rather than participate. They become defensive rather than open. They see conflict and difference as something to be avoided rather than as something of potential benefit. In other words, unproductive conflict leads to discontinuity of learning and no interaction-two unproductive yet related outcomes.

When miseducative conflict occurs, the faculty member's responsibility is to ameliorate it. First, instructors should name and identify the tension rather than ignore it and hope it goes away. It will not! Not only does ignoring the negative conflict promote more classroom negativity such as physically and cognitively withdrawing, it sets a bad model of interaction, of how to respond to uninformed thinking and thoughtless comments. In such situations, faculty should challenge students' assumptions. Two good questions are: \"What do you mean?\" and \"How do you know that?\" When faculty respond this way, they take the burden away from students who may have felt attacked or compelled to defend themselves or a community with which they identify. Faculty also need to provide factual information when students trade in stereotypes or misinformation.

Responding with questions also turns difference and conflict into an opportunity for further inquiry or continued positive growth, a stance represented by the following chapters in this section. Inquiry means asking good questions about phenomena, not rushing to generalizations. It means moving from only a personal stance on a situation to a stance that also includes analysis. Asking students to respond to further questions for reflection also slows down the conversation, allowing for more thoughtfulness and open-mindedness. This is especially true for written reflection. Yep demonstrates in Chapter 13 how this strategy moves a classroom from offensive talk and unformed thinking to nonviolent communication across differences and to a deeper analysis of controversial issues.

Strategies to Promote Productive Reflection, Dialogue, and Conflict

Dewey (1938) wrote that instructors \"should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile\" (p. 40). The following strategies are designed to make conflict productive and therefore worthwhile. Service-learning instructors are at an advantage in creating environments for worthwhile learning because the pedagogy demands reflection from students. Reflection, especially reflection on carefully framed controversial issues before engaging in dialogue, makes discussion amid differing worldviews and political philosophies productive. Consider trying these strategies.

Move away from reliance on whole-group discussions. Whole-group discussions can provide students with opportunities to hear a variety of points of view. They also provide limited space for all to articulate their ideas and engage in discussion with others. As an alternative, consider trying one-one-one pairs or small-group discussions. From those discussions, students can share interesting contrasts and similarities as well as questions on which they seek wider input from others.

Consider affinity-group discussions. Affinity groups allow students to share ideas with others who have similar backgrounds and experiences. Affinity groups might include students who identify as conservative or liberal, White or students of color, economically privileged or economically poor. One benefit of affinity groups is that students who often feel that others marginalize their experiences find an audience that understands their point of reference. They may also feel more comfortable sharing ideas without fear of being misunderstood. When ideas from affinity-group discussions are shared with the whole class, everyone benefits from hearing points of view that might not have been expressed in the larger group. These points of view can then become text for further reflection, again in affinity groups or in the whole class.

Set out the terrain for conflict. Often faculty understand the larger terrain (e.g. the social or political context) shaping any discussion before they ask students to talk. Students may not see that terrain. And not knowing that terrain may diminish the depth of their reflection or their sensitivity to others when talking. When faculty name and identify larger tensions and multiple framings of an issue before students engage in discussion, they prepare students to be more thoughtful and open-minded. In Chapter 14 Boesch's commitment to helping students see more than one way of understanding their service-learning experience is a concrete example of providing theoretical frameworks to understand experience.

Mentor and advise students. Not all education takes place in the classroom. Much learning also takes place in the context of mentoring and informal learning situations that are set apart from rules about required attendance and unconstrained by students' desire to get a good grade or fear of a bad one. In such situations, faculty and students can talk more freely with each other and be more open to challenge and change. While sheer limits on time prevent faculty from turning every potential difference or possible conflict into an opportunity for individual mentoring or independent and informal small-group learning, more faculty do routinely engage with students in this kind of context. In Chapter 15 Van Cleave describes an especially powerful example of this strategy to help a student examine beliefs about religion and sexual orientation and to shape this students' future openness to differing beliefs and experiences. In Chapter 13 Yep describes how her one-on-one interactions with a student helped frame his ability to be a better listener.

Model how to think, talk, and respond to conflict. When faculty frame productive conflict and respond appropriately to unproductive tensions, conflict, stereotypes, and unexamined opinions, they serve as useful models for students. What makes these opportunities even more educative is making the modeling component explicit. Faculty should explain why they are framing discussions in certain ways and not others. They should tell students, perhaps at a following class session, what they were thinking and why they responded the way they did to an instance of unproductive conflict. They should explain what they hope students gain from such a situation. Kohn (2004) calls this strategy deep modeling when educators explain what and why they are doing something alongside the actual doing.

Most of all, faculty can model conflict and negotiation as opportunities for transformation and growth. Working through conflict is a touchstone of cultural humility (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Cultural humility blends knowledge, skills, and awareness of one's own and others' culture with ongoing reflection, self-assessment, and critique about power imbalances that exist between individuals and groups from different backgrounds. Cultural humility is a lifelong transformational process rather than an end point in understanding culture in connection to self and others. Martinuzzi (2007) wrote that:

\"When we approach situations from a perspective of humility, it opens us up to possibilities, as we choose open-mindedness and curiosity over protecting our point of view. We spend more time in that wonderful space of the beginner's mind, willing to learn from what others have to offer. We move away from pushing into allowing, from insecure to secure, from seeking approval to seeking enlightenment.\" (para. II)

Cultural humility has its place during discussions of inherently value-laden, controversial issues. These characteristics of cultural humility also describe the qualities of readiness for democratic participation described a century ago by Dewey (1916) and more recently by Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, and Corngold (2007): a commitment to understanding others, an openness to multiple points of view, a readiness to work across differences, and a desire to learn more. Faculty, like those in the chapters that follow, can then be role models of cultural humility and what might be called democratic humility, a similarly lifelong transformational process of understanding self and others in the context of political community.


Colby, A., Beaumont, E., Ehrlich, T., & Corngold, J. (2007). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Collier Books.

Ford, T. (Director). (2009). A single man [Motion picture]. USA: Sony Pictures.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Kohn, A. (2004). Challenging students...and how to have more of them. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(3), 184-194.

Martinuzzi, B. (2007). Humility: The most beautiful word in the English language.

Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9(2), 117-125.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.