Constructive Classroom Conflict

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

Elizabeth M. Olsson |

What comes to mind when you read the word #conflict? If you are like most people, you probably think of terms such as war, violence, upheaval, or even genocide. This is because most adults are conflict averse. We fear it. We dislike it. We carry with us an arsenal of destructive conflict memories, and we most certainly avoid putting ourselves in uncomfortable and antagonistic situations. In the minds of most, conflict is inherently negative. Of course, when we stop to think about it, we can also recall conflict situations that, while we didn’t enjoy them, actually improved our lives. Going through a bad break-up to later meet a more supportive and caring partner is just one example. Whether we like conflict or not, and most of us don’t, it’s difficult to deny the capacity of conflict to transform and even improve our lives.


This is the point of departure for my research at the School of Global Studies. I look for the creative, educational, and #constructive potentials in otherwise painful, uncomfortable, and contentious situations. I do this in one of the most conflict-ridden arenas imaginable: the primary school #classroom. If you’re thinking classroom conflict is more trivial than the preceding sentence implies, I ask you to reflect on your time at #school. If you are like me, you just cringed as traumatic episodes of classroom conflict irrepressibly came to mind. Needless to say, I have yet to encounter someone who does not carry with them a hauntingly horrible memory of classroom conflict. From not getting invited to a classmate’s birthday party to bullying to public chastisement, an awful lot of conflict occurs in schools and, yes, most of the conflicts that you probably remember are decidedly awful.


The interesting thing is, unlike adults who are conflict averse, children are conflict prone. They provoke, they insight, they challenge because, in doing so, they learn. Conflict helps children understand themselves and others in ways that cooperation and compliance do not. Of course, not of all #childhood conflict is educational. When conflict escalates to the point of psychological and physical harm, it is undeniably destructive. And, unfortunately, it is those memories of destructive conflict that we tend to carry with us, resulting in conflict aversion.


Consequently, a plethora of research has been conducted on the devastating nature of classroom conflict, but much less research has been conducted on the ways in which classroom conflict promotes #learning and development. I fill this gap by observing and analyzing the ways in which teachers and students and students and their classmates interact throughout the school day. While I admittedly see a lot of fighting, name-calling, and belligerence, I also see many instances in which conflicts bring to the surface the problematic and even insidious assumptions and understandings that tend to go unquestioned in #educational settings: Why do teachers have the right to speak and move around the room while students are expected to sit silently in their seats? Why do #students assume that the #teacher has all the answers? Why do so many teachers discipline rather than investigate ‘inappropriate’ student behaviors? It turns out conflict situations are turning points in which questions such as these are raised, explored, and even answered. It is my goal to shed light on these fleeting moments of tremendous significance in order to understand how conflict can be co-opted and transformed into opportunities for learning and development.


If my Pollyanna attitude toward classroom conflict comes across as a little too sanguine for your liking, I must assure you that I am far from an eternal optimist. I hate conflicts too. In fact, I hate them so much that I am always looking for better ways to understand and approach them. It turns just out recognizing the potential value of conflict can do just that. If you don’t believe me, give it a try. The next time you find yourself in a seemingly impossible situation of social incompatibility, ask yourself what’s at stake here? Am I clinging to something important or can I simply let it go? Better yet, how can I turn what feels like a bad situation into a good one? I hope you, like the teachers and students I work with, can embrace your next conflict as opportunity rather than an impediment.

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