“However, some students do not know how to handle disagreement. They may engage in personal attacks or “put downs,” they may even hit each other, or they may get up and walk away from the group, feeling that their ideas have been rejected. Teachers are understandably distressed. How can students proceed with the content of the cooperative learning lesson if they have so few strategies for working together? Such behavior may be common in classes where there are many students who have had little experience with negotiation and much experience with verbal and physical violence.” (Cohen, 1994)
Disagreement and conflict can be a common occurrence during groupwork, and it’s actually something that should be encouraged. When students respectfully disagree and share different opinions and viewpoints about a problem, deeper learning is more likely to occur. However, what do you do when students don’t know how to handle disagreement and conflict?
I’m wrapping up the 3rd week of school, and there’s already been plenty of conflict during groupwork. Last week, a group was having significant difficulty trying to respectfully disagree about how to approach a problem. Feelings were hurt, and the students didn’t want to be grouped together again. In order to alleviate the situation, I decided to keep the group after class to discuss how they could more appropriately interact with each other the next time. I shared my concerns with the students, and I asked each one to come up with a respectful way to disagree. However, the students weren’t able to do it. They couldn’t think of ways to convey their thoughts without using put downs or verbal assaults. They were genuinely trying, but no one presented an acceptable solution.
I can imagine this situation is prevalent whenever groupwork is conducted. Most students simply do not have the tools to effectively resolve conflict. This is especially true in environments where verbal and physical assault is the most common response to conflict and disagreement. With this in mind, we have an opportunity to model and teach our students skills to diffuse these situations. These skills can not only be applied to groupwork but also to many situations in life. Imagine how different things might be if more people had effective conflict resolution strategies.
In Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom, Elizabeth Cohen addresses conflict by sharing a technique called “I Feel” statements.
“…conflict escalates with a cycle of blaming: “He told me my ideas stink”; “He called me a bad name”; “She told me to sit down and shut up”; and on up to “He pushed me first.” If students learn to translate these blaming statements into “I feel” statements in which they express honestly how they felt in response to the other person’s statement or behavior, it has a remarkable way of defusing the conflict.” (Cohen, 1994)
Teaching students to rephrase their comments is crucial to the development of conflict resolution. Most kids immediately point fingers and continue to agitate others when disagreements arise. This can quickly lead to a sour result like the situation I mentioned above. However, most people do not naturally use “I feel” statements. Therefore, students must be given an opportunity to practice this new skill.
I launched the discussion by going through the presentation as a whole group with each class. One important emphasis was on the formula for making an “I feel” statement.
The presentation eventually led to sample situations with contrasting “You” and “I feel” statements:
“Situation #1: A member of your group interrupts you constantly when you are talking:
“You” statement: “You’re so rude! You never let me say anything!”
“I feel” statement: “When you’re interrupting me, I feel really hurt because I think that what I have to say is important too.” (Cohen, 1994)
Understandably, it was an awkward experience for the kids because the statements are unusual and pretty cheesy. Teenagers don’t speak this way, so I had the students take turns restating the phrases in their own words. This made for some fun moments.
However, Cohen acknowledges that most issues cannot be resolved simply by using an “I feel” statement. Therefore, she also uses “positive requests” in order to specifically tell offending group members what needs to be done to change behavior.
I asked the students to discuss why the third statement is better than the rest. Why is it specific? How is it different from the vague statement? I told the kids that the student who is acting up usually does so because he or she doesn’t know what to do. Therefore, it is important to be very specific about how behavior needs to be changed in order to help the group.
After we went through the presentation as a class, I passed out the communication worksheet for the students to practice on their own. I found that it was helpful to go over the first example together and have the students do the rest on their own.
I’d be lying if I said everything went smoothly with this activity. Some classes responded very well and took it seriously, other classes had trouble getting past the awkwardness of the phrases, and one class almost outright refused to participate. However, I still think it was worth the time. Although many of the students ended up making jokes about the experience, the fact that it is on their mind is a win in my opinion. A lot of the kids haven’t had a proper context to practice the skill in yet. Therefore, the worth of the tool may not be apparent until it is needed in their own personal experience.
I think the real groundwork will be done as I reinforce and model the new behavior throughout the coming weeks and months. When conflict arises, students will be able to experience the benefits of rephrasing their comments. I can also imagine the situation from the beginning of this post looking different. Students will now have a tool for communicating frustration without resorting to verbal assault. If they struggle to find appropriate ways to express their feelings, I can now point to and reinforce this tool.
Will this cure all conflict? Certainly not.
“If students cannot put this antagonism aside in order to work together in the classroom, she changes the composition in the group, or in the case of such serious problems as gang conflicts, she may send students out for counseling with school staff.” (Cohen, 1994)
Will this help alleviate some of the common problems we face? I believe it can.
Cohen, E.G. (1994). Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press