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In teaching conflict resolution, educators need to model how to listen to and empathize with those with whom we disagree.

How to teach conflict resolution in high school ELA, social studies classes

Educators need to emphasize the value of having an open mind, and model how to listen to and empathize with those with whom we disagree

Key points:

I agree with you, Mr. Arthur Miller, “the woods are burning” indeed.  America’s current political climate seems like a blazing forest fire of disagreement.  We are unable to see each other through the smoke of our confirmation biases, and unable to hear each other over the crackling whirling flames in our self-created echo chambers.  As educators, we should all work together to help lead our country through this self-destructive conflagration. Teaching various methods for conflict resolution to our students might be one prescription public schools could employ for this monumental challenge. 

Aside from the obvious classroom management benefits of teaching conflict resolution to students, children would also develop better interpersonal relationships outside of the classroom.  Perhaps, eventually, our democracy could improve too?

I have compiled several strategies for conflict resolution based on modern psychology and neuroscience. I have been incorporating them into typical English Language Arts and Social Studies high school content for several years (Piccoli 2-5).  Using a Rogerian rhetoric writing style I focus on teaching students to express empathy, find common ground, and ask questions instead of using facts to persuade (Piccoli 2-5). 

Below is an example student activity of how to integrate these strategies into a lesson on the conflict between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster in Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, Frankenstein.

Directions: Pretend that you are Dr.Victor Frankenstein at the beginning of Chapter 17.  The monster has just finished explaining the rejection he faced from so many people after Victor (you) abandoned him and has asked you to make him a female companion for him.  However, you know that you should not because the female monster might be evil, might not love the monster, and or this situation might result in a new monster species. Follow the Rogerian Rhetoric style argument outlined below (1-8) to persuade the monster to understand Victor’s (your) point of view.   

1. Express empathy by describing how they feel and why they feel it.

It seems like you feel angry because you are lonely.  People have unfairly rejected you because of how you look, because of how I designed you to look.  On top of all that, you feel betrayed because I abandoned you. 

2.Continue to express empathy by steelmanning their POV: Describe the best possible version of their arguments back to them so that they know you fully understand their POV. Be sure to emphasize and acknowledge any new information they told you.

Your argument is that if I make you a female monster you will live away from people. Therefore, there are no risks in me creating a monster companion for you. You’re saying it’s not too much to ask to have one companion.  Also, I didn’t realize you were rejected by the townspeople, the De Lacey Family, and were shot in the arm after saving a little girl’s life.  That must’ve been devastating. 

3. Find common ground (common goals) and list any part of their argument that you agree with and or to what extent you agree with them. 

I totally agree that I shouldn’t have abandoned you, that was wrong of me.  We both don’t want to keep destroying each other’s lives. 

4. Offer a “welcome mat statement,” a statement that aims to encourage your opposing party to feel less defensive or foolish about changing their POV and “stepping” towards your POV.

I thought making you a companion monster would be a good idea at first too until I asked myself some questions. 

5. Ask “flashlight question(s);” higher-level thinking questions (How or What) that “flashlight” on your arguments but allow your opposing party to discover your arguments on their own.

How will you know if the female monster will be good or evil?

What would happen if you both had monster children?

How can I trust you?

6. Propose a compromise(s):

 I’ll try to make you look less “monstrous” to other people.  I’ll introduce you to people, a little at a time.  Can I have some time to think about it?

7. Listen and try to understand their objections, repeat 1-7 as necessary.

A similar activity could be designed in Social Studies lessons between two historical figures involved in a disagreement:

Directions: Choose a role: A supporter of President Woodrow Wilson is debating a 1st Amendment advocate on whether free speech should be limited under the Espionage Act and Sedition Act during World War I. Use the same Rogerian Rhetoric style outlined above. 

Admittedly, a Rogerian style argument is not appropriate for all types of conflicts.  These conflict resolution strategies would not be appropriate in a courtroom, under a threat of physical violence, or conversing with anyone arguing in bad faith.  Additionally, some students may find it difficult to resist the temptation to try and “win the debate” instead of focusing on empathy and finding common ground.  Teachers are well advised to offer students an alternative choice assignment in the event students resist these techniques.  However, offering students a practical set of steps for better conflict resolution might help them transfer these skills into their everyday lives and improve their interpersonal relationships.

Still, a few worksheets on the topic of conflict resolution are just scattered seeds on the smoldering forest floor of our disagreements.  All educators need to emphasize the value of having an open mind, and model how to listen to and empathize with those with whom we disagree. Throughout human history these tenets were often the seeds that grew the trees of peace, love, and understanding.  We all grow our history together, every day, for better or for worse. Is it too late for us to change, to learn to love our enemies? 

I’m reminded of wisdom reminiscent of an ancient Chinese proverb. The best time to plant the seeds of peace, love, and understanding was 20 years ago.  But, the second best time is right now.   


New Jersey English Journal: ELA Strategies for Teaching Students How to Disagree Productively

Owl.Purdue: Rogerian Rhetoric

Kids fight with their parents this many times before they turn 18

PEW Research: America’s Dismal Views of the Nation’s Politics

How to Build an Exit Ramp for Trump Supporters

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