Managing Conflict in the Classroom

Every classroom is a tiny world in itself. Even if your class is small, the conflagration of different ideas, ways of living, personalities and traits are all fertile ground for conflict. If you add up diversity into the equation then the chance for conflict multiplies.

Conflict is a constant of life – an unavoidable beast that shows its head often, even in the most caring relationships. It is usually pretty small at the beginning, but, if allowed to grow, it can reach gigantic proportions and have nasty consequences. Friendships are lost, families are strained, marriages dissolve, people get killed and countries go to war – all because of unresolved conflict.

At school, conflict can have serious consequences as well – from academic disruption to escalated violence.

While there is no way to completely avoid conflict, there are some strategies to help our students – and ourselves – cope with the stress and reach common ground.

I will focus on prevention first. A well-managed classroom with clear expectations for everyone, a resourceful teacher and a good social climate are less likely to breed conflict. If kids learn to manage their own emotions and actions, even when conflict arises, it will be much easier to resolve.

Emotional wellbeing.

Emotion plays a huge role in conflict. Minds are stubborn, emotions are contumacious. Minds can be brought about using strong, reasonable arguments. Emotions are relentless. An emotionally unstable individual lives in constant internal conflict. Grievances with others are even more difficult to resolve.  If we promote a culture of emotional well being in our classrooms, not only conflicts will diminish: we will all be happier.  Getting to know each other in the class and creating strong human connections are key. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga can also help. And remember: As a teacher, you should care for your own well being as well.

Storytelling and role-playing.

Either as part of a dedicated curriculum in conflict prevention and resolution, or using examples from history to illustrate how conflict shaped important outcomes for humanity – many times in positive ways – students can learn that we grow not by avoiding conflict, but by learning to handle it in life. The advantage of using story telling and role playing is that, being emotionally unattached to the characters represented, our minds can easily let reason flow. At the same time, we can feel, through empathy, the emotions that the characters on both sides of the argument felt while in conflict.

Once conflict arises we should acknowledge it and holding it from escalating. When I was a starting my teaching career I used to disregard conflict. In those days I thought that delivering the curriculum was my most important responsibility, and I was unwilling to devote the precious time it took to address conflict – time I was “robbing” from instruction. So I succumbed to the popular belief that if we let children resolve their own problems, they usually do.

Only they don’t.

Many children (and, should we say, adults) lack the skills to successfully resolve conflict. If left to their own means, it is very likely that the stronger-willed student will prevail.  Yes, most disagreements will not escalate into conflict – but if the do, we need to be ready to step in.

Peer mediation

I’ve read about many schools that have adopted this approach, in which voluntary students are trained to facilitate the resolution of disputes among their peers. I can’t say I’ve tried it, but, at least informally, many times a student or group of students have helped dissolve conflict.

Write about it

Other times I’ve asked the involved students to write about the conflict. They should include not only their side of the story and how they feel, but also what they believe the other person is standing for and what could be the possible solutions. Writing forces them to self reflect and organize their ideas in a way a third person can read and understand. It also gives them the time to cool off.

Can we make it work?

It is human nature. There are some issues in which we might never be able to see eye to eye.  But even in those instances, we can “agree to disagree”, we can find common ground through tolerance and respect.  Yes, we can almost always make it work – not by thinking alike but by recognizing the right that each of us has to our identity and beliefs.

I now know better. Delivering the curriculum is not, by far, my most important job as a teacher.

It is to teach my students to embrace who they are, respect others and forever strive to grow.

 

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: how classrooms are teaching the skills to resolve tensions and conflicts so as to find the “common ground” in an increasingly diverse world?

A Holistic Learning Approach in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The best, the worst, and the future

“Strong academic skills alone are not enough for young people to become successful adults”, states a recent publication from the University of Chicago. The report, entitled “Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework”, then goes to stress what is important: “experiences combining action and reflection (to) help children develop a set of critical skills, attitudes, and behaviors”  and “supportive relationships and an abundance of these developmental experiences through activities inside and outside of school.” (2015, Nagaoka et al)

Fair enough. But, how can these findings translate to real ife in classrooms around the planet? How are the world’s teachers helping their students face the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? And why are most educational systems still focusing on accountability measures when research clearly shows a different pathway to success?

The accelerated pace of technological advancement implies a choking pressure on education. Now schools must have a lab were students can experiment with drones and virtual reality, or else they are declared outdated and unmodern. But, in truth and honesty, how many schools, public or private, can afford such labs? Very, very few. And for the many others left to watch from the verge of modernity, what is left?

There is hope. “Even in environments devoid of technology, excellent pedagogy is still leading to astonishing student learning outcomes”. (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p. 40) Just as academics are not enough and everything to achieve student success, technology is neither the magic answer for education.

Last month, our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice” was launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.  Among the many questions lurking around education today, we wanted to explore how are we preparing our youth for 2030 and beyond – with or without technology, and above academics and accountability. For my chapter, “Education Today: A collection of snapshots”, I interviewed experts, researchers and teachers from around the globe, and ended up with a collection of “best and worst educational practices” in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The worst

As reported in our book, there is a consensus on “the dark side”:

  • Static learning vs. engaged learning,
  • Treating schools as factories or bussinesses
  • Too much “curriculum- oriented instruction”
  • One-size-fits-all teaching
  • Teaching to the test

The Best

  • Balance of cognitive and non cognitive learning
  • Focusing in teachers’ quality as opossed to teachers’ perfomance
  • Empowering students
  • Using a wide inventory of teaching strategies – with, or without, technology
  • Building strong relationships with students

The future

“What, then, should students learn to be better equipped for the challenges of our times and for the future? A whole new world opens. Teachers’ responses were as enthusiastic as theywere diverse: global citizenship, soft skills, environmental awareness, digital literacy, critical thinking, relationships, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and even meditation!” (Guerra, in Doucet et al, 2018, p.39)

Koen Timmers and Armand Doucet sum it up nicely:

“As the world continues to become more globalized and interconnected, the ability to understand diverse perspectives and work with those that have divergent worldviews will become increasingly important.

Without great pedagogy, technology integration is worthless.”

 

References:

Doucet, A., Evers, J.,  Guerra, E., Lopez, N., Soskil, M.,  & Timmers, K. (2018) Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the precipice. London, Routledge Education.

Nagaoka et al (2015) Foundatons for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. University of Chicago. Retrieved on April 24th, 2018 from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/publications/foundations-young-adult-success-developmental-framework

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What should a holistic approach to learning look like and how do we shift the focus from the accountability measures in existence now to ones that are relevant for all students in a changing world? 

Promoting well-being in our schools

“Is this the place where you come when your heart hurts?”

Luisa was just 8 years old but she was well aware of the perils of emotional restlessness. She was standing at the door of Paty, our school counselor, a warm, caring grandmother with a PhD in psychology and a special way with children.

No school can do its job of educating youth without seriously taking student well-being into consideration. A heavy heart is rarely compatible with a focused mind. But, how can we reach the whole child? The exquisite complexity of human beings – and the overflowing of young ones at our schools – makes this a difficult task. At the same time, its relevance makes it impossible to dismiss.

Our school is far from perfect and there is still much to be done, but here are some of the things we do to promote happiness, well-being and health in our classrooms.

Create relationships. It seems obvious, but being able to form strong connections with our students is crucial. Only when there is a climate of trust will they be able to open up and let us in if they need help. Every child should have at least one adult at school that is close to him. Some years ago, I learned a strategy to make this happen. When there is a staff meeting at school and all teachers are reunited, write the name of each student in the school in a post-it. Display all post-its in a large wall. Give each teacher a colored felt pen, and ask them to mark their name in the post it of each student that they are particularly close to. Each kid should have at least one mark on her name. If that is not the case, find the children with no marks and make a plan to create the lacking connections. Very large schools could do this if they divide by sections.

Teacher’s well-being is important. Stress is contagious. If a teacher feels anxious, it will be almost impossible to keep a positive classroom environment. Schools are live, organic entities. If there is a problem somewhere, it will eventually hurt the whole system. Sean Bellamy, a UK based teacher and founder of Sands School, is currently working in partnership with The Well Being Project  to develop strategies that support teachers’ well being in schools – he believes this to be a pre-requisite for quality teaching and learning. “The programme is still in its early stages” -he says. “And the people at The Well Being Project have been extremely helpful”.  Sean’s forward-thinking TEDx talk about risk and the teenage brain is available at TEDx Talks YouTube Channel:

Mindfulness works. Back to our school counselor, Paty. Some years ago she began to have weekly mindfulness sessions with whole groups – especially those with troublesome issues, like bullying. She also works with teachers at our monthly staff meetings. The results have been encouraging. When issues are faced and treated, school climate improves, which decreases stress and improves well-being. The whole system thrives. But not all responsibility falls in the counselor. Teachers – and students need to learn the tools that will help them to self-regulate and de-stress.

Create a rich, stimulating and wide learning environment. No school day should be complete without daily exposure to arts and opportunities for physical movement. If possible, spend some time outside the classroom: sunlight is great for improving health – and mood. Exciting lessons from passionate teachers will chase away boredom and inertia, so strive to create fun, engaging experiences – for everyone, including parents!

Happiness and well being can’t happen by decree – they are part of a very personal journey for each one of us. However, the environments we create and the relationships we build will have a definitive impact on the way we experience life. So let’s make the most of it, for us and for our children. They deserve no less.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question:  How are you promoting well-being, health and happiness in your classrooms?

Six things my students teach me

Don’t think the kids do all the learning at school. Teachers get their very good share of it as well. These are some of the most important things my students have taught me.

1. Curiosity fuels learning (Passion can take you a long way)

It is extremely difficult to teach bored brains – but it is nearly impossible to keep aroused minds from learning. For too long I strived to make my lessons perfect, structured and uneventful. I’m a recovering control freak, and those carefully planned lessons made me feel safe. But it was the times when something wild happened – usually by accident – that my students enjoyed and learned the most. Eventually, I began to plan my lessons in a very different way. Instead of thinking by means delivering content, I asked myself: How can I make this lesson enlightening and irresistible?

2. Movement wires the brain

Just about every time I tried to arrange my tiny students in a quiet and peaceful circle for reading, 3 year old Carolina would decide to run around us, her little feet pounding as fast as her heart. I tried everything to get her to sit and join the group, but most of the time I failed terribly. I gave up to her, mostly out of tiredness and fear of losing the rest of the class. It was my first year as a teacher and I was struggling to survive.

As weeks and months went by, I realized that even if apparently distracted, Carolina had listened to every word of the stories and remembered many details that even I had forgotten. At the same time, I began to notice a surprising pattern: the kids who moved the most in my class not only had better motor skills but also seemed more articulate than their peers. Movement feeds, grows and organizes your brain.  And better brains allow for better learning.

3. Curriculum must meet the child (not the other way around)

Too many classrooms resemble a frantic race in which all students must meet the curriculum as fast and efficiently as possible. Children are judged upon their ability and compliance to do so. Teachers are measured against how quickly and how many of their students achieve that goal. Curriculum becomes the ultimate god: the reason for schools’ existence, the shrine of the enlightened few and the penance of the troubled many. We push our kids to meet the curriculum, when we should be harnessing the curriculum to meet the individual child.

Our students are alive and changing, each one exquisitely unique. Shouldn’t they have their own path and pace to experience learning and knowledge?

Teaching for the curriculum (or the test) is not only ethically wrong, it is also pedagogically inefficient. Children, and the relationships we form with them, are much more important than the curriculum. I am not saying that content is irrelevant, and I am not implying than schools are little more than social clubs. But, if we are willing to go slow to then go fast, as Armand Doucet describes in our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the time spent developing relationships will pay off – and we may end up in much better terms with the curriculum as well.

4. School is Life

Have you ever noticed that we tend to speak to children in future tense – a lot? We tell them to eat well because then “you will grow healthy and strong”. We ask them to stop horsing around because “you will fall and hurt yourself”. We insist that they study because “school will prepare you for life”.

But school is life for our students -and they are living it right now.

I learned from my students that “now” is as important as “tomorrow”, if not more. Adults tend to live either howling the regrets of the past or shouldering the anxieties of the future. Children know better. So learn from your past and let it go. Allow your dreams and goals to propel you in motion. But live in the present, and be your very best today.

5.Teachers are still important. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all resource. Sometimes, plain old good paper, scissors, glue and tempera paint will awaken creativity more than any app could do. Screen time is no replacement for climbing a tree. And while technology surely empowers us to connect in many ways that were not possible before, there is still a world of unbeatable non-digital experiences – and no computer will ever replace teachers.

When I first designed my online History and Geography lessons for secondary school students, part of the plan was to eliminate classroom time completely for those subjects. Students would interact with me and among them exclusively online, much in the way I had completed my graduate degree. But very quickly I learned that my 12 to 15 year old students still needed live mentorship, and that they did better if they had it. My online course became a flipped classroom –technology is still big, but the teacher is still important.

6. Every child bears the seed of genius within. Each day I am reminded of just how amazing children are, and I marvel about the great privilege educators have in helping them achieve their dreams. And in doing so, we also grow into our own, never-ending human potential. In other words, learning makes us grow, but teaching makes us great.

Normalizing Struggle: Building our better self

Her fists were clenched. She tried to tame the tears that were so close from storming out. Maybe disguising her anguish as indifference would do the trick.

It didn’t.

She was staring at her unfinished work, drowning at the task at hand. What the task was doesn’t matter. How she felt does.

– “I just can’t do this” – she whispered to me as I approached her desk. “It’s too hard. I’m not smart enough”

– “Nobody gets it perfect the first time”, I said. But it did not convince her.

– “Oh, yes they do. Most of them. Just not me. I don’t want to do this anymore”

What was she afraid of? You name it. The giggles. The shame. The flunk. Maybe the biggest fear was to face, once more, the perceived confirmation that she was not good enough. Failure is painful, and we naturally reject what hurts.

How do we better instill an idea of risk taking and struggle in students? How can we better humanize success and show that it’s a matter of diligence rather than talent?

You have not failed until you give up

The first step in preserving a risk-taking mentality in our students is to take the “failure” out of the “struggle”. The world’s greatest scientists, inventors and artists reached the skies after years of sustained effort. However, they have been romanticized by history and media as born-that-way geniuses. The truth is, every child has the seed of genius within – dedication and hard work is what eventually will make them fly.

A supportive environment to thrive

You would not jump into the void without some sort of a safety net: that is called calculated risk. Our students will weigh in the possible outcomes for being daring and bold in their academic pursuits. If there is a big chance that they will fall prey to ridicule, most likely they will not go for it. Let’s promote a supportive school environment that values trying as well as achieving, and process as well as results.

We should also recognize and even cherish our own struggles: If, instead, we run away and hide them from our students, we are strengthening the idea that struggling is a shameful deviation from achievement, instead of a powerful opportunity for growth.

Yidan Prize winner Carol Dweck has extensive research showing that intelligent people are not just born smart: kids can identify their current achievements and then work towards improving, actually getting smarter.

When you teach about the great characters from history, science and art, be sure to portray the whole stories: the pains as well as the gains, the human side entwined with the brilliance, the challenges along with the glory.

It’s not about minimizing struggle, it’s about normalizing it. When we take failure out of the equation and embrace struggling as part of the journey, learning becomes again the joyous, stimulating gift it was always meant to be.

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: How do we better instill an idea of risk taking and struggle in students? How can we better humanize success and show that it’s a matter of diligence rather than talent?

Too poor to be bright?

He has not yet started school, but he is already behind. Barely six, he is still somewhat unaware of the many injustices to be faced in the world –many of them, hurting him directly.

One of the first injustices, at school, is that he is not up to speed with the other first graders. And, you know, it is not because he’s not smart. He is. But learning is nearly impossible when you are hungry or sick, and vey difficult when the environment is preventing you from reaching your potential. However, the world will see this child as stupid or lazy. That is the second injustice. The third one is that he will believe them.

In the first years of life, children’s brains develop furiously. A shortage of nutrients –for the body, the mind and the soul- can very likely impact the learning outcomes for disadvantaged children. Failing then is not due to lack of intelligence – but for lack of resources. And it is, also, because the school that should embrace our little boy is actually expecting him to fail.

Solving poverty is not the prerogative of educators. There are things we just can’t change. But there are many, many others we can.

First, let’s start with your classroom. It should provide all children with an environment rich in stimuli and opportunity. And when we say rich, we mean exuberantly opulent. Lots of books, plenty of experiences to nourish and satisfy a child’s curiosity. Even Spartan premises can accommodate powerful learning environments. You don’t need fancy equipment or luxurious facilities. The way you talk, the words you speak, the warmth in your voice, your enthusiasm and creativity are key. Add as many exciting and nurturing happenings as you can. Make your classroom a window to the world.

Secondly, beware of your expectations. If you are convinced, even before they had a chance to prove you wrong, that these children will fail, most likely, they will. And then you will become part of the problem. Don’t pity your disadvantaged students. Believe in them, and teach them the power of hard work and determination. Share stories of successful people that overcame great hardship. Don’t assume you know what they are going through because, most likely, you don’t.

Also, get involved in local community actions to end poverty and hunger. Inspire your students, of all backgrounds, to be compassionate and caring. Teach them not to let their minds fall prey of prejudice. Every child bears the seed of genius within, and disadvantaged children are not too poor to be bright – they are too precious to be lost.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty? How do we instill inspiration in those who are economically and socially disadvantaged?

The curriculum that changes itself

Every ten years or so, a new curriculum for basic education is published in my country, México. Usually, the document, hundreds of pages long, is announced with great fanfare.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the pace of our world nowadays. Unfortunately, even before the ink of the newest curriculum dries, it is already outdated, irrelevant, or both.

If I had the unlikely power to change the school curriculum, I would try to design the curriculum that changes itself.

The curriculums I have known are completely sequenced, lineal and mostly fixed. There is very little room, if any, to take exciting detours towards student’s interests.

My curriculum would be based on passion projects, aimed at gaining knowledge and abilities, but also at discovering whatever fires a student’s heart. Enlightening the mind would be hand in hand with caressing the spirit. Each child or teenager would have the liberty and responsibility of choosing his or her own educational path. The passion projects would give them the basics of many subjects, from reading to math to arts to science, and tease them to come get more. Instead of the lineal ladder, we would see a capricious web with many lines, different for each student. All would start at the center, the core of the web, but move outwards in many directions, even taking jumps and turns.

The curriculum would be huge, but only to accommodate the diversity of student’s interests. It would not be expected from anyone to cover it whole. You could easily go in depth to a subject that called you and cover the ones which did not in a more superficial way.

Four core elements would guide the flow, but they are not to be confused with “subjects”: Technology, Global Citizenship, Thinking Skills and Reading.

Technology would be the platform, the rocket that carries content. It would not be the teacher or the content itself. Technology – even great technology – will not replace teachers, good or bad. But it will certainly change the way we teach.

As we continue to evolve into a kind of worldwide school, Global Citizenship is a must to guide our students into the hyper connected and multi demanding society we are already immersed in. Religious tolerance, gender equality, inclusion, respect for diversity, responsible use of our resources, and yes, knowledge and caring about the world’s most pressing problems –both global and local- are far more important than, say, memorize the date in which Columbus arrived to America (something Dr. Google could easily drop in).

That brings us to critical thinking skills. Knowledge remains being very important – but along with it, the ability to tell the truthful from the inaccurate. Google indeed has all the answers: including many wrong or biased ones. You don’t need to know everything, but you must know where and how to find the reliable information you need.

Tomorrow, children will have to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up with the challenges of this fourth industrial revolution. Therefore, autodidacts are in demand. If you want lifelong learners, you need lifelong readers. Our school systems have been somewhat successful in developing people that can read – but not into developing readers. There is something completely wrong about that – and we need to find solutions now.

Is this proposed curriculum a utopia? It might well be.

But hey, I’m just a teacher.

 

As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Do you believe curriculum needs to be more relevant for a 21st century world?  If you had the power to change the school curriculum, what would you change?

 

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