It’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think in binary terms and those who don’t. When students are given something to read and then asked whether they “agree or disagree” with the author, they’re being trained as “dichotomizers"—encouraged to think in black and white rather than to construct a nuanced position. Such assignments also assume that a student’s opinion is a fixed point of reference against which others’ positions can be evaluated. This excludes the possibility that one’s views might change in light of new evidence.
Another simplistic dichotomy often appears when students are presented with controversial topics: either debate or try to reach consensus. Both of these options, I believe, are troubling—albeit for very different reasons.
To be sure, there is something to be said for the idea of consensus when a decision must be made. It’s better for students to hash things out together than just to vote, because voting doesn’t require listening, reflecting, or compromising. The majority just rolls over the minority.
But sometimes, we as educators push students to come to an agreement prematurely to avoid conflict. That’s when it’s worth remembering that conflict, per se, is not harmful. In fact, the absence of conflict may suggest a problem—for example, a lack of interest or gumption. Most important, bypassing disagreement deprives students of a real education. The word “challenge,” after all, means both to call something into question and to require people to use their full range of abilities. Genuine learning does not smooth over or soothe.
Discovering that a classmate thought a story’s character had a motive unlike the one you had inferred—or came up with a different explanation for why these plants grew faster than those—nudges you to think through the problem in a new way and construct meaning around that fresh perspective. Such clash is the key to social and moral growth, too. As the poet Robert Frost put it, “The best way out is always through.”
On the other hand, clashing doesn’t always work out. So what curdles conflict and makes disagreement destructive? The answer, in a word, is competition. When a discussion turns into a debate, the point becomes winning rather than discovering what’s true or reaching a satisfying solution. Just listen in at a faculty meeting or a dinner party, and you can hear the difference between someone participating in a genuine exchange of ideas and someone trying to score points.
Whenever competition appears, learning is apt to suffer. Decades of research have shown that any arrangement in which people are set against one another tends to undermine psychological health, concern for others, and quality of thinking. Interest in the task itself—whether it’s painting, writing, coding, or solving math problems—is apt to decline if one person must fail in order for another to succeed. The extrinsic goal of triumph (winning an argument) diminishes the intrinsic appeal of the activity (curiosity about the topic under discussion).
Sometimes, we as educators push students to come to an agreement prematurely to avoid conflict."
The good news is that educators don’t need to choose between creating a classroom in which students must avoid conflict at all costs to arrive at an artificial consensus and one in which conflict manifests itself as an adversarial exercise. The alternative is to invite disagreement, but nest it in caring and a framework of shared goals.
This approach has been called cooperative conflict, constructive controversy, or, in a poetic turn of phrase by social-scientist brothers Roger and David Johnson, “friendly excursions into disequilibrium.” Its premise is that conflict will—and should—occur when people play with ideas or attempt to make decisions together. The relevant question is whether it will take place in the context of competition or cooperation. When students feel part of a caring community and have developed a range of social skills, they learn about the issues they’re discussing and also get to experience healthy civil discord.
The first step is to create a cooperative context by working with students to turn the classroom into a caring community. Each student should have the opportunity to work with others in different configurations of pairs and small groups. Class meetings, meanwhile, offer the opportunity to share news, make decisions, and solve problems together. Conflict is introduced gradually to make sure that the bonds between students can accommodate mildly opposing views before they are asked to thrash out more incendiary issues. The literacy expert Frank Smith even recommends bringing a second adult into the classroom whose views diverge from the teacher’s and who can challenge those views without engaging in a debate.
A number of studies have been conducted on the effects of cooperative conflict by the Johnson brothers at the University of Minnesota’s Cooperative Learning Institute and their colleagues. The results indicate that most students prefer this approach to either seeking a premature consensus or debating. Cooperative conflict promotes more effective learning, more interest in a subject, and more positive attitudes toward fellow students.
In one such study, dating all the way back to 1981, 6th graders considered the environmental and economic impacts of logging and mining. Those who did so under conditions of cooperative conflict reported more positive attitudes toward the activity and one another, and they also learned the material better—a result that held for students of all ability levels.
Friendly excursions into disequilibrium is that rare pedagogical strategy that yields powerful benefits without requiring extensive or expensive training. But it merits our attention also because of the hidden costs of what it replaces: the pretense of avoiding conflict, on the one hand, and the unnecessary ugliness of debate on the other. That we can disagree without seeing others as opponents to be bested is a revelation—within classrooms and beyond them.
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Don’t Stifle Conflict in the Classroom