Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation: Pathways to Safer Schools

Article excerpt

Most educators will agree that finding ways to resolve conflict peaceably in America's schools may be our primary challenge. As waves of violence and incidents of racial and societal unrest spill over into our classrooms, we must take a closer look at the process for building safer, more harmonious schools.

Conflict Resolution and Peer Mediation Defined

Conflict resolution is a method or strategy that enables people to interact with each other in positive ways in order to resolve their differences. Peer mediation programs are based on a foundation of applied conflict resolution. Such programs empower students to share responsibility for creating a safe, secure school environment. Mediators help their peers to summarize the main points of their dispute and puzzle out possible solutions. Schoolchildren learn essential skills, such as intervention and conflict prevention.

Those who study conflict resolution generally identify its origin with Mary Parker Follett's research in the 1920s. Follett concentrated on "problem solving as integration of the needs of the bargainers" (Follett, 1941; Fogg, 1985). Since that time, the field of conflict resolution has expanded as a tool for business management, intergroup and community mediation, divorce, juvenile justice, civil courts and international negotiations.

A Theoretical or Research Base

The research base for conflict resolution and peer mediation includes the theories of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Albert Bandura and Kurt Lewin. Morton Deutsch, David and Roger Johnson and others conducted research on the effects of cooperative and competitive classroom settings.

During middle childhood, children continually assess, weigh and judge their experiences in school, absorbing new behaviors into their existing knowledge. Piaget's cognitive development theory states that children will assimilate and accommodate new experiences into ones previously learned. The added context of social interaction, especially with one's peers, enhances the cognitive development process. Essentially, children need to watch adults think through problems so that they can practice those newly observed skills themselves (Seifert, 1993). Students hone these skills when they verbally and mentally work their way through the problem-solving process.

Vygotsky's theories on children's thinking emphasized a process in which children shared problem-solving experiences with a teacher, parent or peer. As a result, children's own language and thought intermingled and served as the vehicle for their own development (Vygotsky, 1962).

Social learning theorists, particularly Albert Bandura and Kurt Lewin, contributed to the research base. Bandura emphasized that children are essential actors and agents in their own learning and behavior as they model, observe and duplicate responses to a social situation (Seifert, 1993; Catron & Allen, 1993). Furthermore, those who observe conflict resolution or peer mediation confirm that an intellectual and emotional impact results when a potentially dangerous conflict is resolved and disputants "save face" and continue with their school lives.

Kurt Lewin's field theory is of special interest. Specifically, Lewin warned that "one has to face the education situation with all its social and cultural implications as one concrete dynamic whole . . . analysis must be a 'gestalt-theoretical' one" (Maruyama, 1992). Lewin believed that the individual in a school setting is affected by personal and environmental variables that have an impact on student behavioral outcomes (Maruyama, 1992). Equally important is the way that authority figures structure the environment and reward the system--what Lewin calls the "social climate" (Maruyama, 1992). Accordingly, Lewin delineated the concept of conflict as a situation in which forces acting on the individual move in opposite directions.

For several decades, Morton Deutsch (Deutsch, 1949, 1973, 1991) and David and Roger Johnson (Johnson & Johnson, 1979, 1989, 1991) have emphasized that cooperative, rather than competitive, relationships within the classroom's social milieu create the constructive, positive environment that fosters true learning and conflict resolution. …