Cultural Connections: An Alternative to Conflict Resolution

Article excerpt

In today's increasingly polyglot classrooms, interpersonal and inter-group conflicts often arise out of mutual misunderstandings between different collections of students, some based on language or status differences but many more generated by emotionally charged misconceptions. These latter types of conflicts can relate to perceived interpersonal differences, or they may be the result of ostensible racial, class, or cultural differences (Johnson & Johnson, 1996).

In a standard pattern of potential con- flicted interactions, Vietnamese students can challenge Hmong students, or Latino students may feel disrespected by their African American peers. These patterns can be repeated for as many distinct groups as are present in a given classroom or school.

Similar concerns about alleviating mounting inter-group tensions have led to a renewed emphasis on combating bullying, teasing and harassment at all school levels (Coloroso, 2003). However, research has shown that there are some significant differences between conflicts that are personality- or class-based and those that are culture-based (Casella, 2000; Scott, 2003; Webster, 1993).

Because today's students inhabit a more globalized environment where the borders of any given location can be transcended with the click of a computer icon, it is more important than ever that students learn to be aware about and sensitized to the cultural lives of the other students with whom they interact. As leaders of and decision makers about the kind of education our children are exposed to, we have a unique opportunity to teach our students more about the world by encouraging them to understand the potential educational value of recognizing that some inter-group conflicts are culture-based and may be amenable to resolution through better inter- group understanding and appreciation for the world's different cultures.

Rather than turning immediately to conflict resolution strategies that often encourage a negotiated truce between individual students (Johnson & Johnson, 1996), we should encourage teachers, administrators, and students to consider cultural connection as a viable alternative, particularly for situations where the problematic interactions between students arise from more entrenched differences between groups of students.1

Gay (2000) has argued for culturally responsive teaching because: (1) the students' culture is important, and consequently education is a socio-cultural process that requires understanding and appreciation of the culture of our students; (2) historically, education reform has misguidedly focused on student achievement by "divorcing it from other factors that affect achievement, such as culture, ethnicity and personal experience;" (3) despite the best intentions, being color blind is not the same as being culturally responsive; (4) cultural diversity is a positive force; and (5) for the most part, measurement of successful teaching that considers only test scores and grades misses the root causes of any minority achievement gap (p. 12).

According to Gay, "both immigrant and native-born students of color may also encounter prejudices, stereotyping, and racism that have negative impacts on their self-esteem, mental health, and academic achievement" (p. 18). To counteract the negative responses to cultural differences we must provide avenues for positive interactions to facilitate understanding and conciliation among our students. According to Valenzuela (1999),

Were [minority and immigrant] youth to experience a politics of shared material or cultural interests, the mirror image of the politics of difference, their relationships would likely improve. They might even redirect their emotions and focus on the role of the school's assimilationist curriculum in promoting the confusion and conflict that surrounds their sense of identity. (p. 170)

Conflict Resolution: The Traditional Intervention

There is sufficient evidence accumulated now to conclude that traditional approaches to resolve inter-group conflict can be beneficial when contentious group interactions arise from struggles based on personal or group identification (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). …