Although conflict resolution and peer mediation programs are increasingly popular, there has been little empirical data to support their effectiveness. Now, a small study of seventh- and eighth-grade students in one rural Canadian school indicates that this school’s conflict resolution program was not only effective in improving behavior, but had a positive impact on academic achievement as well.
The goal of conflict resolution programs is to teach students how to negotiate agreements based on an understanding of both their own and the other person’s perspective. Resolutions are aimed at maximizing the gains for both parties in conflict. Researchers Laurie Stevahn, Professional Development Associates; David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, University of Minnesota; and Don Real, Durham (Ontario, Canada) Board of Education, conducted a study with 111 middle school students. They judged the effectiveness of the “Peacemakers” conflict resolution program by testing whether students learned the problem-solving procedure, were able to apply the procedures in conflict situations, and developed more positive attitudes toward conflict. They also studied the conditions under which the program was most successful. The training was carried out in “competitive,” “individualistic” and “cooperative” literature classes. In a competitive class, students work against one another to achieve a goal that only a few can attain. In an individualistic class, students work independently to achieve personal goals.
In a cooperative class, students work together to achieve mutual goals. These researchers also studied the impact of conflict resolution training on academic achievement. They considered this particularly important, because innovations in schools traditionally last only if they show demonstrable effects on student achievement.
In this study, the students were divided into four classes, one in each type of learning context and one control group that did not receive conflict resolution training. Students’ learning of the conflict resolution procedure was measured by their oral recall of the steps and by a written scenario in which they applied those steps.
The degree to which they actually used the procedure was measured by placing the students in a negotiation situation to see if they chose to maximize their own or joint outcomes. An attitude survey and an achievement test covering the literature unit that was taught in conjunction with the conflict resolution program were administered after training.
Students in cooperative demonstrate greater mastery
After training, 70 percent of students demonstrated 100 percent mastery of the conflict resolution procedure. However, retention over time was significantly better among students in the cooperative training context. After eight weeks, 60 percent of these students still demonstrated 100 percent mastery, compared with only 15 percent of students in the individualistic or competitive classes.
When students were placed in conflict situations, the untrained control students primarily focused on either forcing their own way or withdrawing from the situation. The trained students used more constructive strategies, considering the future of the relationship as well as goals. They tended to compromise more often than untrained students. They chose to consider the other’s goals as well as their own more often than untrained students.
These researchers state that negative attitudes toward conflict often result in fear and avoidance of conflict. Initially these 111 students showed negative feelings about conflict. Immediately after training and eight weeks later, trained students had more positive attitudes toward conflict than untrained students. These researchers believe that more positive attitudes increase the likelihood that conflicts will be faced and resolved.
Stevahn et al. conclude that the “Peacemakers” conflict resolution program, did prove effective with these middle-school students. They warn, however, that these results were achieved under controlled classroom situations and that further study should be carried out to see whether training actually influences how students manage their own real conflicts. They further suggest that integrating such training into academic subjects such as literature can increase the likelihood that such training will become a permanent part of the curriculum. Literature and social studies units can be created around a theme of conflict. In addition, a cooperative class environment produced the highest achievement in both conflict resolution and the literature unit under study. The feasibility, practicality, and effectiveness of integrating conflict resolution programs into academic units needs to be verified in further studies.
“The Impact of a Cooperative or Individualistic Context on the Effectiveness of Conflict Resolution Training”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 33, Number 3, Winter 1996, pp. 801-823.
Published in ERN May/June 1997 Volume 10 Number 3.