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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

Conflict Resolution, Negotiation
& Team Building

Brief Course Outline

The conceptual ideas and course objectives were then translated into a weekly course outline. Within a few weeks of beginning the course, a second instructor was assigned to the course to co-teach it; together we finalized the outline and made the requisite adjustments to it as the course was offered.

The summary of the weekly outline follows:

  • Week 1 Assumptions about human life
  • Week 2 Constructing approaches to understanding disputes
  • Week 3 Analyzing conflicts
  • Week 4 A continuum of dispute analysis and resolution
  • Week 5 Self-understanding and teamwork
  • Week 6 Dealing with conflict in teams
  • Week 7 Negotiation and conflict in social context
  • Week 8 Negotiation skills
  • Week 9 How disputes get "lawyered": Contrasting adjudication with ADR
  • Week 10 The transformative approach
  • Week 11 The mediation process
  • Week 12 Transformative principles in everyday life
  • Week 13 Course summary, review and evaluation

With the posting for each week, we included a comment to explain the focus of the week, topics to be covered, a quote of the week, a personal reflection question, the title of the small group exercised to be used during the small group meeting, as well as required and suggested readings.

Required Readings

The required readings included a course reader edited by the instructors and two books. For explaining the social constructionist perspective, selections from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann were used. To discuss the nature of conflict and approaches to understanding conflict, Robert Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger's "four stories" (1994), Christopher Moore's discussion of approaches to managing conflict (1996), John Conley and William O'Barr's natural history of disputes (1998), and Andrew Pirie's introduction of key concepts (2000) were read. Readings by Carl Rogers (1961) and John Cragan, David W. Wright, Chris R. Kasch (2004) helped students understand the relationship between self and teams. Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton's Getting To Yes was used to introduce principled negotiation. And to analyze the transformative approach to disputes, Bush and Folger's The Promise of Mediation was read. While a number of other readings were required, the above offers a good idea of the required readings in the course and how they were used.

Course Schedule and Basis of Evaluation

The course had about 200 students in it. For lecture purposes the students were divided into two groups, and each group met once a week for a two-hour lecture and discussion period. All the students were also divided into twelve small discussion groups which met once a week for a one-hour period to engage in small group exercises and, ultimately, to make group presentations. I took three of the small groups, my colleague took one, and the remainder were divided between two teaching assistants.i The average size of the small groups was 15 or 16 students. At Ryerson, such tutorial groups are usually twice that size, but in order to facilitate the small group learning, we were allowed to run significantly smaller groups. The evaluation schema had three main components: the course included a mid-term and final exam both used essay questions of varying lengths; students made group presentations; and tutorial leaders provided an attendance and participation mark.

Central Argument in the Course

The course set out to teach students not only some basic negotiation, team building and dispute transformation skills; it also sought to provide a theoretical context, identifying the assumptions and implications of the skill sets. Moreover, it emphasized that learning the skills and understanding their theoretical context was a foundation for a holistic approach to learning and living. Ideas are the forerunners of human actions and the tools for reflective consideration of past actions in preparation for further action. We are responsible for constructing the meanings of our everyday social worlds.

The central argument of the course emerged most articulately in preparation for the mid-term test. I had been talking about the implications and significance of a social constructionist view of the world (Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Berger, 1967) and the diversity of approaches to dispute resolution (Bush and Folger, 1994; Moore, 1996). But how are these connected? How is the critical perspective of the course, the social construction of human meaning, connected to the thematic focus of the course, the transformation of conflict into productive life experiences? Our actions in everyday life are based in large measure on how we perceive the world around us. Our perceptions of the world are profoundly influenced by our "worldview," which includes concepts, theories, assumptions and values. In this way, we create, maintain and change our everyday lives. Because it is rooted in a particular set of philosophical and sociological assumptions, transformative mediation is a particularly cogent way to approach the conflict in our everyday lives. Through empowerment and recognition we can reconstruct, and assist others to construct, a productive meaning to conflict in everyday life.

While the argument for the elemental value of the transformative approach to conflict may be seen by some as a controversial claim within the legal and conflict resolution fields and it was explained to students as a minority view the strength of the argument is that it permits a highly integral and integrated approach to the topics discussed in the course. The conflict response continuum from negotiation to litigation, including the diversity of alternative dispute resolution processes, was presented as a set of principled approaches. Interest-based negotiation is principled, and transformative mediation was tendered as an approach explicitly rooted in the relational worldview that invites the integration of ideas and values with living action.

Some Practical Challenges

The curricular and circumstantial challenges of the course were formidable. In winter, 2004, it was a course to be taught, for the first time, to first year university students who entered from two different high school curricula. It was a required course; students were registered whether or not they had any initial interest in the subject. For many students, conflict resolution studies were a previously unknown area of study. Though it was taught to 190 students, it was intended to be a skills or competency based course. The course required the integration of applied skills, theoretical understanding and social action. Finally, after several months of working on the course on my own, shortly before the beginning of the winter term it was to be taught, it was decided that the course would be team taught. I was to be the lead instructor; my colleague ii, who is educated in both philosophy and law, would have a one-third involvement in the course because of numerous other commitments. We found team teaching both challenging and enormously rewarding. In my previous team-teaching experiences, colleagues and I had considerable time to develop courses together, and to get to know one another personally and intellectually. The last minute nature of this situation meant that my colleague had to acclimate substantially to the basic frame of the course as it had been developed, whether or not it was a frame that she would have chosen for herself. That she did so with grace and enthusiasm reflected her knowledge, abilities and commitment to the students. The belated team teaching arrangement also required me to accommodate a new set of interests and ideas, which I tried to do wittingly. Together we learned a great deal from each other.

The lecture and discussion period of two-hours actually two fifty-minute periods presented its own challenges. The two sections of students were scheduled back-to-back which meant four straight hours of teaching. The students who came into class for hours three and four were coming directly from a prior two-hour class. In part, because of our limited experience with each other, my colleague and I committed to being present for each other's presentations. This proved an invaluable commitment because we were able to respond to and integrate one another's ideas comfortably and effectively, typically within the same class period. We began the course by splitting the two-hours in each class section. This division of labor mitigated the four-hour block of teaching for some weekly classes, but the major benefit was that it kept my colleague directly involved in presenting the course for a number of weeks, although she was responsible for one-third of the course. After three or four weeks, students told us that they found it difficult to switch perspectives half way through each two-hour class, and we subsequently divided up the remaining weeks insofar as her responsibility to the course permitted.

Previously, the typical section size that I have taught at Ryerson had been around forty students. From that experience, trying to engage one hundred is daunting. The classroom in which we taught was a tiered lecture hall that had been retrofitted with a number of technologies. These included a computer to show PowerPoint slides, with the ability to go to the course web site and numerous other sites, and the capacity to show DVDs and video tapes. (For the first few classes I brought in CDs to play music between the fifty-minute periods and between sections, but the room was so noisy that they were inaudible.) These technologies helped us to get and maintain the attention of students, for example showing brief CBC news documentaries to introduce topics and stimulate initial discussions. But it is important not to be seduced by technology. Overall, I found the most powerful pedagogical tools for reaching students were teaching with passion, presenting an argument (not just information), being responsive to students, and challenging them to think in a more holistic way about their lives. One day in mid-lecture the classroom computer system went down, and I continued the class without my PowerPoint slides. The class discussion became the best one in the course to that date, and from that point on I used PowerPoint more sparingly, to outline the week's direction, to illustrate and summarize points, and occasionally to lay out the details of a more complicated argument. The technology simply cannot replace the power of interpersonal exchanges.

So, what did the students make of all this?

The First Year Student Experience

The student response to the course was measured in three systematic ways, plus through anecdotal evidence. The university has an official Faculty Course Survey that consists of eleven ranking questions concerning courses and their instructors; 125 of the 190 students competed this evaluation. I also "designed" the term implies a more rigorous methodological approach than was actually used in the heat of the closing weeks of the term an on-line survey of multiple choice and open-ended questions, to which 28 of the190 students replied. Third, in my own tutorial sessions, students were asked to identify the "three best and three worst" aspects of the course; 29 of 51 students responded. As a teacher, I find the open-ended questions the more illuminating method. These sources provide the bases for my understanding of the student experience.

The university's official survey evaluated only me as the lead instructor, even though it was a team-taught course. The results of the survey indicate that students evaluated me as enthusiastic, well organized, fair, respectful and clearly responsive to questions with scores ranging from 1.0 to 1.4 on a scale of agreement from 1 to 5 where 1 is "agree." The overall worth of the course was evaluated more moderately with a 2.2 ranking on the same scale. The students ranked the level and amount of course material as fairly demanding with scores ranging from 3.4 to 4.1 on a scale where 1 means "light" and 5 means "heavy."

One must be careful about generalizing from the information gathered on-line because of the smaller number of students who completed the survey (28 of 190). Nevertheless, based on the on-line survey, 60% of the respondents found their experience of the course very positive (21%) or somewhat positive (39%); and more than 70% reported at least "some" learning, though only 11% indicated that they learned "a great deal." Focusing on the small group tutorials, 43% of respondents found the small size of the groupings ranging from 10 to 18 students to be "highly valuable" with another 32% finding them "somewhat valuable." Twenty-nine percent of the respondents found the small group exercises used in the tutorials to be "highly valuable" with another 39% finding them "somewhat valuable." The importance of the quality of tutorial leaders was highlighted by the fact that 64% of the respondents found the leaders to be "highly valuable" to their learning experience. Of the required readings, the source students felt was most useful was Fisher, Ury and Patton's Getting to Yes. And almost two-thirds of the respondents (61%) recommended the future use of weekly quizzes to motivate students to keep up with the reading.

More telling than these numbers were the student responses to open-ended questions about the course. These reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of the course. The open-ended comments ranged from evaluating the course as "fantastic" to "absolutely pointless." And there were some hints of new interest; one student wrote, "Other than my own disappointment with having to take a course about team building and conflict resolution, I felt that the lectures were extremely productive and at times engaging. . . ." While not exactly a ringing endorsement, it shows growth in the student and some success at connecting with the student.

A significant number of students found the course useful, were able to apply what they were learning in their everyday lives, and saw it as valuable for their future careers. One student wrote, "I have noticed myself using some of the skills on a day to day basis." And another wrote, "I learned so much and was able to apply the information in many everyday as well as some more serious situations." One of the ways the course invited students to utilize the course ideas was in small group presentation projects that focused on either the Oka crisis or a UN Security Council debate over terrorism (see References). While not universally acclaimed, many students found that this assignment required them to apply what they were learning. The positive reactions to the group presentations ranged from "somewhat valuable" to "awesome!"

The criticisms offered were, of course, the most interesting material. The more instructive criticisms pointed to the need for a more clear sense of focus and trajectory at the beginning of the course, for more experiential applications of ideas and a closer integration between a given week's lecture material and the same week's small group exercises. It was also clear that the students found the course very theoretical; they wanted a "more 'hands-on' experience." This was reflected in comments on the required readings. While some students found most of the readings helpful, others commented that some of the readings were "lengthy," "technical," "abstract," and "extremely advanced." Here, too, there were some hints of new thinking; one student wrote, "The required readings at first seemed overwhelming and boring but once I grasped the purpose of them, I found myself finding them very relevant and useful."


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