Friday, 23 November 2012

Teaching Conflict

Source: ABS, 2011.

Source: ABS, 2011.
We are an increasingly diverse society - we have greater choice about where we can live, as well as improved capacity to transit to different destinations. It is increasingly rare for people to live their lives in the same local community as which they grew up...
Given this, we are now more and more likely to encounter people of different backgrounds to ourselves.

We used to have sameness... 

We now have difference:

Source: ABS, 2011.

The points of difference we have from others are many, including socio-economic, race, religion, political opinion, interests, personality types and more...

Today's children will be participating in a society where it is not only increasingly common, but also increasingly important to be able to effectively interact with people of difference. How do schools help students learn these crucial skills..?

Margaret Heffernan, in discussing the importance of engaging with people and ideas that one disagrees with, identifies the science of how and why we naturally prefer to associate with those that are similar to us - the "neurobiological drive" that sees us "prefer people who are really like ourselves":

Is this a form of inbuilt discrimination..?? What might some practical examples be..?

  • Modern political discourse - do our political parties genuinely discuss and learn from their disagreements, or do they simply oppose and argue..?
  • Online 'networks' - do we predominantly elect to follow / friend those that hold similar views and interests to our own..?
  • Family christmas parties (!?!) - do we 'gravitate' towards the uncle / cousin / in-law that we know we will not get into any disagreements with..?
  • School playgrounds - do children practise a form of selection of similarity when choosing who they play and make friends with..?

The role of schools:

What of selective-entry schools? Those schools that place prerequisites [religion, financial capacity, etc.] on entry eligibility are, by definition, excluding those that are different from their desired clientele... 

These contexts limit the ability of students to gain experience and skill in interacting with people that are different to themselves.
Heffernan argues that "we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience... [and] find ways to engage with them", in order to challenge and, ultimately, develop our thinking.
Schools have a big role to play here, as not only is it our job to optimally prepare students for the society that they will participate in as adults [as identified - a diverse, plural society... ], but, as Diana Hess states in her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom - The Democratic Power of Discussion, schools [non-selective ones... ] are better placed than other aspects of society to provide students with this experience of interacting with people that are different to themselves:
"[There is a] greater degree of ideological diversity among students in schools than exists in most other venues inhabited by young people. Most schools contain gender, religious, ethnic, and some degree of racial diversity. Moreover, even classes that are homogeneous along a number of these dimensions likely encompass broader ideological diversity than students encounter in their own homes. The relative diversity of schools makes them particularly good places for controversial issue discussions. Students likely will be exposed to views different from their own and have to explain their own views during such discussions. This kind of "cross-cutting political talk" is markedly different from talk that occurs in an "echo chamber" of similar views."

So, in schools, we need to bust out of the 'cocoon of commonality' that may be comfortable and easy, but is also ultimately restrictive of our capacity to effectively participate in a democratic society that is increasingly diverse.

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